This is Joe Sheehan’s’s third piece as part of his April residency at FanGraphs. A founding member of Baseball Prospectus, Joe currently publishes an eponymous Baseball Newsletter. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read all our residency posts here.
Starling Marte has been suspended 80 games for a first violation of the Joint Drug Agreement. Per MLB, Marte tested positive for Nandrolone. He accepted the suspension, calling his actions “a mistake” without denying responsibility for the positive test. Marte will be eligible to return on July 18, when the Pirates play their 94th game of the season at home against the Brewers. Per the latest changes to the JDA, Marte will also be ineligible for the 2017 postseason.
This is a blow for a Pirates team that needed everything to go right to challenge for a playoff berth. Already playing without infielder Jung Ho Kang, whose DUI violations have left him unable to secure a visa, the loss of Marte for 80 games projects to something like a two-win hit for a team that didn’t have two wins to spare. The Pirates have moved Andrew McCutchen back to center field to cover for Marte, and Marte’s playing time will fall mostly to Adam Frazier, off to a .295/.354/.455 start while playing five positions. Jose Osuna and John Jaso should get some extra PAs in Marte’s stead as well.
On the horizon is Austin Meadows, the No. 5 prospect in baseball according to Eric Longenhagen and No. 7 prospect according to MLB.com. Meadows, though, is off to a .146/.217/.244 start at Triple-A, running his line at that level across two seasons and 191 PA to .198/.277/.407. Meadows’s prospect status is intact; it’s just not likely that he’ll be ready for the majors before Marte can return.
Since the penalties for failing tests were increased in 2015, in the wake of the not-shady-at-all Biogenesis “investigation,” 14 players have been suspended 16 times under the MLB regime. (Jenrry Mejia, the Mets relief pitcher, was dinged three times in 10 months and is serving a lifetime ban.) Half of those are pitchers, and the other half have combined for 270 home runs in more than 10,000 plate appearances, 159 of those homers by Marlon Byrd. I mention this because it’s important to remember that Starling Marte’s suspension is result of home runs. Every single suspended player over the last 13 years owes his punishment to home runs: home runs none of them hit, home runs that were misunderstood in the moment and remain poorly understood today, home runs that were nevertheless used as a pretense for an elaborate campaign that assumes all players cheat and forces them to prove otherwise.
MLB expanded by two teams in 1993, adding the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies. Offense jumped, as it always does in expansion years, from 4.1 runs per team-game to 4.6, helped by 81 games in the thin air of Denver. The strike years of 1994-95 saw an average of 4.9 runs per team-game, then 5.0 in 1996 before a dip to 4.8 in 1997. At that moment, it seemed as if the expansion effect was washing out of the player pool.
In 1998, however, two more teams — the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks — were added, and while offense held in ’98, it rose again to more than five runs per game in 1999 and 2000. In 1998, two players, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, broke the single-season record for home runs, which had been 61, held by Roger Maris. McGwire hit 70. Sosa would hit at least 60 home runs three times in four years; of the eight seasons in MLB history during which a player has recorded 60 or more homers, six occurred from 1998 through 2001, capped by Barry Bonds‘ 73-homer effort in 2001.
In the moment, the league-level and individual-level home-run spree was seen as evidence of widespread use of steroids — or, as they came to be called, “performance-enhancing drugs,” a bit of circular terminology that itself distorted the conversation. That the history dating to 1992 put the lie to this — a couple hundred guys didn’t wake up on January 1, 1993 and start popping homer pills — was ignored, as was evidence indicating that the baseball, the strike zone, the style of play, and the double expansion were all to blame.
The double expansion in the 1990s occurred parallel to a shift in pitcher usage in which the best pitchers’ innings, both starters and relievers, were being sharply reduced and the work distributed to lesser pitchers. In 1992, the last year before the expansion to 28 teams, 123 players got at least 500 plate appearances and 245 got at least 300. That’s about four to five everyday players and nine regulars per team. Fifty-four pitchers threw 200 innings and 81 threw 162. Six years later, in a 30-team league, 162 players got at least 500 PAs and 272 got at least 300. The number of teams had expanded, but the playing time was actually becoming a bit more concentrated, with 5.4 everyday players per team now. Meanwhile, despite adding four teams, there were just two more pitchers (56) who threw 200 innings and just 15 more who reached 162. While over time that shift would yield an army of anonymous one-inning relievers throwing 95, at the turn of the century it just meant good pitchers were pitching less so that bad pitchers could pitch more.
These arguments mostly fell on deaf ears, as the image of hulking, roided-up players bashing their way through the record books became the dominant one. The players, divided for the first time in two generations, accepted an anonymous (not so much) survey-testing program that would take place in 2003 to determine the extent of the game’s drug problem. When about 7% of tested players turned up positive (in a testing process that commissioner Rob Manfred now says raised “legitimate scientific questions”), a full testing regime with punishments began in 2004. By the time that program was in place, however, the expansion effects had again washed out. Home-run rates and offensive levels were in retreat from their peak.
There was a sharp increase in power after the strike, especially relative to the low-power years that had come before it. The rise in offense, and in power, was within the range of historical norms but for the 1999-2001 period and, even at that, really just 1999 and 2000.
Consider the rise and fall of home runs on contact, specifically, during this nine-year interval:
It was the spike in offensive levels in those years, and the record individual totals made possible by them, that created the storyline about a game riddled with drug use. The “steroid era” you’ve all heard about looks like two or three years in the books, and those numbers were well on their way back to historical norms before the game began punishing users.
It was all about home runs. The cheating steroidal players were hitting too many home runs, so Something Had To Be Done. Manfred’s “legitimate scientific questions” were ignored on the way to implementing a testing regime. A Congressional committee, its members having neither standing nor understanding, held a dog-and-pony show in 2005 that generated absolutely no information but served to provide B-roll for an entire generation of local-news producers. The game assigned George Mitchell, then a member of the board of directors of the Red Sox, to produce a stack dump of hearsay and innuendo that MLB then presented as the final say on the matter. Every few years, as players — a disproportionate number of them foreign-born and Spanish-speaking — failed tests and served suspensions, the cries would go out for harsher punishments.
So now Starling Marte loses half a season, and becomes a pincushion for the same people who got it wrong back then, all because of home runs. Forget what you’ve heard about fairness or player health or any of the other red herrings that have been put forth; the testing program exists because of home runs.
Which brings me to this:
Well, now we have testing and home runs.
Run-scoring is down relative to the turn of the century because OBP is down, and OBP is down because strikeouts have taken over the game. When the bat hits the ball, however, we have results that rival the highest-power era in baseball history. By the rate at which home runs are hit on contact, we’re in uncharted territory. It’s worth noting that those 2017 stats cover the first 17 days of the season; you can expect them to go up because offense is typically lower in April than the rest of the season. In 2016, there were more home runs hit than in any season other than 2000. There’s a very good chance there will be more home runs hit in 2017 than in any season in baseball history… while at the same time we’re collecting the urine of baseball players by the acre-foot.
Home runs were supposed to be caused by drugs, and the problem was supposed to be so bad that we had to force every baseball player into a prove-your-innocence program to fix it. If we can have a 4% HR/contact rate with zero drug tests, and a 4% HR/contact rate with thousands of drug tests, maybe it’s not about the drugs at all. Maybe it never was.