Fair or not, the most common way people identify suspected “steroid cheats” is to look for sudden, unexpected improvements in power, specifically big jumps in home runs. Whenever a hitter shows a big power surge, especially later in his career, there will always be folks claiming that they had some chemical assistance. And they do it because of cases like Carlos Ruiz.
Ruiz had a breakout season in 2012, adding power to his repertoire for the first time at age 33. He’d been a quality player for the last few years, mostly based on his ability to make a lot of contact and occasionally drive the ball into the gaps. Homers weren’t really his thing. From 2006 to 2011, his career HR/FB rate was 6.3%, and he posted an ISO of .128.
Last year, his HR/FB rate was 15.1%, and his ISO was .215. Or, if you prefer pictures, here’s Carlos Ruiz’s slugging percentage, by year, compared to league average.
Yeah. It’s not hard to figure out which of these is not like the others. And so, today, no one is really shocked that Carlos Ruiz has been suspended 25 games for failing a drug test, specifically one for amphetamines. Reports suggest that he’s admitted to taking Adderall, which has gained popularity as a performance enhancing drug over the last few years. Because MLB treats amphetamines different from PEDs, the suspension means that this is actually Ruiz’s second failed test – a first failed test for amphetamines simply requires an increased level of future testing.
And so, when Ruiz issues a statement that says he’s “sincerely regretful” for his “mistake”, everyone just rolls their eyes. Given his career path, no one is surprised today. Given his multiple failed tests, his credibility is basically shot. Ruiz is only going to miss the first 25 games of 2013, but he’s now going to be followed around by a large cloud of skepticism.
If he doesn’t hit after the suspension is over, it will be evidence that the drugs were the reason he was good in the first place. If he does hit, it will just be evidence that he’s found a way to beat the system. This is the world we live in now. Guys who just suddenly start hitting for power are guilty until proven innocent. And as long as guys like Carlos Ruiz keep providing evidence to support that mentality, it’s just going to grow.
I feel bad for the guys who really are clean and just improve through natural means. I don’t like to assume the worst. I just wish the players would stop giving us reasons to think that every abnormal power spike really is due to drug use. As long as they keep providing evidence for the cliche, it will survive. Unlike Carlos Ruiz’s 2012 power spike, most likely.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.