Starling Marte and Home Runs in the Era of PED Testing
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.
Wow, this is so good.
So quite a few people have upvoted this. I find this article to be awful, could someone who likes it explain what it is about it that they find to be so good? I’m wondering if maybe I’m just missing something. (This isn’t sarcasm)
Yeah, I’d be glad to, as someone whose familiar with this argument from reading BP for over 10 years.
The point isn’t that various PED’s don’t help players. They do. It’s that the sentiment against them is rooted in a fundamentally misleading argument that has little to do with them.
The primary benefit of PEDs from that era are better recovery times and stamina. You get stronger because you can work out more often for longer and recover more quickly to do it again. This leads to faster gains, but you have to work pretty hard.
The most visible scapegoats for the PED era were players who were already VERY unpopular and VERY good before they were ever suspected of taking PEDs. Bonds was a Hall of Famer before he bulked up in the late 90s. Alex Rodriguez was one of the least popular players in baseball from the day he signed his 10 year contract.
The benefits of PED drugs don’t just extend to getting stronger. Better recovery time from working out is a much larger advantage for pitchers than it is for hitters! Look how long one of the few pitchers to really be proven to have done something – Clemens – was able to go.
The testing didn’t exist and use was from all accounts widespread. There’s no evidence that PED drugs only helped hitters – there’s a lot of explaination for the rise in offensive levels that Joe explains here. What’s more likely is that both players and hitters were using and that overall they benefited equally. The main rise in offensive levels was due to a lot of AAA-quality pitchers getting innings due to the double expansion. The players who shone most were either already generational or all-time talents (Bonds/Rodriguez) or sluggers in environments VERY favorable to their skills. Bonds played 38 games a year AT Colorado and AT Phoenix, huge HR environments, before the humidor. Sosa and McGwire played in the NL central, a division at that time full of HR-friendly parks (Miller, Great American, Minute Maid, summertime Wrigley). You didn’t see anyone in the AL West hit 60+ HR, regardless of talent, because they didn’t have the confluence of events (strength+bad pitching+offensive friendly parks).
But it is the home run records – first the season record, but ESPECIALLY the career record, assaulted by baseball players hated by the media and consequently by many fans – Bonds, and with the anticipation of Rodriguez (who was for most of his career on pace to hit 850 or 900 HRs) that drove the outrage that lead Congress to investigate and testing to be implemented.
It isn’t that PEDs aren’t bad for a lot of reasons listed here – bad social influences on minor league players who feel they have to do it to compete, long-term health effects, etc.
It’s that the reasons cited for PEDs being so bad likely had nothing to do with said PEDs, and had everything to do with assault on ‘sacred’ records by players who were rude to the media and covered like villians by the national press.
Witness the fact that most suspensions you see now are from pitchers. Starling Marte isn’t a power hitter. PED benefits aren’t about power and really have never been unless you were already about power. It just became a thing because of the incredible sanctity of the numbers 61 and 755, and the universal unpopularity of the players who challenged those numbers or were expected to do so.
No PEDs made Barry Bonds able to have the incredible plate discipline, batting eye and contact skills he kept late into his life. They don’t do that. They probably got him a lot more home runs instead of doubles, but they didn’t give him the ability to do what he did. He already had it because he was one of the 5 best players ever. And unlike most great players (and most baseball players), he was a flaming asshole to the media and fans most of the time, so people hated seeing him eclipse as popular a player as Hank Aaron.
The point isn’t that PEDs should be excused. It’s that the outrage stems from things that have little to do with them and largely forgives the whole demographic of players who probably benefitted the most – PITCHERS, especially ones who magically remained great until they were 40 years old or more.
Thank you for taking the time to explain.
“The point isn’t that PEDs should be excused.”
Ok, it certainly seems from this article that the author is implying that PED regulation or at least testing is unnecessary, so perhaps that was just conveyed poorly in this specific example.
– “home runs that were nevertheless used as a pretense for an elaborate campaign that assumes all players cheat and forces them to prove otherwise.”
“It’s that the outrage stems from things that have little to do with them and largely forgives the whole demographic of players who probably benefitted the most – PITCHERS, especially ones who magically remained great until they were 40 years old or more.”
