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PEDs: What Effect Do Steroids Have on MLB Athletes?

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PEDs: What Effect Do Steroids Have on MLB Athletes?
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On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Bartolo Colon was suspended 50 games for testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone (h/t ABC News).  This announcement followed last week’s suspension of San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera for a similar positive test.

National media has spun these stories one of two ways: either as proof that the system works because “name” players are being caught, or as proof that the system is not strong enough to prevent players from using in the first place.

Very few people, however, are looking at these stories in any other light.  We are not having discussions about the true effect these drugs are having on the athletes, which, given what we know about the steroid era and the government intervention it spawned, is a conversation that should be happening.

People point to Cabrera’s career year as evidence that steroids clearly have an impact.  However, the traditional steroid narrative is that performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) help hitters develop power, while Melky’s performance this year has been batting average-fueled.

Therefore, prudence demands that we take a closer look at his season.  He is posting a .379 BABIP (batting average on balls in play, which takes into account that hitters cannot control a ball’s outcome once it has left the bat and thus measures luck), well above his career mark of .309. 

However, his line drive percentage this year is at 20 percent, just barely above the league average of 19 percent.  This suggests that he was not making an inordinate amount of solid contact, but rather that he was simply getting lucky.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In addition, his home run rate (HR/FB%) is a career high, but is not abnormally high.  His 2012 mark of 10.7 percent is only a fraction of a percentage higher than his 2009 mark of 10.3 percent, but his slugging percentage this year is 100 points higher than it was during 2009.

Combining those numbers with the fact that his walk and strikeout rates are right around his career averages suggests that rather than implementing any enormous change to his approach, he was extremely fortunate on balls in play.

That conclusion also should lead us to question how much of an effect his PED use had on his play.  It’s possible that, under the placebo effect, Cabrera believed that the drugs he was using helped, and thus they fueled his performance that way. 

However, Moises Alou famously urinated on his hands because he believed it helped toughen them, but no one would consider that action a suspension-worthy offense.

On that note, Bartolo Colon is a different story.  In 2010, Colon travelled to the Dominican Republic to get his own stem cells injected into his shoulder and elbow.  Before the procedure, he had not pitched more than 100 innings since his Cy Young season in 2005.  

In 2011—his first season in the big leagues after the surgery—he posted a 3.83 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of a pitcher’s true performance based on walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate that functions on the ERA scale).  In 2012, he also posted a 3.83 FIP.  Thus, his performances this year and last year have been very similar.

But the narrative about his positive test is a general lack of surprise because his performance has so greatly outstripped expectations.  That, however, should imply that this year was better than last season, and that simply isn’t the case.

It’s more likely that the regenerative procedure he underwent before last season caused his resurgence.  His performance before and after that surgery is more shockingly disparate than his performance before and after his alleged testosterone use.

Although two players is admittedly a very small sample to draw any conclusions from, this knowledge is interesting.  If two players who tested positive may not be able to credit PEDs for their unexpected good performance, then we should at least question how much of an effect PEDs have.

This 2010 New York Daily News article about the use of amphetamines in baseball really questions whether the offensive boom in baseball was due to anabolic steroids or if it should be attributed more to the use of greenies.

In fact, such a hypothesis makes sense.  The most difficult aspect of professional baseball is the grind: 162 games in 181 days stresses even the best professional athlete.  While adding muscle has never been shown to increase a hitter’s batting eye or ability to make contact, being able to get a daily boost in the form of amphetamines would have a clear impact on a hitter’s performance.

I am not a doctor, and I have not studied the medical effects of anabolic steroids or any of the other drugs that big league athletes have tested positive for.  However, looking at the recent examples of Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon leads to questions about just what effect PEDs truly have.

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