Random Thoughts about Performance-Enhancing Drugs

I’m still reading the Mitchell Report and following the surrounding commentary. These are some of the things that pop into my head, in no particular order.

— Players are in a prisonner’s dilemma game, from which they cannot unilaterally remove themselves. Players would prefer not to use steroids, but incentives may compel them to do so. “If I don’t use, but other players do, I will look bad. If I use, but other players don’t, then I look good. Therefore, no matter what the other players do, it is in my interest to use.” This unfortunate payoff structure results in a sub-optimal outcome. Players want out.

— Owner interest in drug testing has been about recreational drugs, not performance-enhancing drugs. League actions in the 1970s and 1980s were purely a response to the “Just Say No” paranoia.

— There is strong scientific evident that anabolic steroids improve performance.

— There is no scientific evidence that demonstrates that human growth hormone improves athletic performance.

— Many performance-enhancing drugs are expensive. There is a high probability that adolescents who use these drugs get them from parents.

— The Helen Lovejoy objection—“Will someone please think if the children”—to steroid use in baseball is a poor one. Athletes and entertainers make horrible role models. This is not because this class of individuals are inherently bad, but that they are in the public spotlight for something other than their upstanding behavior. Therefore, it should not be surprising when they let us down in a way that many people around us do. Thus, suggesting that we govern performance-enhancing drugs to protect children is a horrible justification for wanting drugs out of baseball.

— The offensive surge of the present baseball era is probably not the result of performance-enhancing drugs, though steroids may have contributed in some individual cases. Offense improved with a jolt in 1993-1994, not gradually as an invasion of steroids would cause. In addition, since MLB began to enforce testing with punishments, offense has not returned to previous levels. Expansion, new ballparks, changes to bats and balls are likely contributors that had a greater impact.

— Performance-enhancing drugs were not prohibited in baseball prior to the 2002 Joint Drug Program. Fay Vincent’s 1991 memo and other commissioner proclamations were no more binding than a bill that is passed by Congress, but vetoed by the President. Arbitrators would not uphold the memo as the law of baseball. It was not until 2002 that the players and owners agreed to a testing and enforcement program. A second positive test was a punishable offense in 2004, but there was no sanction for first-time offenses until 2005.

— That steroids use without a prescription violates federal and state laws is not sufficient to declare their use in baseball to be illicit. If it was, there there would have been no need to explicitly ban them in the official baseball rules. Arbitrators have not been willing to uphold suspensions for legal violations.

5 Responses “Random Thoughts about Performance-Enhancing Drugs”

  1. Marc Schneider says:


    I largely agree with you but disagree on the Helen Lovejoy issue. The point is that steroid use at the highest levels of sports creates a culture in which kids and young athletes feel compelled to take these dangerous substances in order to compete. The point of trying to reduce or eliminate their use is not to make athletes role models but to eliminate the culture in which there is pressure to take steroids. The fact that kids get steroids from their parents just proves that some parents are idiots who want their kids to be star athletes. To me, the only legitimate reason to worry about steroid use is because of the culture that it creates for kids and younger athletes. It’s simply a matter of reducing the incentive of kids to use steroids. Would it eliminate it? Of course not because there are other reasons that kids might use steroids, including just thinking it looks cool to have big muscles. But your point about the prisoner’s dilemma in which players find themselves would seem to apply even more to athletes that haven’t made it to the big time yet.

  2. tim says:

    There is a significant difference between HGH and anabolic steroids that seems to be missed here.

    While both have legitimate medical uses, the ones for HGH are far more life-enhancing than steroids. Synthesized anabolic steroids have been around for decades, while HGH synthesis is only 20 years old. There is a much smaller market for HGH, and thus world supplies (and prices) are more heavily influenced by illicit HGH use. Abuse of anabolic steroids by athletes is not likely to have a significant impact on market prices.

    HGH therapy is a necessity for millions of individuals who have non-dwarfism growth syndromes. These individuals (most of whom are children whose pituitary glands don’t “kick in” properly) lose access to HGH every time an athlete acquires it for their own personal use.

    Whether HGH helps athletes is beyond the matter. The market athletes have created for HGH is depriving individuals who need it from obtaining it cheaply, or at all.