What does this have to do with Starling Marte and him now becoming a pincushion or whatever? PEDs are illegal, Marte took them. Marte got busted.
A lot of what you said is interesting and if that is what the article was, it would have made more sense. I guess I just don’t understand what his whole rambling point about this and that has to do with Starling Marte getting caught using steroids in 2017.
Additionally, there are quite a few points made in these comments that at least cast doubt on the idea that PEDS simply didn’t help hrs cuz the rate is the same. Perhaps with more background on that argument, which isn’t presented here or at least not very well (imo), it would make more sense. But from what is present in this article, it seems like he is largely just picking stats to fit his argument and ignoring other possibilities.
That we wouldn’t have these policies if not for that outrage in the first place, primarily. And also that players like Marte – from a poor country with shitty educations and poor english, and bad local regulation of supplements – are just more likely to get caught than college-educated American players. That the severity of these policies was created due to Bondsian outrage, not outrage over players like Starling Marte. He’s paying the price for a storm of outrage that was silly when it began and has been silly for the ensuing 10 years, and is rooted entirely in the media’s reaction to those players.
Players who are caught now are almost uniformly like Marte – young, spanish-speaking and lacking a college education. Do you think no college-educated white American players are ever doing PEDs, or do you think they’re just better at it?
Starling Marte did something dumb, but the penalties are huge, and they’re only that way because of the ‘sins’ of another time that have little to do with what he took or they took.
I watched that entire era. I’m a Dodgers fan. I actively root for the Giants to lose every single time I see them on tv or in a highlight. I would celebrate every year if they embarked on a Pirates-like string of futility, especially after Even Year Bullshit.
Barry Bonds at his best was brilliant. I loved watching – it was incredible. I have never experienced anything like watching him play except watching Kershaw pitch. He was simply on another level from everyone else on the field with him and it was obvious. That’s what absolute, all time dominant play is like. It is special.
Statistical appreciation of baseball – sabermetrics – is in part about escaping shitty media narratives. The PED “crisis” is one of those shitty narratives. It was great baseball. Baseball is better off without it present, for a huge variety of reasons, but none of them have to do with the reasons for the outrage, and that outrage is why Starling Marte is getting suspended for 80 games and everyone here thinks he should be hung like a witch, when in the NFL guys miss 3 games due to a PED suspension and people have forgotten by their 2nd game back.
“and also that players like Marte – from a poor country with shitty educations and poor english, and bad local regulation of supplements – are just more likely to get caught than college-educated American players.”
I don’t get why this should be any sort of argument against it. He is afforded every opportunity to get his supplements either through his team or have someone check them for him like every other player. He is a multi millionaire who has the means to hire a legitimate trainer or coach to supply him with approved supplements. Further, this is an anabolic steroid, not something that was haphazardly tossed into his sup stack.
With that said, your claim doesn’t even seem to be factual. Of the 14 people caught since the 2015 change in punishment 8 were US born college draftees and 1 was a US born HS draftee. 4 of the 14 might fit your “more likely to get caught” demographic and there is Raul Mondesi Jr. who you can put somewhere in the middle, probably. He was born in the US, he was likely not poor since his dad was an MLB player, but he did take the substance in a country that might fit your demographic and due to the accidental usage, his suspension was lowered.
Interestingly, it seems that people should just stay away from anything supplement related in the DR.
David Rollins – US College
Ervin Santana – DR
Jenrry Mejia – DR
Andrew McKirahan – US College
Cody Stanley – US College
Abraham Almonte – DR
Daniel Stumpf – US College
Chris Colabello – US College
Dee Gordon – US College
Josh Ravin – US High School
Raul Mondesi* – Born in US
Marlon Byrd – US College
Alec Asher – US College
Starling Marte – DR
There is a high level of college doping in junior years (draft year). Their sophistication and support system for evading testing is generally not at the level available to pros. In professional baseball beating PED testing is understood to be an IQ test. Impulse control is also a factor. You must perform tasks not only by the day but to the hour.
