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Why, exactly, do we suspect Bartolo Colon of using PEDs?

Jul 29, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

I woke up Sunday morning to see an interesting tweet from Buster Olney:

It struck me funny. Because when I think about Bartolo Colon and PEDs I don’t feel it necessary to go back to the 1998 All-Star Game to do it. I certainly don’t need to use the 1998 All-Star Game as a proxy for his greatness. Heck, in 1998 Colon was selected for the game by his own manager, Mike Hargrove. He was the fourth pitcher in for the American League, he pitched like crap for an inning and got the win in what was essentially a vulture job. It was like a lot of All-Star Games that way and it said almost nothing about Colon’s quality. It said zero about PEDs.

But that’s not really what Olney is saying, of course. He’s not actually saying anything about that All-Star Game. He’s saying “Bartolo Colon was a good pitcher in 1998 and now, 15 years later and after some bumpy years with time off, he’s a good pitcher again. And that is the basis for PED suspicion.”

source: Getty ImagesBut no matter which of those interpretations you subscribe to, I feel the sentiment illustrates a pretty big problem with the PEDs discourse. A problem which explains why a lot of guys who don’t take PEDs have been unfairly suspected in the past and will be unfairly suspected in the future: the assumption that “Anomalous performance = PED use.”

To be clear: I don’t think Bartolo Colon is in the “unfairly suspected” camp. The guy was suspended for PED use last season and he’s caught up in the Biogenesis stuff. I don’t know if he’s using this season, but to the extent people are suspecting Colon right now, it isn’t unfair. Dude just got busted doing it. We’re naive if we don’t, at the very least, look askance.

But even if the anomalous performance/recent use distinction may be splitting hairs with Bartolo Colon, it does matter in a larger sense.

What happens if we treat any player who has an odd, late career bump — or who does anything else unusual in the game — as a PED user? Should “a whole lot of people in the game” treat all players who do well at 40 after some time in the wilderness as PED users? How about guys who start hitting home runs when we may not expect it? Them too? Actually, we already do this too much. Just ask Chris Davis. Ask Jose Bautista. Ask the next guy who has a half-season’s power surge.

The example we’re setting by couching suspicion of Barolo Colon in his anomalous performance instead of the far better reasons for suspicion of him encourages us to play those lazy games — and other lazy games — with other players. We disproportionately accuse power hitters even though far more punch-and-judy guys and pitchers have tested positive for PEDs. We accuse players of PED use because of their physique or acne or temper or who their teammates happen to be. If history has shown us anything, it has shown us that if we create that sort of discourse with respect to one guy, we’ll use it with respect to others.

source:  You may say “well, that’s where we are.” But I don’t want to live in a world where everything that happens which is somewhat unusual is looked upon as fraudulent and bad. I want to cheer when some career minor leaguer finally figures something out, however late. I want to enjoy it when some tomato can reliever quits baseball, goes back to coaching high schoolers and then has some weird unexpected fluky run. I want to be happy for a guy whose life was turned upside down and found himself hitting in the Mexican League only to come back to the U.S. to find a niche. I want former All-Stars who we all thought were toast to come back and put together one last All-Star season.

What I don’t want is to get into some lazy form of thinking where anything odd is chalked up to PED use. That’s unfair and soul killing. To be suspicious of a player we need more than that or else we take all that is joyful and wondrous out of the game of baseball.

In Bartolo Colon’s case we happen to have more than that so we need not engage in these sort of cute, factoid-based accusations about the 1998 All-Star Game. We can and should simply say “people in the game suspect Colon because he took PEDs less than a year ago and is mentioned prominently in the Biogenesis documents.”

Baseball writers are in the business of crafting narratives. Fans inevitably adopt these narratives. The writers, therefore, either directly or indirectly, write baseball history. So when a well-known and well-respected baseball commentator like Buster Olney cites that 1998 All-Star game, or cites the mere fact that Colon is pitching well at 40 as evidence of PEDs, he encourages fans to do the same. And, by extension, to be suspicious of any anomalous performance. That’s wrong and unfair. Not to Bartolo Colon, but to the next guy who does something that, until a few years ago, we thought was pretty cool.

100 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. drabb9529 - Jul 29, 2013 at 11:22 AM

    If it’s on the internet it must be true.

