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Monday, March 28, 2005
Moving into new era will be a slow process

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. – You will see the shrunken sluggers.

You will hover by your TV screens as the stars on the BALCO witness list show up in court.

You will watch the horrors that are heaped upon the first baseball players in history to be suspended for testing positive for steroids.

Jason Giambi
The Yankees appear to be stuck with the underproducing Jason Giambi.

These will be scenes that will be hard to miss as the 2005 baseball season lurches along – finally stumbling into a new, theoretically cleaner era.

They will be the most dramatic scenes, and the most visible symbols, of the changing face of a sport desperately trying to restore its credibility.

But let us be the first to warn you: They also might be just about the only visible signs of that change. And if they are, we could spend the next six months groping for the true meaning of this monumental season in baseball's evolution.

Do we absolutely, positively know for sure that this is the end of baseball's Steroid Era? Of course not. But if it isn't the end, it's at least the beginning of the end. And that is the story of Baseball 2005. We already know that.

What we don't know, though, is the answer to this powerful question:

What will life in the Post-Steroid Era look like?

We have a feeling what people expect it to look like: More pitcher's duels. Fewer home runs. More small-ball. Less offensive insanity.

But we're not so sure they're right. In fact, we'd almost bet Barry Bonds' 73rd-homer ball on it.

We've spent this spring surveying general managers, managers, assistant GMs, number crunchers, players and other assorted experts about what comes next in this sport. Their answers will come as a major shock to everyone who has concluded that steroids are to blame for anything and everything they've come to hate about modern baseball.

The men we've polled expect almost nothing about this sport to look different, outside of a few physiques. And possibly a few entries in the record book.

That's a theory that undoubtedly doesn't match what you've heard from your favorite talk-show host lately. But this is a theory that's almost unanimous among people who have studied all the statistical trends, evaluated the injury histories of hundreds of players and made very expensive decisions based on those studies. Unlike talk-show hosts, these people can't afford to be wrong.

Here, for your consideration, are their conclusions:

Public hysteria about steroids is raging at least five years too late – because steroid use, these men believe, is actually at an all-time low since their first use.

While steroids were obviously a factor in the offensive explosion of the last dozen seasons, they were only one of many factors. And while baseball can go to war on steroids, those other factors (bats, balls, bopper-friendly ballparks, crummy second-tier pitching) won't change.

At least as many pitchers have used steroids in recent years as hitters – and maybe more, our panel believes. So offensive numbers might not look much different if both groups are cleaning up their acts together.

The percentage of players on steroids probably never was much more than 20 percent – even at steroids' peak – which means 80 percent were always clean.

So GMs don't foresee putting together their teams much differently from how they ever did – except that they're now more wary of players whose bodies have changed or whose injury history seems somehow suspicious.

"We won't do anything different," Yankees GM Brian Cashman says, "because we didn't do anything different in the past. It's never been a subject of conversation, in terms of how you put a team together. I've never thought this problem existed to the point where it had to be a topic of conversation. ... Whatever was going on, it wasn't anywhere near as [widespread] as it's been portrayed."

The Yankees, of course, do have a first baseman (some guy named Giambi) on that BALCO witness list. And it's believed that, because of him, they have changed the language in their new guaranteed contracts to protect themselves in the event future Yankees have documentable steroid issues.

But that's just one of many semi-invisible changes in the post-steroid baseball landscape. And hard as it might be to comprehend, most of the other changes figure to be nearly as imperceptible.

What might those changes be? We'll divide our look at them into two chapters – on the field and off the field.

How they'll play the game
LESS OFFENSE?

We start with the numbers – because the numbers paint a picture everyone can see.

And last year, as baseball's steroid-testing program got more serious and the first wave of incredible shrinking sluggers appeared before our eyes, the numbers should have changed – logic tells us that.

Well, they did. But not in the way anybody would have figured.

According to baseball's own figures, there were eight times more positive steroid tests (96) in 2003 than there were last year (12). Even if you doubt those numbers, most everyone still agrees that steroid use dropped dramatically.

So if steroids were really responsible for a huge chunk of the offensive explosion, the big offensive numbers would have had to go down last year. Right?

Wrong. Almost all of them went up: Home runs per game. Runs per game. Slugging. Batting average. Every one of those stats increased compared with 2003. So how do we explain that?

"It all starts with the question of how much steroids really affected the numbers in recent years," says one assistant GM whose niche is statistical analysis. "And we've concluded that it's not fair to blame all of that on steroids. I believe they altered baseball at some point, in some ways. But I don't believe the impact on specific stats, across the sport, was that great. ... If something happened, it hasn't shown up in the numbers."

On first glance, that doesn't seem as if it can possibly be true. But two other executives who have made similar studies have reached the same conclusion.

"Obviously, it's important to get [steroids] out of the game," one says. "But I'm not sure that will ever consistently show up in the numbers."

The numbers do show one dip: Offense is down slightly from 1999 and 2000 – the seasons that produced the most runs and homers in baseball history.

