Thursday, September 29, 2022

"Failing Three Classes"

Last night, Aaron Judge hit his 61st home run, tying the American League record for home runs in a season. It's an incredible achievement and one that should stand on its own. Unfortunately, Judge's individual accomplishment has become cause to re-litigate the issue of the single-season home-run record, set by Mark McGwire in 1998 and broken by Barry Bonds three years later.

 I do not want to be having this conversation, but it's not me using Judge's 61 home runs to drag these issues -- and the bitter opinions of offspring -- back out into the public square. If the conversation is going to happen, then let's have it happen with facts, not the ill-considered suppositions and drunk-at-the-bar "analysis" that drove it the first time through.

Below is an excerpt from a piece I wrote in 2013, in the context of Hall of Fame voting. I think it stands on its own as my explanation for why we got it wrong 20 years ago, and we're still getting it wrong today.


We're failing three classes at once:

-- History. "Cheating," in all its forms, has not only never been a reason to deny someone a place in the Hall of Fame, it's largely been celebrated. Whether it's Gaylord Perry writing a book about his spitball, tales of other pitchers doctoring the ball with objects hard and soft, or players such as John McGraw, who played a game that we would barely recognize with a moral code we would not care to, cheating has never been cause to withhold a vote. Even the use of illegal drugs, mostly amphetamines, wasn't cause to do so. There are undoubtedly players who used illegal substances for one purpose or another who have been inducted, and at no time was that use an issue in Hall elections. Drawing a line at the most recent generation of drug users and labeling them "cheaters" apart from all who came before them is inconsistent and unfair.

-- Math. It was Bob Costas who said, "When Roger Maris goes from 39 home runs to 61, I know that's legitimate. When Barry Bonds goes from 49 to 73, I know that it is not." Well, subtraction and long division are your friends, and using either would tell you that the two are pretty much the same. This kind of bad math is a fundamental principle of people who withhold their votes from players tarred with the PED brush, because they have failed to look at the underlying conditions -- ones having nothing to do with drugs -- that made record-breaking home-run totals likely in 1998 or 2001 -- or 1961. When the math has been done, whether my look at power-on-contact or Nate Silver's work in Baseball Between the Numbers or anything that relies on more than "I know that it is not," it's been clear that the elevated offensive levels that began in 1993, and which laid the groundwork for all that followed, have very little to do with some mass use of illegal substances.

-- Chemistry. The players who have been caught by the testing system, who we can say with certainty were using these drugs, are quite the cross-section of the game. Despite the image of steroid-addled hulks terrorizing pitchers, it's pitchers who make up a significant number of the players caught by testing. The position players, well, many of them look a lot more like speedy singles hitters than they do middle linebackers. The evidence -- not the anecdotes, but the data -- shows that the relationship between using sports drugs and being good at hitting for power is nonexistent. "But Barry Bonds!" isn't an argument -- yet that's the general level at which these important issues have been discussed. Using that same level of sophistication, you can make a strong case for an "amphetamine era" in which pitchers' innings and starts, player steals and endurance marks were all in play. The connection between chemicals ingested and baseball played is inconclusive at best, and more likely nonexistent.

There's no precedent for barring cheaters from the Hall of Fame. There's no precedent for barring drug users from the Hall of Fame. There's no fact-based case for connecting "sports drugs" to league-level performance or individual outliers in the last two decades.