Getting beyond the "Steroid Era"

I've got a confession to make.

Back in 2002, the year I won the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) NL-only experts league, I was juicing. Orange, grapefruit, whatever … if it was sweet, I chugged it by the gallon. What can I say? When I moved to Florida in 2001, the pressure was overwhelming. I was young. I was stupid. I was na´ve. It was a loosey-goosey time, and I had easy access to an orange grove right down the street from my apartment.

OK, so pardon my making a mockery of the very serious topic of steroids. But I figure that since steroids have already made a mockery of baseball, it's somewhat apropos.

Think about it. Here we are, one week and change into spring training, and what's the predominant topic around the baseball world? It's steroids. Not baseball. Steroids. It's a dark, ominous cloud that hovers over the game.

The lifelong fan in me weeps for the fractured history baseball has carved for itself the past couple of decades. The fantasy analyst in me is angry, because for perhaps my entire journalistic career, I've been crunching numbers that might not have been accrued legitimately. An easy way to demonstrate that point: If reports are true that 104 different players tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during the 2003 season, that means that 8.5 percent of the entire pool of players who appeared in a major league game in that season were responsible for tainted statistics.

Normally, at this time of year, I'd be using this space to analyze, using those statistics, the effects of the aging process on a baseball player. But if a sizable chunk of 2003's numbers are tainted, and therefore presumably a good amount of the statistics generated in the late 1990s and early 2000s, too, is it fair to use them to draw such conclusions?

I actually think it can be done. You merely need a new approach.

Remember, the primary result of all those failed tests in 2003 was the advent of mandatory random drug testing across Major League Baseball, a system that just completed its fifth season in practice. That's a small sample size, at least compared to the period of time before that commonly referred to as the "Steroid Era," but still enough to start to draw some conclusions about the direction our game is heading.

What if we took the statistics of the "Steroid Era," and compared them to those from before and since that period? It'd serve a twofold purpose: One, it'd help us as baseball fans get a feel for whether the game is genuinely making any progress cleaning itself up. Two -- and this is where fantasy baseball comes into play -- it'd identify any specific aging trends with which we must keep up to succeed.

Before starting, let's define the "Steroid Era." For these purposes, I'll pick 1994 as the beginning point. That's the year before the one in which commissioner Bud Selig recently said he began trying to institute a steroid policy. It's also the year that began a streak in which more than two home runs per game were hit each season, a streak still alive heading into 2009. As for the end point, I'll pick 2003, to coincide with the final season without testing, not to mention making it a nice, round 10 years.

(Yes, this assumes, of course, that we're out of the proverbial woods with PEDs. Nowadays the question has evolved into, "Who's on HGH -- human growth hormone?" There's no test for it, of course. But that's a topic for another day.)

Goodbye, fountain of youth

In examining these aging trends, I compared numbers from three groups: Those "pre-steroids," a 34-year span from 1960 to 1993; the "Steroid Era," the 10-year span from 1994 to 2003; and the five years since testing began, 2004 to 2008.

The results confirm everyone's suspicion: Steroids clearly presented an aging baseball player with a proverbial "fountain of youth." In no other period than the "Steroid Era" could players in their early to mid-30s experience such a competitive advantage; hitters aged 31-36 managed a combined .777 OPS from 1994 to 2003. To put that into perspective, from 1960 to 1993, hitters aged 31-36 combined for a .715 OPS.

It might be some time before baseball's age curve nears those 1960 to '93 levels -- and it might never do so -- but from 2004 to 2008, that age group's combined OPS was .759, a noticeable enough level of regression. Once again it has become a bad idea to get old, as players seem to have resumed hitting the down slope of their careers shortly after their 30th birthday.

On the pitching side of things, strikeout rates were what thrived most in that age group. During the "Steroid Era," pitchers aged 31-36 averaged 6.60 K's per nine innings, up from 5.21 in the 34 years preceding it. That number is on the decline the past five years, though; that age group had a 6.40 K-per-nine ratio from 2004 to '08.

The charts to the right illustrate these changes to the aging curve over the years. I've selected for your perusal the four most relevant categories that demonstrate the changes to these curves -- slugging percentage and at-bats per home run for hitters, and strikeouts and hits allowed per nine innings for pitchers.

Again, the 2004 to '08 group represents easily the smallest sample size, but the impact on players aged 30 and older is obvious. I'm speculating when I say this, but with more time and more advances in testing to clean up the game, I'd expect that portion of the age curve to regress even further toward 1960 to '93 standards.