But that decline is minimal. And you can make a case that QuesTec, and the enforcement of the redefined strike zone, are as responsible for that decline as reduced steroid use.

Obviously, it's important to get [steroids] out of the game. But I'm not sure that will ever consistently show up in the numbers.
A team executive

"I don't expect the game to change dramatically," says Steve Hirdt, the Elias Sports Bureau's esteemed historian and statistical guru. "To me, there are a lot of other factors apart from this that are responsible for the surge in offense ...

"And even if you totally remove steroids from the game, everyone isn't going to shrink back to pre-Brian Downing levels. There will still be a musculature on players that you didn't see 20 years ago."

And that means the philosophy of how teams play baseball is not going to change – steroids or no steroids. We haven't found anyone inside the sport who expects that even the total elimination of steroids will cause a single team to decide it's time to go back to playing like the 1985 Cardinals: Run, bunt and slap a bunch of singles.

So no matter what happens on the steroid front, the home run ain't dead.

"I'll put it this way," Astros manager Phil Garner says. "If everyone thought singles hitters were about to become the best way to win ball games again, and that home runs were about to go way down, they'd gravitate toward drafting and signing those kinds of players. But they're not. What they're still gravitating to is big, strong, rawboned kids."

WHERE ARE THE RECORDS?

No matter how you break down the numbers of the last couple of years, though, there is one eye-popping area where it's obvious there has been a dramatic difference:

All of a sudden, no one is hitting 50 home runs anymore. Or 60. Or 70.

In the 10 seasons from 1993 through 2002, hitters reached or passed 50 home runs 18 times. Which equaled the number of 50-homer seasons in the 118 previous major-league seasons put together. In the last two seasons (since the launching of major-league steroid testing): Zero.

And in just a four-year period from 1998 through 2001, Mark McGwire, Bonds and Sammy Sosa combined to blow past 60 homers six times. Before that, only Roger Maris had reached the 60s in the previous 71 seasons.

Since 2003, however, no one has come within a dozen of 60. Even Bonds hasn't gotten within 25 of 70.

Maybe it's just coincidence that Bonds, McGwire and Sosa have all had fingers pointed at them in this scandal. Maybe it's not. But we know what that looks like. And we know what conclusions people have drawn. Heck, it's the big reason this sport even has a scandal.

"I think it's fair to say this," one statistically oriented executive says. "If this continues, and Maris' 61 isn't threatened for a while, it would raise serious questions about the legitimacy of 70 and 73. And that could mean you're going to have people talking about having two different records – Bonds' and Maris'."

But does that mean baseball can officially strip Bonds – or anyone else – of his record(s)? Hirdt, for one, doesn't see how.

If, hypothetically, we're going to disqualify all the records of a player such as Bonds, Hirdt wonders, what happens to all of his other stats? Would we void them, too? Would all those runs he drove in or scored then be subtracted from his team's totals? Would some of the wins then become losses? Would their place in the standings have to be changed?

"It can't be done," Hirdt says. "So how can the other be done? And if it can't, why is the other being raised? Why does 100 percent of the red flag here have to do with numbers and statistics – and none of it have to do with the results of the games?"

It's not mentioned, of course, because it's too complicated. And this is an issue that has been simplified and oversimplified more than first-grade arithmetic. But it's an issue we all might have to contemplate at some point down the road.

In the meantime, back on the field, we can contemplate whether we'll ever see 50 homers again. And the answer, from the group we surveyed, is clear-cut: absolutely.

Just this spring, in fact, we've heard people predict that Jim Thome might hit 50. Or Adam Dunn. No one has ever suggested that either of those guys is a threat to testify before any grand juries.

So it can be done. And it almost certainly will be done. The big question is whether it will be done anywhere near as often.

"My guess is that what you probably won't see is guys having three or four consecutive seasons with 50 homers," one assistant GM says. "That doesn't mean you won't see a guy hit 50 here or there. You just won't see the perennial 50-homer guys anymore."

DON'T FORGET THE PITCHERS

There is one side to the steroid controversy that, mysteriously, seems to outrage almost nobody. And it can be summed up in one word:

Pitchers.

"One of the huge misperceptions in all this is that hitters are the only group that has been using this stuff," an AL executive says. "But actually, if you polled a lot of baseball people, I bet they'd say that at least as many pitchers as hitters were doing it, too."

Mark Shapiro
Indians GM Mark Shapiro, right, says doing "extra homework" is necessary when making personnel decisions.

Theoretically, those pitchers were adding sudden bursts of velocity – and even bursting into stardom after years of mediocrity. Then last year, coincidentally, some of them seemed to lose that velocity, or to slim down dramatically, or to break down altogether. If not all of the above.

"When we talk to our scouts covering spring training, the feedback we've gotten over the last couple of years is that velocity is definitely down," the same executive says. "It's been a pretty consistent observation. It was most evident last spring. But we've even heard it this spring."

