Much has changed since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa took baseball by storm in 1998.
Thanks to drug-testing procedures and penalties that were put in place in 2005, Major League Baseball is likely cleaner now than it's been in some time. You can tell by the change in the offensive numbers.
...Or can you?
The Steroid Era certainly feels like ancient history, as it's been a while since anybody last hit over 60 home runs in a season and there's a general shortage of bat-wielding behemoths across the league. There are very few Steroid Era stars still playing, and some of the retired ones may never live to see themselves enshrined in Cooperstown.
But with baseball, the proof is always in the statistics. If MLB's strict PED testing is actually working, you'd be able to tell by looking at the numbers.
And here they are.
Team Averages: 1998-2012
|Year||Runs Scored||Home Runs||Slugging||ERA|
There was no drug testing between 1998 and 2004. With no law and order in the streets, MLB was basically the Wild West for hitters. Everybody hit home runs, and poor pitchers saw their numbers go through the roof.
Then came testing in 2005, and the numbers dropped across the board. There were fewer runs scored, fewer home runs hit, and pitchers saw their ERAs normalize. MLB was winning its fight against the juicers.
However, the league's victory was short-lived. Despite the fact MLB stamped its foot down with a system of even harsher penalties established after the 2005 season, offensive numbers went way up again in 2006 and stayed relatively steady in 2007. Either the 2005 season was a fluke, or the cheaters had identified where the loopholes were.
Then the Mitchell Report came out after the 2007 season. We know now that what's in the report isn't gospel, but if nothing else, it succeeded in cranking up the outrage over the Steroid Era to a new high.
Coincidentally, offensive numbers went down again the following year. Runs scored, slugging and ERA all took a dive in 2008 and stayed steady in 2009. Home runs were still high, but nowhere near as high as the average home run output was between 1999 and 2004.
Then came the "Year of the Pitcher" in 2010, when runs scored, home runs and slugging experienced significant drops and stud pitchers roamed the earth like nobody had seen in decades.
The Year of the Pitcher continued on into 2011 and straight through to the end of the 2012 season. Home runs experienced a rise, but runs scored, slugging percentage and ERA remained low.
Compared to the numbers that were put up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when drug testing was but a novel idea, the numbers that have been put up in the last five seasons, and the last three seasons in particular, suggest pretty strongly that the testing is working. The league is not as powerful as it was during the Steroid Era, but what about individual players? Has there been any noticeable change on that front?
Player Leaders: 1998-2012
|1998||70 (McGwire)||.752 (McGwire)|
|1999||65 (McGwire)||.710 (Walker)|
|2000||50 (Sosa)||.698 (Helton)|
|2001||73 (Bonds)||.863 (Bonds)|
|2002||57 (Rodriguez)||.799 (Bonds)|
|2003||47 (Thome/Rodriguez)||.749 (Bonds)|
|2004||48 (Beltre)||.812 (Bonds)|
|2005||51 (Jones)||.662 (Lee)|
|2006||58 (Howard)||.671 (Pujols)|
|2007||54 (Rodriguez)||.645 (Rodriguez)|
|2008||48 (Howard)||.653 (Pujols)|
|2009||47 (Pujols)||.658 (Pujols)|
|2010||54 (Bautista)||.633 (Hamilton)|
|2011||43 (Bautista)||.608 (Bautista)|
|2012||44 (Cabrera)||.608 (Stanton)|
Once again, there's a clear drop-off in the numbers. Whereas upward of 60 home runs and a .700 slugging percentage used to define an elite slugger, now the definition of an elite slugger is more like 40 home runs and a .600 slugging percentage.
It's fitting that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez are featured so prominently at the top of the charts, as all of them are/were known juicers.
McGwire admitted to using steroids off and on during the '90s, and A-Rod admitted to using steroids for three years starting in 2001. Sosa hasn't admitted to using PEDs, but he did test positive in 2003. Bonds has admitted his own steroid use in recent years, with the catch being that he didn't use them knowingly.
That the absurd power numbers put up in the late '90s and early 2000s have gone away certainly lends credence to the notion that the Steroid Era is a thing of the past. What's gone on in the last few years suggests that baseball is moving further away from it every year.
The degree to which the numbers put up by the league leaders have fallen in the last five years says it all. Jose Bautista's 54-homer season in 2010 looks like an outlier, while the bar for a league-high slugging percentage has been moved all the way down to the low .600s.
This may be the extent of the downward trend of league-leading power numbers, as it was not unheard of for players to hit 45-50 home runs and slug .600 in the days before the Steroid Era. It's possible for really good players to achieve these numbers without chemical enhancement.
Any who would try to advance their careers using PEDs from now on are going to require plenty of chicanery and plenty of luck.
On the Horizon
Baseball's drug-testing system already was the toughest in American sports, but MLB decided to go another extra mile last week.
Commissioner Bud Selig announced that players will now be subject to random in-season blood tests for human growth hormone, and that baseline testosterone readings will be taken so the league can easier detect the use of synthetic testosterone.
These tests are an improvement over what MLB was doing before. The league had been testing for HGH, but not during the season due to the MLBPA's wariness over the invasiveness of the testing.
The league had also been testing for testosterone, but a series of positive tests and one controversial positive test involving 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun made it clear that there was more work to be done on that front.
The new testing for HGH comes off as being a public relations ploy, as it's been proven by researchers that HGH really doesn't do that much to help athletes on its own. Despite what its name suggests, human growth hormone does little to help a ballplayer hit a ball with more authority.
Testosterone is the greater threat to baseball's anti-Steroid Era movement. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, testosterone promotes muscle growth and shortens recovery time—precisely the effects steroid users were after during the Steroid Era.
The randomness of the HGH testing will serve as a deterrent for ballplayers to use it, as there's no way of knowing when men with white coats will be dropping by to harvest their blood.
Baseball's procedure for catching testosterone users, however, could still use some work. BALCO founder Victor Conte told USA Today that a more thorough test is required, and he recommends one that costs about as much as an HGH test and that can detect testosterone for up to two weeks.
If Conte is correct, there's still a loophole that users can exploit. That means baseball still has work to do to make its drug testing as tight as it can possibly be.
The bright side is that it's not asking a lot for baseball to one day go that one more extra mile. There may be some cheaters who sneak past undetected along the way, but MLB has made it clear that it's willing to do whatever it takes to move the league further away from "dirty" and more toward "spotless."
Assuming the league doesn't reverse course, I wouldn't expect to see offensive numbers take a drastic hike again any time soon.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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