  2. raysfan1 - Jul 29, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    PEDs have been abused in every sport, so vigilance is always important. However, those who immediately suspect anyone who does something remarkable or has a career year, to me, cannot really enjoy sports.

    There is plenty of reason to suspect Colon–he is a proven cheat and also named in the Biogenesis stuff. However, his age + pitching well are not additional reasons to suspect him.

  3. misterj167 - Jul 29, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    All I know is, considering how a lot of the yahoos react here (That guy hit a homer! TEST HIM!), it would be easy for the owners, faced with a player they don’t like for whatever reason, to simply make an accusation and fabricate evidence in order to shame him. And they know they have the backing of a lot of “fans” because of their mindless hatred of ball players. It’s just another example of how it’s impossible to have any kind of rational discussion on this or any issue in this country.

    I’m not saying, by the way, that the owners would do that, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past them.

    • yxlbar - Jul 29, 2013 at 4:12 PM

      Just how would they “fabricate evidence” to shame a player? Are you saying MLB would fake drug test results for a player? Or that a team owner would arrange to have a trainer/medical personnel inject their player with PEDs without their knowledge to get them to fail a test? Keep in mind that the latter would be a serious crime the consequences for which would greatly exceed whatever perceived benefit.

      • misterj167 - Jul 29, 2013 at 4:33 PM

        Are you saying MLB would fake drug test results for a player? Or that a team owner would arrange to have a trainer/medical personnel inject their player with PEDs without their knowledge to get them to fail a test?

        I’m saying exactly that. Any look at the history of the game shows clearly that the group that’s done the most damage to it has been the owners. It was only the threat of losing their antitrust exemption that ended the reserve clause, and don’t forget how many decades they kept black players out of baseball altogether.

        True, times have changed, and we’ll in all likelihood never see the days of segregated baseball or the reserve clause again because the public won’t stand for it, but the psychology of team owners hasn’t changed. Don’t think there aren’t any owners out there who aren’t thinking about it right now, because there are. And I think we’ve seen clearly in recent years that there’s a difference between crimes committed by the very rich and crimes committed by the unwashed masses.

        And there are plenty of fans willing to cheer them on.

    • goodknave - Jul 29, 2013 at 4:49 PM

      Any premature conclusion reached by fans is just too bad. The only ones to blame are the players themselves. Innocent? Sorry, then blame the Players Association for being complicit in this ridiculous embarrasmant.

      I feel absolutely no pity for the players, whether they are accused falsely or not. As a group, they did it to themselves.

      • misterj167 - Jul 29, 2013 at 6:52 PM

        So if Hal Steinbrenner accused Derek Jeter of using PEDs in order to not pay him a salary (and mind you some people here have called for players to give back their salaries if they are accused (not proven) of “cheating”), you’d just go along with it.

        I think you’re just proving my point about the mindless hatred of ball players.

  4. scatterbrian - Jul 29, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    Colon’s success can be attributed to several things that are not PED related:
    1. He has the lowest walk rate in the AL, and the lowest of his 16 year career.
    2. He has the lowest HR/FB in the AL, and his lowest since that began being tracked in 2002.
    3. He’s stranded 81.6% of base-runners, fifth in the AL and easily the highest rate of his career.
    4. He has the third lowest first-pitch strike rate in the AL.
    5. He has the highest strike rate in the AL.
    6. He has the 8th lowest line-drive rate in the AL.
    7. He pitches in Oakland in front of a pretty solid defense, especially in the OF.
    8. He’s faced the Astros three times.
    9. He’s fifth in the AL in run support.

    So to recap: He doesn’t walk dudes. He doesn’t give up homers. He strands a ton of runners. He gets ahead in the count and pounds the zone, allowing him to pitch deep into games. He limits solid contact. He pitches in a pitcher’s park and the guys behind him catch the ball. He’s faced some weak competition. His team scores runs for him.

    There are a lot of things people have claimed PEDs do for athletes, but I’ve yet to read that PEDs help you throw strikes and control the strike zone, which is essentially what Colon does.

    And if you’re into that sabermetrics hokum, advanced stats show that his 14-3, 2.54 is propped up by a lot of luck (4.02 xFIP, 4.25 SIERA).

    • mrdry14 - Jul 29, 2013 at 1:03 PM

      His head is twice as large as most people, and his balls are like raisins…..nuff said.