    This isn’t anything new; I heard a speech regarding athletic abuse of HGH and its impact on the legitimate use market all the way back in 1990 (!) I was only twelve at the time, but I’ve remembered the speech my whole life.

  3. Sal Paradise says:

    You state in point #3:

    — There is strong scientific evident that anabolic steroids improve performance.

    Are you talking about athletic performance in general, or baseball in specific? Furthermore, how do you test for that? Do you include increased possibility of injury? Are there no downsides other than injury risk? Is the increase in muscle something that actually correlates to the skill of a ballplayer?

    There is a 6-part series on hardball times called ‘does size matter’, and it shows that while big guys tend to be better hitters, that doesn’t mean that they are better players (I’m paraphrasing, but skill isn’t the sole indicator of success, and I find it difficult to believe that Adam Everett would necessarily play better defense were he to take steroids, or to have his defense decrease by less than the benefit to his hitting).

    Again, if you have some numbers on this, I’d love to see them.

  4. JC says:

    The performance-enhancing effects of anabolic steroids are well-documented and not in dispute among researchers.

    I could not find any links to free full-text articles on the subject this morning. A quick search through PubMed abstracts makes it clear what the scientific consensus is. Here is one such example.

    Anabolic-androgenic steroids and testosterone precursors: ergogenic aids and sport.
    Foster ZJ, Housner JA.

    Curr Sports Med Rep. 2004 Aug;3(4):234-41.

    This article reviews the recent literature on the use of anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) for performance enhancement. Recent studies utilizing supraphysiologic doses of testosterone have demonstrated increases in strength and improvements in body composition, despite earlier assertions by the medical community that steroids were ineffective as ergogenic aids. Although data that support the theory of conversion of prohormones, such as androstenediol, to testosterone in the body is available, support for testosterone precursors alone as ergogenic aids is lacking. Drug testing laboratories are utilizing new techniques that analyze carbon-13 levels of urinary steroids to detect exogenously administered steroids as well as the use of urine-manipulating agents. Investigations that seek to refute athletes’ various claims for positive drug tests are ongoing. The recent discovery, characterization, and development of a urine test for tetra-hydro-gestrinone, a designer steroid, has brought the issue of performance enhancement once again into the public spotlight. Increasing attention is also being paid to the long-term effects of AAS abuse, as more authors characterize the changes to hematologic, hepatic, lipid, and hormone profiles as a result of years of steroid use. Although the understanding of AAS and testosterone precursors as performance-enhancing drugs continues to advance, there are likely to be more revelations as scientific investigations continue.

    As to the specific impact that these substances may have on baseball players, I do not believe there have been any academic studies. However, I think it is likely that some of these benefits translate to improved performance in baseball.

  5. Sal Paradise says:

    Perhaps I should try to clarify.

    Let’s take a semi-average hitter in Ryan Church (I just sorted the 2007 numbers, made a cutoff at 300 at bats, found the median home runs [15], and grabbed a player with a middlish amount of at-bats).

    According to Hit Tracker Online 6 out of 15 of his home runs were ‘just enough’. Let’s assume that were he doing steroids, those would not have been home runs, so he’d be a 9 home run hitter instead of 15. Again, this is solely an assumption, I have no idea if Ryan Church uses steroids or not.

    Instead of being a .272/.349/.464 hitter, he drops down to a .260/.338/.426 hitter. Now I’m sure that in your salary calculator, you can figure out roughly how much money that loses him. But what if that same amount of power he gained made him suffer in stolen bases. How many stolen bases would make up the salary lost through power? What about defensive prowess? What about injuries?

    For instance, how much speed would he need to gain through not using steroids to make up for the drop in power? How much better defensively would he have to be? If he were that much faster, could he play a different position (and therefore become more valuable)? How much longer would he have to play without steroids to gain the same salary with steroids? How much time would steroids cut out of his career?

    My point is that I think the common assumption is that steroids help baseball players. I think that it’s not necessarily an accurate statement, but we just don’t have the data to know. However, looking at the numbers and making assumptions like this could help shine some light on it.

    I’d be interested in seeing the answers to those questions too, if you don’t mind, as I think it would be interesting, and I don’t have my own salary-generating model in my back pocket.