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Has Steroid Testing Changed Anything?

June 4th, 2009

baseball-steroid-testingChicks dig the long ball. That was the phrase that paid during Major League Baseball’s so-called Steroid Era of the last 15 years. Players got larger from their use of performance-enhancing drugs and home runs numbers skyrocketed. Fans saw a dramatic shift in the way the game was played — away from a sport that relied on speed and strategy, to one that looked more like a beefed up beer league softball game.

The stolen base, it seemed, had become a lost art as teams stood around waiting for the three-run homer which inevitably came. Players like Dave Roberts and Juan Pierre, who in the 1980s would have been prized leadoff men for their ability to disrupt defenses on the base paths, became utility men who had trouble finding consistent homes. Certainly no one would ever again approach Rickey Henderson’s record setting 130 stolen base year of 1982.

Meanwhile, the strikeout, which had long been the bane of every hitting coach’s existence, was looked at as a necessary evil. If a player could hit 30 to 40 home runs every year (or more in some cases), a team could live with the same player striking out three times a night. The Bobby Bonds record of 189 strikeouts in a season stood for 34 years until Adam Dunn whiffed 195 times in 2004. (In the four completed seasons since, the 190-strikeout mark has been surpassed five times. Arizona’s Mark Reynolds set a new Major League standard in 2008 by fanning 204 times — while hitting just 28 home runs.)

Then in 2003, spurred by a public outcry of fans and media labeling the steroid users as cheaters and demanding some sort of punishment, the league began unannounced testing of players. With the threshold of more than five percent testing positive, mandatory testing was instituted the following year.

At that moment, fans began to keep a close eye on the game, wondering if Major League Baseball was putting its house in order. Anecdotally, it appeared to be working. Many players looked slimmer. Was MLB getting a handle on its sport and would we see a return to the game being played the way it used to be?

Yet while it appears that the league is doing its part to bust rule breakers, it doesn’t seem to have created the anticipated effect on the numbers.

Early in 2009, it looked like the stolen base had returned. In late April, fans marveled at Colorado Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler stealing five bases in a game against the San Diego Padres. Less than a week later, he was one-upped by Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford who swiped six in one game against the Boston Red Sox.

The numbers keep on coming: Philadelphia’s Jayson Worth stealing four in one game against the Los Angeles Dodgers — including taking second, third and home in the same inning; Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury with a straight steal of home against the New York Yankees; the New York Mets snagging 12 bags against the San Francisco Giants in two games (including seven in one game).

It seems like putting runners in motion is a la mode once again. Through the first six weeks of the 2009 season, there were an average of .67 stolen bases per game. Compare that to the 2008 season in which .56 bags were swiped every game. Makes sense, right? It’s one year further into the testing program, so players and managers have made adjustments to account for the dropping home runs numbers.

Except that the ball is flying out of the park at a greater rate so far in 2009 than 2008. Through the first half of May, there have been 1.1 homers per contest. Contrast that with a 1.0 home run per game rate in 2008.

Go further and compare it to a pair of seasons earlier this decade. 2002 was the final season before baseball began testing its players for performance enhancers, so you’d expect home runs to be up and steals to be down. Not quite. 2002 saw fewer home runs (1.04) and more steals (.71) per game.

Want to throw another monkey wrench in the works? Try 2004, the first year steroid testing was mandatory for all players. Home runs were up to 1.12 per game while stolen bases fell off to .52 per contest. Huh?

Through it all, it’s hard to suggest that this season’s numbers indicate that players are still juicing. Reasons for the uptick in homers are numerous. The new Yankee Stadium has had an unforeseen number of home runs in its early existence. Several teams have had injuries to key starting pitchers, forcing unproven arms into service oftentimes before they are ready. Additionally, some hitters were able to have meaningful at-bats earlier in the spring thanks to the World Baseball Classic.

What it does mean is that the game has endured seismic changes that won’t soon be undone. Batting average gave way to slugging percentage. Players felt the need to get bigger and stronger in order to compete. With power seen as the quickest route to the Major Leagues and a big contract, emphasis shifted away from contact hitters whose greatest strength was putting the ball in play.

Yet maybe the greatest anomaly is that while home runs brought excitement and garnered fans, they didn’t guarantee wins. Of the past 10 World Series champions, only three finished the regular season in the top five in home runs (‘08 Phillies, ‘05 White Sox, ‘04 Red Sox) and never in that stretch has the team that led the major leagues in home runs even made the Fall Classic.

And even though the 2004 Red Sox finished the season fifth in the league in home runs, the player that sparked their miraculous run to the World Series title was more known for his legs than his bat. Dave Roberts steal of second base in Game Four of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees is credited with changing the entire complexion of the series.

In the last two decades, Major League Baseball has seen an abundance of hitter-friendly parks. League expansion has led to a dilution of quality pitching and many former ballplayers will tell you that the ball being used now is smaller and more tightly wound than the one they played with, leading to balls jumping out of the yard more frequently. Steroids added fuel to the fire. But it is hard to believe that if testing for performance-enhancing drugs continues that fans won’t see a major shift back toward a more traditional style of play.

Marcas Grant is a freelance writer at Constant Content who has produced a total of six articles and two sales.

2 Responses to “Has Steroid Testing Changed Anything?”

  1. comment number 1 by: louise

    The Yankees are another team that started slowly but they’ve turned it around. Since Alex Rodriguez returned, the entire squad has played much better. They should keep going to keep pace with the others. I really like them; they’ve always been my favourite teams in MLB. Just read about them at YankeesGround.com.

  2. comment number 2 by: Susan

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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