      • scatterbrian - Jul 29, 2013 at 1:27 PM

        His head has always been bigger than most people’s. As for his balls, I’ll have to take you at your word…but congratulations I guess.

      • cur68 - Jul 29, 2013 at 3:45 PM

        Scatter’s right; congratulations. We don’t judge people here on HBT. If this dude, MrDry, says he has first hand knowledge of The Dugong’s balls, then we merely nod and thank him for his openness and wish him well. I trust the rest of our fellow commenters can follow suit and that there will be no ugliness directed at Mr.Dry here?

    • dexterismyhero - Jul 29, 2013 at 4:08 PM

      he juiced….your stats are just that……stats……………

      • scatterbrian - Jul 29, 2013 at 6:58 PM

        Tell me how a drug allows someone to consistently throw a baseball accurately.

      • rje49 - Jul 29, 2013 at 8:28 PM

        scatterbrian- Same way a juiced hitter hits the ball on an upward arc instead of hitting a hard grounder or striking out. Does that make sense?

      • scatterbrian - Jul 29, 2013 at 9:54 PM

        No, that makes absolutely no sense.

        PEDs don’t correct a player’s swing plane. If a player wants to hit the ball on an upward arc, they swing that way. Now if you’re talking about PEDs allowing a player to improve bat speed and get the bat head to the ball faster, that’s a different story. But that has nothing to do with a pitcher throwing strikes consistently. They can make you throw the ball harder, but they do not have anything to do with control. (And you before you say anything, Colon is not throwing the ball harder.)

        Seriously, do you think that PEDs are just these magical “make me better at baseball” drugs?

    • rje49 - Jul 29, 2013 at 8:25 PM

      So you’re saying his success this year because he’s pitching well? By that logic, if a batter is pounding the baseball, it’s because he’s hitting really well. OK, I get it…..

  5. northstarsmitty - Jul 29, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    Personally I like Colon. He is a grungy, slobby looking dude who is dominating line ups every start. Sure, he might be using. Look at it this way, if you were 40, at the end of the road for a career, and enjoying some recent success, why not boldy juice up if that is indeed what he felt like doing? Okay so maybe you get suspended, your name is tarnished, etc. To him, he was never a house hold name of a pitcher, even in his prime, so he knows he is under the radar and has nothing to lose by cheating. If caught, he will just retire (Man-Ram did that to avoid suspension, now working his way back) so for a huy who probably doesn’t weigh much on public opinion, or records- he will do what it takes if all he wants to do is play ball and win. Still doesn’t make it right, but clarifies why he seems quite the pin for a repeat PED user

  6. genericcommenter - Jul 29, 2013 at 3:49 PM

    I don’t know. I’ve always suspected Davey Johnson of juicing in 1973, and Jim Gentile in 1961, and Heck, Canseco got almost all of baseball to try it in 1987 but most of them stopped in the 1988 season before getting back on a few years later.

  7. yarguy - Jul 29, 2013 at 4:19 PM

    Trurns out that the miracles of modern surgery may have have done more than PEDS to create an unfair advantage for some players.

    http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9506985/dr-james-andrews-breaks-how-historic-sports-careers-saved

    When will the “PEDS are the ruin of baseball” whiners start campaigning to have those advantaged by Tommy John and arthroscopic surgery banned from HoF?

  8. inversedoob - Jul 30, 2013 at 2:23 AM

    So I have generally stayed away from the Craig as steroid apologist tomes written about by many here. But you know what they are right.

    In your piece you suggest that a player already proven to have used PEDs, and whose name has been linked yet again, should not be suspected of steroids because he has an anomalous season at the same time he is accused/proven to have used. Isn’t that exactly the kind of person we should suspect of using? A known user continuing to defy natural decline doesn’t set off any alarm bells for you?

    I know you are just trying to protect the clean players, you know, for the kids. But haven’t the large numbers of players, from Robert Fick, to Barry Bonds, to the myriad minor leagers who have tested positive, admitted, or otherwise been strongly linked to PEDs over recent years demonstrated that nobody should be above suspicion?

    Maybe your not an apologist, maybe your just naive.

    • inversedoob - Jul 30, 2013 at 2:30 AM

      And yes, guilty until proven innocent. Make them all piss in a cup every day, twice on Sunday. The MLB and the PA are to blame for this. Their reticence to do something about this problem until congress stepped in years ago signaled they are not to be trusted.

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