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Amphetamines ban leads to decreased offense? That's wrong in all kinds of ways

Jun 7, 2010, 1:15 PM EDT

According to Bill Madden in the New York Daily News, there has been a “resurgence of pitching and decrease of offense” this year because baseball is getting tougher on amphetamines.  Which would be great if it weren’t for the fact that (a) there is no compelling evidence that offense is down; and (b) even if there were there is no reason to believe that a drug crackdown is the cause.

Madden cites the fact that there have been 3* perfect games this year to support his claim. But that’s not, in and of itself, evidence of offense being down let alone offense being down due to a decrease in amphetamines being used.  A much more compelling reason for the perfect games can be seen over at Sabernomics, where J.C. Bradbury charts both improved defensive numbers and perfect games and finds something quite satisfying. Another compelling explanation: dumb stinkin’ luck.

It’s also worth noting that the Madden column compares last year’s total offensive numbers to the first two months of the 2010 season’s numbers in a manner which should be an insult to apples and oranges the world over.  Offense always increases as the weather gets hotter, and it’s just now getting hotter. Call me in October and use apples-apples data before making any grand proclamations, please.

Not that such a request will be heeded. It seems like we read one of these “offensive numbers are down” stories every year, and never have they convinced me. If you go season by season, runs per game have held pretty steady since the early 90s. Sure, there have been blips — 1999 and 2000 were high (5.08 r/g and 5.14 r/g) — but there’s surprisingly little variation otherwise. More runs were scored per game in 2009 than 2005 and 2002. More were scored in 2007 than 1998.  Many things might explain year-to-year variations, but the advent of drug testing certainly doesn’t cover it.  If you ask me, I’d say ballpark dimensions and expansin explains a lot more of it, seeing as everything exploded around the time Camden Yards and its followers came online and the Feesh and the Rockies showed up in 1992-93. 

But let’s leave that for another day. Let’s get back to Madden’s point: that runs are down this year due to baseball getting tough on amphetamines. Which still makes no sense to me. Drug testing has been in place for six seasons with 50-game
suspensions for five of those seasons. What is this amphetamines crackdown his sources speak of? How is last year different than this year? Maybe they’ve added a few more amphetamines to the banned substances list, but there certainly hasn’t been radical change in this regard.

And even if there has been some kind of change, it’s likely been offset a great deal by the massive increase in players who have been granted therapeutic use exemptions for stimulants like Ritalin. In fact the use of such drugs is at a level in baseball right now that is something like ten times the level of the general population.  Players may not be doing straight speed anymore, but to suggest that the use of mind-focusing drugs is gone from the scene.

Madden’s whole story is based on unnamed baseball officials.  I have this feeling that they’re far more interested in pushing a talking point — baseball is way tougher on amphetamines than it used to be — than they are in explaining anything about what’s actually happening on the field. 

  1. Philip P - Jun 7, 2010 at 1:24 PM

    Wouldn’t it stand to reason that pitchers would also have benefitted from the use of amphetamines in the past?

  2. Joey B - Jun 7, 2010 at 1:49 PM

    I’d assume so. I don’t think speed is something you can ingest everyday and survive. Maybe if it’s one of thos oddities where the RS arrive in Oakland at 9 AM because of a late Sunday game, or the first game back from a long road trip, a day game following a DH, but most of those are one-offs.
    Pitchers, otoh, can use them once every five days, drink at the hotel bar for a few hours, and be okay two days later. If anything, a crackdown on speed should help the pitchers.

  3. lenNY's Yankees - Jun 7, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    OK. Madden may be wrong about the amphetamines ban being the cause of a drop in hitting, but he isn’t wrong about the fact that there has been a drop in hitting. Just look at how many starters still have ERAs under 3. Last I checked it was close to 30.
    The home run data Madden cites is pretty compelling:
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/bat.shtml
    If it’s not the amphetamines ban, what is it? Your take seems to be that it is solely the weather and offense improves as the season goes on. I’m not sure how much I buy that, but I’ll stick to it until I hear different.

  4. Merk - Jun 7, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    There have been four perfect games over the last two years and three of them have been day games. Four out of five if you count Galarraga’s perfect game. Considering how low the total proportion of baseball games are played during the day, it seems reasonable that this is more than a coincidence. Hitters benefit the most from amphetamines when playing a day game after a night game when they are tired. Starting pitchers, pitching once every five days, wouldn’t be affected. The whole lack of offense argument seems to be overblown, as it always is, but it seems that amphetamines could be a contributing factor to the sudden occurrance of perfect games.

  5. Merk - Jun 7, 2010 at 3:22 PM

    I accounted for the Galarraga game twice so it’s two out of three or three out of four, depending on which wasy you look at it.

  6. Wooden U. Lykteneau - Jun 7, 2010 at 4:39 PM

    In fact the use of such drugs is at a level in baseball right now that is something like ten times the level of the general population.

    Considering that the general population is not being randomly tested, or otherwise placed in a position where they have to admit to a medical condition that is frequently underreported and often untreated, that “fact” is actually an extrapolated guess.

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