That's something to keep tucked away for your drafts in upcoming seasons -- and to check back on each winter -- as the phrase "twilight of a career" goes back to its original meaning. With time, as was the case in the distant past, players would need to be truly special to continue to excel into their late 30s and early 40s.

A kid's game once more

The other trend that stands out from the charts above: Young players were more productive in the past five seasons than at any point in the past 50 years. If you total the 2004 to '08 numbers of all players who had yet to celebrate their 25th birthday, the collective group of hitters batted .266 with a .752 OPS, up from .259 and .725 from 1994 to 2003. Pitchers, meanwhile, registered a 1.43 WHIP and 6.94 K/9 ratio from 2004 to '08, noticeable improvements upon the 1.46 and 6.44 numbers of 1994 to 2003.

That might come as a shock to the system to some, especially those who traditionally felt the age group 26-29 represented a player's "peak" years, myself included. I'll offer a couple of theories to explain this recent youth explosion:

• Scouting and development departments around Major League Baseball are continually improving, and perhaps more effectively churning out productive prospects today than, say, a quarter-century ago. A thought: Might the sabermetric advances of the past quarter-century have something to do with that?

• With older players as a whole once again showing signs of the aging process by the time they reach their mid-30s, younger players might be getting more opportunities that 10 years ago might have been occupied by older, perhaps juiced-up performers.

The statistics -- at least on the hitting side -- back that up: 16.3 percent of all plate appearances in 2008 were accrued by players younger than 25, up from 14.9 percent from 1994 to 2003 and a little closer to the 21.8 percent from 1960 to '93. On the pitching side, the percentage of innings accrued by those younger than 25 actually dropped from 19.9 in 1994 to 2003 to 19.8 in 2004 to '08 … though a near-20 percent number is already fairly high and, again, the group did enjoy greater success.

• Few prospects breeze their way into significant major league roles before the age of 25 if they're not top-shelf talents. With fewer fringe major leaguers sagging the collective group's numbers, it's not surprising their rates are stronger.

Sure enough, the group included such perennial All-Star names as Miguel Cabrera, Jake Peavy, Grady Sizemore, David Wright and Carlos Zambrano.

• Small sample size. Testing has been in place for only five years, after all.

Which one is the right answer? Perhaps a little of each. But it does back up the notion that rookies and young players are becoming ever-safer draft selections in yearly formats, because they're beginning to again stand a fighting chance.

Buy at 24-26

Combining the pre- and post-Steroid Era numbers for overall conclusions, though, it remains true that a player shows the most breakout potential between the ages of 24 and 26, not at 27 or 28. Some key age-group numbers from 1960 to '93 and 2004 to '08:

Sure enough, in 2008, breakout performers like Jacoby Ellsbury, Ian Kinsler, Jon Lester, Ricky Nolasco, Dustin Pedroia, Ervin Santana, Geovany Soto, Carlos Quentin, Edinson Volquez and Joey Votto all fell within the age range of -- you guessed it -- 24 to 26. Ultimately in the post-Steroid Era, players even younger than that stood a good chance at a breakthrough … but those players who didn't immediately do so tended to by the time they reached 24, 25 or 26 years old, if they were going to at all.

With that in mind, pay an extra buck for the following players in that age group in 2009:

Johnny Cueto: Bad luck was the primary thing holding him back as a rookie.
Alex Gordon: Two springs ago he was considered hands down the game's top prospect; back-to-back disappointing years shouldn't condemn him.
Chase Headley: Petco might sap his power, but he did bat .286 after Aug. 1.
Chris Iannetta: The No. 10 fantasy catcher of 2008, despite only 333 at-bats!
Howie Kendrick: We know he can hit; now can he stay healthy?
Josh Johnson: Even better post-Tommy John surgery than before it.
Adam Lind: Between the majors and minors last year, he batted .299 with 90 RBIs.
Jose Lopez: Hit 12 of his 17 home runs after the All-Star break last year.
Brandon Morrow: Not as hyped as fellow starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter Joba Chamberlain, but really not much less talented a youngster.

Chris Perez: Opponents batted .227 against him in 2008. Now that's closer stuff!

Besides being breakout candidates, they represent the new generation that brings hope for the future of our game. And that -- hope -- is something we so desperately need right now.

Let's just hope these budding stars have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors, and continue building upon the slow-but-steady progress of the past couple of seasons.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.