Commentary

Who's cheating who?

Despite Biogenesis, we still know very little about how PEDs impact performance

Originally Published: August 29, 2013
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

Keating IlloSean McCabe for ESPNMLB should offer a reduced penalty to players who disclose what they've taken and how it worked.

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SINCE MLB DROPPED the hammer on 13 alleged Biogenesis clients on Aug. 5, I've read that Alex Rodriguez's entire career was a hoax. I've heard talk-radio hosts claim that a clean player could have added 100 home runs and 400 RBIs to his career totals by using steroids during the 1990s. I've seen major leaguers blame other major leaguers for beating them out of jobs by juicing. And I always have the same question: How do you know?

Fifteen years after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, after BALCO and Barry Bonds, after Biogenesis and Ryan Braun, the baseball world has essentially zero understanding of how much performance-enhancing drugs actually enhance performance. So I say: Release the data! Our appreciation of baseball's athletes and our assessment of all-time greats are rooted in their numbers. That's why MLB should offer a reduced suspension, immunity if necessary, to any player who fully discloses which PEDs he has taken and when. And then let the regression analyses fly. Compiling and comparing athletes' real-life drug use and results is the only way we will ever figure out how to interpret stats on steroids.

Back in 1998, after reporter Steve Wilstein revealed that McGwire was using androstenedione, Bud Selig and the MLBPA agreed to have two doctors from Harvard study the steroid. But at baseball's winter meetings that year, the researchers briefed team doctors and trainers on their limited findings -- that low doses of andro increase testosterone -- and were never heard from again. Since then, several papers have examined the effects of PEDs on body mass, endurance and healing time. But I have found just one that connects anabolics to on-field changes in MLB performance: In a study published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports in 2010, Vittorio Addona and Jeremy Roth, a mathematics professor and student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., looked at all pitchers suspended for flunking a drug test since 2005 or named in the Mitchell report. Despite the sample's flaws, Addona and Roth found that steroids use increased average fastball velocity by 1.07 mph. Interesting -- but just the first droplets of data we need to clean away the effects of doping from MLB stats.

Amid our current ignorance, even seemingly obvious claims about PEDs are hard to prove. For instance, A-Rod averaged 36.8 home runs a year for the Mariners from 1996 to 2000, then a whopping 52 per season from 2001 to 2003, when he played for the Rangers and has admitted using steroids. Clearly the juice gave him a big boost, right? Except that in moving from Seattle to Arlington, Rodriguez shifted from a strong stadium for pitchers to a great hitters' park, which accounts for most of the increase in his production. Consider that if you double A-Rod's road stats from 2000, his last season with the Mariners, you get a .356 average, 56 HRs and 162 RBIs -- a greater season than he ever had in Texas (or New York).

So what gives? Didn't the steroids work? Did they help simply by keeping him healthy? Was he juicing even before he left Seattle? We don't know, so we tend to judge A-Rod's numbers by how we feel about him. But players deserve statistical as much as legal due process.

While it's usually hard for researchers to test illegal drugs in potentially dangerous doses on human beings, the Biogenesis crew has essentially just conducted years of clinical experiments on itself. Anthony Bosch's records are a road map to what happened between the "before" and "after" phases of players such as Braun and Nelson Cruz. Publish that kind of data and maybe, just maybe, we'll start to untangle how different kinds of drugs and doping patterns affect various statistics.

Then fans and sports writers would have better frames of reference to judge the players of today and the recent past. Selig could move beyond cracking down on the offenders who have embarrassed MLB and serve history. And any player who stepped forward to disclose his clinical records could actually do some good in a story that has had very few heroes.

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Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

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