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Steroids do not help hitters hit home runs

Aug 6, 2010, 11:33 AM EDT

Everything you think you know about performance enhancing drugs in baseball is wrong.

Now that I have your attention, I would like to point out two pieces that, if you do not read them and at least attempt to engage with their analysis, will cause reasonable people to henceforth dismiss you when you make blanket claims about the ethics and the efficacy of steroid use in baseball:

  • Eric Walker’s comprehensive analysis of the ethics, health risks and, most importantly, performance effects of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, with copious references to the relevant scientific literature on the subject; and

OK, I’ll cut you slack if you don’t read the entirety of Walker’s piece. It’s long, it’s difficult, the page design kind of sucks and it’s not exactly as engaging as detective novel.  But at the very least read Posnanski’s overview and then at least explore Walker’s piece here and there to test some of the assertions.

For those of you who don’t plan on doing either, at least take away this much: essentially none of the claims people make about what is so “obvious” about PED use are, in fact, obvious. Yes, there are still ethical hazards — and, of course, rule breaking — associated with PED use by ballplayers, but such things (a) are not as hazardous as we are led to believe; and (b) PED use does not logically and inevitably lead to the conclusions you so often hear about home runs and other hitting records being fraudulent.

Posnanski in particular makes some excellent points about the history of baseball juicing — as opposed to baseball player juicing — that seem like a far more obvious source of the new home run marks.  And as I and so many others have said so many times, the fact that the home run boom came around the same time as large-scale expansion and a spate of cozy, home run-friendly ballparks coming online is criminally underplayed when the subject of home runs and baseball comes up.

I know that many of you don’t care what anyone says about these subjects and that you’ll continue to call all of the home run marks of the past 15 years fraudulent or worse. Just know that if you do, such arguments will be (a) counter to the empirical evidence; and (b) a function of your willful ignorance on the matter.

I do my best to limit the discussion of religion and politics on this blog. If you ignore the relevant data on PEDs and baseball and still spout off about it, however, you’re essentially arguing religion and politics.  

  1. Preston - Aug 6, 2010 at 5:03 PM

    Gotcha – thanks for the clarification.

  2. Kevin S. - Aug 6, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    Getting around on a pitch is as much about reaction time as it is bat speed.

  3. walk - Aug 6, 2010 at 10:36 PM

    Decent article and well written comments for the majority of them. My personal opinion is that steroids are a factor but just one of many. It boggles my mind though that the same people that play up steroids will downplay any other drug, such as greenies, that let a player in games he would have been too tired to play in effectively. Just to muddy the water though, and this bothers me, time has proven canseco if not totally right, more on point than any of us would care for in his tell all book. Im still waiting for the shoe to drop on a current hof member that used not just peds but steroids. Back to steroids for a moment, while i believe it is not the only factor it is willfully ignorant to ignore expansion, small parks, juiced balls and other facors, i am prepared to believe it is the biggest factor but i am still on the fence on that.

  4. Hawkeye - Aug 7, 2010 at 12:32 AM

    Records held for years weren’t broken they were smashed. Three players in one season break Babe Ruths / Rodger Maris’s home run records! Punch and Judy hitter were poping 30 homers a year and this moron says steroids didn’t play a part? Freaking idiot!!! Every single broken record should be expunged.

  5. RickyB - Aug 7, 2010 at 1:05 AM

    Similar to, “Of course sliding into first is faster than running through the bag. Why else would they do it?” Try ignorance.

