Random Thoughts on Steroids

Roy Oswalt understands the the importance of relative competition for measuring the productivity of baseball players.

“The ones that have come out and admitted it, and are proven guilty, [their numbers] should not count. I’ve been cheated out of the game,” Oswalt continued.

As a Ranger, Rodriguez was 3-for-5 vs. Oswalt with two doubles, one home run, three RBIs and two walks. Last year, as a Yankee, Rodriguez was hitless in two at-bats against Oswalt.

“The few times we played them, when he got hits, it could have cost me a game,” Oswalt said. “It could have cost me money in my contract. He cheated me out of the game and I take it personally, because I’ve never done [PEDs], haven’t done it, and they’re cheating me out of the game.”

— Former MLBPA head Marvin Miller notes that ignorant coverage of performance-enhancing drugs’ benefits may actually encourage use.

“A kid who would love to be a professional athlete reads the sports pages or watches ESPN and is told over and over again, ‘These are performance-enhancing drugs. They will make you a Barry Bonds or an A-Rod or a Roger Clemens.’ The media, without evidence, keep telling young people all over the country, ‘All you have to do to be a famous athlete with lots of money is take steroids.’ The media are the greatest merchants of encouraging this that I’ve ever seen.”

Miller is a bit over the top here, because I think that anabolic steroids likely do enhance performance and players should want some testing system to prevent their use; however, when it comes to growth hormone, he’s dead on. The media has completely botched the coverage of this issue, which is one of the reasons why I think that growth hormone should be legalized.

The point is that players have a strong incentive to gain an edge on each other. This road will inevitably lead many of them to seek out illicit solutions in an area where the experts are the guys who sell the stuff. And when they investigate further, they find prominent sports reporters declaring that HGH is just as effective as steroids. Do you think players are going to search through the scientific literature on PubMed? Heck, if I didn’t share an office suite with exercise physiologists, I probably wouldn’t know any better.

At the end of the day, players are going to take a long hard look at the list of prohibited substances. The fact that these drugs are banned will be sufficient to convince most players that the performance-enhancing benefits are real.

— Here is my proposed performance-enhancing drug policy for baseball in the NY Times, with further explanation here.

First, I suggest a system of fines and bonus. This is a Pigouvian tax and subsidy system that taxes players in accordance with the external costs that users impose on non-users—users may feel the personal benefits of a higher salary outweigh the health risks—and then transfers the financial gains to non-users who earn relatively less due to the fact that they chose to remain clean. This has the deterrence effect similar to suspensions; however, the substantial fine revenue gives players who feel they are in a use-or-lose situation an incentive not to use and to identify new cheating methods.

Second, I propose handing over all monitoring and testing to the players. It is the players who suffer the most from steroids. They are in an arms races where steroids make no individual relatively better than any other player—hence, there is no financial gain—yet, users end up suffering health consequences. This resembles a prisoner’s dilemma game.

6 Responses “Random Thoughts on Steroids”

  1. Rodney Fort says:

    It may be true that if all that mattered to fans was relative competition then use of PEDs is a zero-sum game as you describe.  [But I doubt a simple PD game really captures the essence of the choice.]

    But relative competition is NOT all that matters to fans.  All heightened training routines raise the absolute level of play as well.  And, at least so far, fans appear to be willing to pay the most to watch the highest absolute level of play as well.  So raising the absolute level of play increases revenue and, hence via MRP, player pay.

    Since competition is head to head, stats may not change.  But fans may enjoy watching 400 lb linemen knock each other around more than they like watching 300 lb linemen do the same, or Olympic speed impact between 240 lb linebackers and 225 lb running backs more than the lighter, slower alternative.  And so it may be for the long ball–even if nobody can detect any difference in the number of them, the characteristics of a bruiser pounding the ball may be valued by fans relative to a graceful hitter doing the same.

    This matters in the discussion because an increase in the absolute level of competition is a value created for some fans.  You can argue you don’t think that value is legitimate, but that’s an interesting argument for a libertarian.

    Consideration of economic return to players generates a PED incentive from the absolute, as well as relative, perspective.

  2. JC says:

    I generally agree with your points, Rod.

    From my book (p. 118)

    Though the relative salary differences between players ought to be roughly the same—with superior players making more than inferior players—the overall play of the game can improve with the ratcheting up of individual performances. When the athletic abilities of all players improve, there will be more spectacular plays in the game…. If the overall level of the game rises, then this ought to create more fan interest, which generates financial gain to owners.

  3. Millsy says:

    As much as I love Roy Oswalt, a guy of his caliber claiming to be ‘cheated out of the game’ is a stretch…and a half.  I’d also have to say that the 7 at bats against Oswalt is pretty anecdotal evidence of Rodriguez’s superiority because of steroids.  I’m sure Alex Rodriguez has a 3-5 night with a HR against just about everybody he’s faced…in any season.

    It very well could have cost Oswalt money.  But how do we value that?  There’s such variability in how much steroids help players (former top-prospect Larry Bigbie would be happy to tell you) that I think it would be impossible to distribute the money accordingly with the tax.  Can we arbitrarily say “well, if Oswalt took steroids he would have had 5 more win shares [or whatever is used to quantify contributions] so he gets $5 million of A-Rod’s salary?  Based on what we know about many of the players that took steroids, if I were Roy Oswalt, I would probably encourage them all to so I can get a good chunk of their salary.

    And what about the guys that never made it?  The guys that dropped out of the minors because they couldn’t cut it?  Are the current players to pay them, too?  Because if steroids are taking away from Oswalt’s salary, they must be crushing guys that, because of them, only made $9,000 a year in the bus leagues.

  4. Marc Schneider says:

    Oswalt’s complaint might make sense if Rodriquez never made an out.  But he does so obviously someone is able to get him out.   It really is stretching it to say that he only got those hits because of steroids; if Oswalt had made better pitches, he probably would have gotten him out. It’s not clear to me that differential use of steroids provides any more of a relative advantage than the fact that some pitchers threw illegal pitches and some didn’t.  

    To me, the only real issue with steroids is the health issue.  I think Marvin Miller is just blowing smoke pretending there is no evidence as to health risks from steroids.  Even if people aren’t dying en masse, I think there is evidence that steroids dangerous.  It’s pretty fatuous to say that, because lots more people die from smoking, we shouldn’t be concerned with steroids.  I also found his arrogance astounding in saying (in another part of the interview) that the union should not have agreed to testing even though the membership was in favor of it.  This isn’t the UMW circa 1945.

  5. sabernar says:

    Where have we heard players complaining about other players doing PEDs before?  Oh yeah, MLB.  And where was it that some of those players were exposed as doing PEDs?  Oh yeah, MLB.  So Oswalt complaining that he was cheated is falling on deaf ears.

  6. Sam says:

    What is it that bothers people about steroids?  That they are illegal or that they are effective?  At least 20 Hall of Famers used illegal drugs including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Hack Wilson and Jimmie Foxx.  I know this because they played, and drank, during Prohibition.  No one seems to object to alcohol so why do you object to steroids, a much less dangerous drug to both the user and to society than alcohol?

    If  it is because steroids are effective then so are many other legal drugs such as cortizone and many kinds of pain killers.  I read Carlos Zambrano had Lazik surgery to help improve his pitching.  Andy Petite said he took steroids to help recover from an injury?  What is the moral difference between having surgery to improve performance and taking a drug to improve performance?  Tom Brady had a terrible knee injury requiring surgery.  Would it have been wrong for him to take a steroid to reduce his chances of injury?  Would it be wrong to take a steroid to help heal?