Assuming that's true, it might help explain why offensive numbers haven't changed much. If hitters and pitchers are turning juice-free at about the same rate, maybe they balance each other out – and the stats stay the same.

But if a large group of pitchers were using steroids, and now they're all losing steam on their fastballs, shouldn't we also be seeing a drop in strikeouts? Makes sense – but it hasn't happened.

The strikeout rates in both leagues went up last season. And the American League rate (6.40 whiffs per game) was the highest in history.

So how will pitching – and pitching styles – change in the Post-Steroid Era? When you figure that out, please get back to us.

How they'll build their teams
Nobody wants to sign a home-run hitter who can't hit home runs anymore.

Nobody wants to trade for a star who's about to spend 130 games on the disabled list.

Nobody wants to waste money on a player we all thought "finally learned how to hit" when, in fact, most of what he learned came from his pharmacist.

That's every general manager's worst nightmare. But there's no handy-dandy GM guidebook on "How to Avoid a Steroid Guy." So how do they know?

"None of us are doctors," says one GM, who says he has been asked by ownership not to talk about steroids on the record. "None of us can legally say we know who's on steroids. But we can't stick our heads in the sand, either."

So as they watch players go about their business, they find themselves looking beyond tools and baseball savvy. They check out body types. They ask: Did this guy look like that last year? They're as interested in changes as in changeups.

"How can you not be?" the same GM says. "Unless a guy has been on the Atkins diet?"

Still, they have no way of knowing. Not for sure. So they incorporate body changes into their overall philosophy of which players to pursue and which to avoid.

"In my market, one of the big ways we make decisions involves a lack of tolerance for risk," Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro says. "We look for reliable players with the best chance to stay on the field. And risk assessment is always part of the process. You never know the root cause of injuries. But obviously, [steroids] could be one of the root causes."

Another GM says, though, that his team's risk-assessment process now is no different from the way it has ever been.

"You always want to be aware of everything," he says, "You want to be smart. And at the same time, you don't want to be naive. With guys who fit a certain pattern, you've got to do extra homework. But that's true whether it's guys with questionable makeup or guys who are on the disabled list a lot."

One of the huge misperceptions in all this is that hitters are the only group that has been using this stuff. But actually, if you polled a lot of baseball people, I bet they'd say that at least as many pitchers as hitters were doing it,
too.
An AL club executive

Players with injury histories have always raised questions – particularly with teams that watch their dollars. But now, some GMs say, certain types of injury histories raise even more questions. Hamstring pulls, rib-cage problems, etc.

"Probably the most notable thing that seems, to me, to be apparent with the so-called steroid guys," one American League GM says, "is that those guys get hurt a lot. And you wonder why they don't come back faster."

That's a conclusion you hear often – one that is shared by the baseball and medical people alike. Yet, if we were in an age of out-of-control steroid use, you would think a study of the disabled list would show some kind of pattern that confirmed that.

Nope. Check out this chart on trips to the disabled list – and length of stay – over the last five seasons:

Year Stints Total days Avg. stay per stint
2004 435 28,832 66.28 days
2003 414 22,439 54.20 days
2002 454 24,897 54.84 days
2001 468 28,111 60.58 days
2000 476 26,105 54.84 days

See a trend there? We don't.

"When you analyze injuries," Cashman says, "you try to factor in something you know. But this [steroid use] is something we just don't know. So we try to learn from what we do know."

Cashman says he believes steroid use is currently so low – if not nearly nonexistent – that it's more of a worry in evaluating potential draft picks (who have never been tested) than it is in judging big leaguers. And he isn't alone in that belief.

A middle-market NL GM says his team has spent very little time worrying about this because "we're down to one percent that are using it. That's what they're telling us – that last year it was one percent."

Asked whether he believed that figure – since Congress and the public clearly don't – he replied: "I do."

True, it might be in his best interest to spin the best possible light on this issue. But this is one of baseball's most down-to-earth general managers – a man not normally known for spewing excessive baloney. And the fact is, a number of his fellow GMs clearly agree with him.

One AL GM says the state of the current scandal has been "overblown, without a doubt" – and "it's also revisionist history."

"The peak of usage, in my opinion, was five to seven years ago," he says. "And there has been a steady decline since then."

Many GMs believe the minor-league testing program has had a major impact – both on young players and on the fringe players who used to be especially tempted to use steroids. And now, the theory goes, the major-league program – and fear of public humiliation – has all but finished the job.

If they're right, then this season really might mark the end of one of baseball's most painful eras. And even if they're wrong, at least that boulder is finally rolling. Which should mean it won't be long before a tougher program – even if it comes from the halls of Congress – takes hold. Finally.

Once that happens, the biggest effect will be lifting this sport's darkest cloud since the Black Sox scandal.

But outside of that, unless a lot of very smart people are wrong, you might barely notice the difference in the baseball games unfolding on the emerald fields you'll be watching extra closely. And ultimately, that might be the biggest steroid story of them all.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.