  6. shea801 - Aug 7, 2010 at 9:30 AM

    I thought both Walker’s ‘report’ and Posnanski’s article were good reads. I would have thought that before the article, everything I knew about the steroid problem came down to increased bat speed and ability to drive the ball (which, to a degree, Walker’s article came down to), and it still does. But I don’t think steroids has as big a factor on the home run boom of the late 90′s and 00′s that we (fans), media types and politicos give it. It seems from the data presented in Walker’s report supports the fact, yes, PED’s increase muscle mass and strength, but it doesn’t put the muscle where a batter needs it most (core and lower body). The part that stood out to me was the ratio of where the muscle growth occurred with the use of PED’s, 4:1 (or his more conservative number of 3:1 to prove his points about driving the ball for distance) upper body to lower body mass growth. The data supports/proves that fact that your lower body doesn’t grow as fast (which anyone who has spent enough time in a gym can tell you – people who use ‘roids grow bigger up top, not so much with their legs). But all the data does is support a very myopic view of hitting a baseball in this study. That being said, it does support the studies hypothesis: steroids don’t necessarily relate to a boom in power hitting; using steroids does nothing to improve plate discipline, pitch recognition, natural talent in hitting the ball. So, I guess, the report proves its hypothesis. There are other equally important factor’s in number spikes (ball park changes, field changes, ball changes); steroids effects don’t support the growth, unless you chose to willfully ignore the data presented (or you just didn’t read it).
    I admit though, the tone puts you off, but Walker’s evidence and theory are sound. Some seem to be taking the article pretty far out of its context (getting away from whether or not steroids equal drastic increases in home run hitting), at the same time not giving any credence to the ball juicing issue, which I find disturbing. Its easier for me to believe the ball’s being juiced was a bigger issue that hasn’t been investigated (except for what was looked into for the article, and those findings were very interesting). A change in the baseballs manufacture and materials will have a profound effect on the flight and distance of a struck baseball. How the components are put together and thus interact and exchange energies, and types of material will drastically change the dynamics and energy transmission and characteristics of the ball. Reading through the comments people seem to be far less inclined to believe such a thing. Not to mention, far less inclined to believe Rawlings or MLB would keep quiet on such a matter (as though MLB and Rawlings would NEVER admit to minor changes in the ball or its manufacture because they’re stand up corporations), yet will readily disregard the data presented clearly in the article, and scream in the face of said data about how steroids HAS to be a major factor in increased home run production. Kinda proves Walker was right again, this issue has far more to do with moral and ethical objection than truth.
    In the end, I think Walker’s and Posnanski’s points are valid. But only prove a very specific point. As others have stated, I’d rather see a study on individuals to prove the effects (or lack thereof) steroids had on particular batters. Was it just strength, or was it improved ability (things that practice, and studying, and changing approach to batting swing and stance would help. You know, what people do to be the best…trying harder). I’d love to see a comprehensive study on the baseball itself during the outlined periods of increased power in the study. I’d love to see an encompassing study looking at the ball, the ball parks, the mound heights, etc to truly see why there statistical spikes in power during certain periods.

  7. bigshotrob - Aug 7, 2010 at 10:34 AM

    Disagree, I would have left the ball the same to prove that even though people were on steroids, it didn’t help the power numbers. Now, all of the records are in question and it is difficult to compare players by their statististics. It has ruined an important part of the game: the historical relavance of players accomplishments.

  8. Fthrvic - Aug 7, 2010 at 11:08 AM

    I believe this argument infact proves that steroid use improves ability to hit a homerun. I grant the fact that the ball players have supreme hand/eye coordination and are already elite level players. However, if you read about the history of the game you’ll find that players used to play in a way which didn’t incorporate the homerun as a part of the game. Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth once had an interaction in the game which ended in Cobb hitting a homer just to spite Ruth. He then went back to hitting line drives (singles and doubles) because that was what was widely accepted as to how the game should have been played at the time. Ruth comes in and starts belting homers and the game evolves. More players start hitting homers, hence the spike you see during the years noted in the article. The next time period we hear about is Jesse Barfield in the late 80′s? Sounds like the infancy of the steroid era to me. Which is why I believe this article proves that players are able to hit homers more easily.

  9. shea801 - Aug 7, 2010 at 12:34 PM

    Again, This completely discounts the data presented in the article, and instead, as the author points out, takes the argument completely in the direction of conjecture and heresay based solely on a persons feelings instead of fact.

  10. hoffch04 - Aug 7, 2010 at 3:08 PM

    perception is superior to reality. they have an agenda to push. making it look like numbers are down because steroids are no longer a part of the game is the most important thing to MLB right now. And I’m sorry to be the one to reveal this to you, you haven’t been able to compare players of different eras by their statistics for a long time.

  11. Cocoa Beware - Aug 8, 2010 at 3:28 PM

    Ive been having myself a few hearty chuckles listening to those who think hitting home runs has nothing to do with strength.
    Ok Im going to teach my 3 year old to use “physics”
    That way should be hitting the ball 450+ by the time he is 5.

  12. BigBBFan - Aug 8, 2010 at 6:07 PM

    You are incorrect, they were not illegal in baseball in the period being discussed. That came later.

  13. scottw - Aug 9, 2010 at 6:22 PM

    I think a lot of people are in denial on this. Skinny Barry Bonds (et al) bulks up into a mastadon and at age 37 starts hitting 73 HRs a year, etc etc and the steroids/PEDs were meaningless, ineffective, a waste of $ and time.

  14. gvgioia - Aug 10, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    Of course Steroids help. Instead of popping out to left, its in the seats. Just look at Brady Anderson’s numbers.

  15. oilkings - Aug 12, 2010 at 7:00 PM

    hmm, does the empirical evidence reveal wether or not the single season home run leaders used PED’s or not?

  16. Bearwin - Aug 13, 2010 at 12:42 PM

    Faye Fincent released a memo to all teams in 1991 stating that steroids were added to the banned substances list. There was no testing or punishments in place, so using them was against the rules, but there was no way to enforce the rules. The federal government had deemed steroids illegal in 1988 and further so in 1990, so the were breaking baseball’s rules and commiting a crime.

  17. Jerzguy - Aug 17, 2010 at 8:24 PM

    If you look at Barry Bonds stats before his use of steroids, he was just average. Now he is simply a joke to true sportsmen.

  18. jwilso78 - Aug 29, 2010 at 1:35 PM

    I admit I couldn’t get through the entire report, it was sickeningly pedantic.
    To respond to the Walker’s actual argument, I have a hard time accepting that “power factor” across the entire league is an appropriate way to evaluate a potential increase in power hitting when nowhere near 100% of the league was using steroids. You would have to compare a cohort of players we knew used steroids to a cohort of players we knew didn’t over the time period we’re interested in to correctly determine the effect of PEDs. Let’s say that a few players including Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were using PEDs, perhaps 25% of all hitters in baseball, simply throwing in the “power factor” data of PED users with a group that includes 75% non-PED users is clearly diluting any potential effect that may have been gained by the PED group, and you would risk being fooled into thinking that since you could find no effect in the entire group, there must not be an effect at all. If we could simply compare power factors between the PED group and the non-PED group over the steroid era, and it showed that the PED group did not have in increase in Power Factor compared to the non-PED group, than Walker’s paper would be much more interesting.
    Bonds’ power factor hovered right around 1.9 and 2.0 through the 90s, and then spiked to 2.4 in 1999, which, I believe, is the year he is alleged to have begun using PEDs. HIs PF maxed out at 2.6 in 2001, then sank back to 2.2 in the next three years, all in which he won the MVP. That definitely seems like a trend to me, but if we’re to believe Walker, the trend is simply a statistical anomaly because, he’d argue, steroids overall clearly had no effect whatsoever on PF values in baseball. If you’re willing to accept that Bond’s increase in PF in the 2000′s compared to the 1990′s is simply an anomaly among the overall data, than your head is in the sand. Take a look at Bonds’ slugging percentage increases in the early 2000′s compared to the entire decade of the 90′s and tell me you don’t think he had a massive increase in hitting power. You can argue all you want that it has to do with his “developing plate discipline,” but Walker’s entire argument is that since baseball as a whole allegedly didn’t have a significant increase in power, than Bonds and other PED abusers didn’t benefit from them by hitting more homeruns. That seem like a fallacious argument to me.
    Here’s what I would say to Walker, and Craig for that matter for finishing up his post with the condescending rant at the end. Do you guys remember the summer after you went through puberty? If you played baseball growing up, you may clearly remember the thrilling feeling of all of a sudden being able to hit the ball a lot further than you used to. Why? The added testosterone that began flowing through your body allowed your muscles mass to increase substantially, and you suddenly were swinging much harder than the summer before. The added bat velocity led to a higher ball speed after you made contact, and suddenly the ball was flying off your bat like never before.
    Barry Bonds was essentially given a second chance at puberty in 1999, and the summers thereafter he hit the ball like no other human being had ever hit before or since. Do you seriously believe that the added muscle mass didn’t allow Barry Bonds to hit the ball a lot further than he did before and consequently hit more homeruns than he would have otherwise?

  19. samiam88 - Aug 30, 2010 at 2:02 PM

    As a statistician I can make anything look true via numbers. How anyone can argue that hitting a baseball is basically the only sport where PEDs don’t improve performance is unclear to me. Maybe hitting is more like Chess or checkers than an actual sport.

  20. StuckOnWords - Sep 4, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    If a bull and a gazelle run straight at each other, both at 20mph, who gets knocked backwards when they collide? Hitting home runs is about overcoming the force of the oncoming baseball with a force that is greater than the ball’s. To say that bat speed determines the distance the ball is hit is like saying the gazelle and the bull pack the same punch at 20mph. Now…same question: if Barry Bonds and my 10 year old both swing the bat (of the same weight, of course, becuase this, too, determines the force carried in that swing) at the same speed, whose ball gets hit farther? Put your money on Barry’s (the bull), because the *maintaining force* of his swing is much more powerful than the *maintaining force* of my 10 year old’s (the gazelle). Barry’s bat overcomes the oncoming force much more effectively than the bat of my 10 year old *because of his muscle strength*.

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