What we know about steroids:
-We know it helps build muscle mass
-It allows for fast recovery times
-Many steroid users can build incredible muscle mass not just directly via steroids, but also because of weightlifting.
-Steroids can effectively reverse physical decline in many areas among middle-aged adults
What we are fairly confident about:
-Some steroids help with reaction time
What steroid users have reported but has not been tested:
-Some steroids improve vision
-Some steroids improve hand-eye coordination
Hitting a baseball is comically, impossibly hard. Any marginal improvement to hitting a baseball offers a huge reward. Not saying that pitchers also didn’t benefit, because they did–especially by avoiding injury. But saying that steroid usage was not a cause for the increase in home runs is almost certainly incorrect, and saying that the reason those steroid users were hitting home runs because they are just gifted people is especially unlikely given the career trajectories they had.
I’m not suggesting that home run hitters who used PEDs didn’t do it better. I’m suggesting that most players who used PEDs primarily did whatever it was that they did well better, whether that was pitch, contact hit, steal bases, defense, or hit for power.
But it’s the power that caused the outrage, not any of the other stuff. And that’s why the reactions to the PED ‘crisis’ are disproportionate. The power surge has -additional- causes and factors, like parks, expansion, etc. But it’s the only reason anyone cared about PED’s in baseball.
A huge percentage of players were doing it. Probably 60-70%. As we saw recently on this website it changed aging curves for the entire league.
But if it’s making everyone better at what they were already good at, the people who rose to the top are likely also the people who would have risen to the top if no one was doing anything – they just did it for longer, ESPECIALLY pitchers.
People talk about PEDs and the only thing associated with it is Sosa, Bonds, McGwire, etc. But everyone was doing it, in every phase of the game. That the power improved more than those other things is rooted primarily in the fact that it was helped by other factors more, and almost all of those things helped offensive levels.
What difference does it make, who was outraged and how much they were outraged?
Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, and countless other athletes have resorted to breaking the illegal PED rules of their sports — while some unknown percentage of their fellow competitors did not.
It feels self-evident that we therefore owe it to the ones who as far as we know played it clean, to view the illegal PED group and non-illegal PED group through different lenses.
Whether this is done with a cool robotic detachment or a screeching, petulant, righteous indignation seems irrelevant to me.
1. So everyone did stuff better, but did ped use increase that stuff equally?
2. “People talk about PEDs and the only thing associated with it is Sosa, Bonds, McGwire, etc”
I’m not sure what people you speak to, but I’d say that pretty much anyone I know who follows baseball even remotely knows about Clemens and Pettite and their ties to PEDs.
So to summarise your argument, the catalyst for PED policies that involved (somewhat) meaningful penalties being introduced was based on disproportionate outrage over one thing, rather than outrage over the fact that steroid use was widespread. Therefore PEDs should be allowed? Or not allowed but use of them only results in a token punishment? Or what? What should MLB’s steroid/HGH/EPO/other PED policy look like?
Your assertion that it’s only poor players from non-English speaking backgrounds getting caught is obviously wrong. The majority of baseball players caught have been some combination of not poor (like Marte) and/or english speaking and/or with college degrees. (And your implicit suggestion that players from non-English speaking backgrounds are somehow stupider/less able to understand the current policy is offensive too)
Your assertion that Marte’s punishment is draconian, a first offence drawing a half-season ban when NFL players draw a quarter-season ban, that’s also resting on an evidence-free assumption. i.e. that the NFL bans are what all sports should use. Compare Marte’s ban to what an olympic swimmer, a runner, a weightlifter, a professional cyclist, a soccer player, a rugby player, an aussie rules player would get for their first offence, and Marte’s penalty suddenly looks very light.
Your whole argument seems to rest purely on the idea that people shouldn’t have been outraged by Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Rodriguez and the rest taking steroids. That’s an argument that is extremely disingenuous at best, and doesn’t actually justify anything else you’ve said. People should have been outraged by that, especially long term baseball fans. I’m a long term cycling fan. I was absolutely outraged by the systematic use of stuff in cycling, by the effects it had, by the way one of my favourite athletes, Marco Pantani, died. Lance Armstrong became one of the public focuses of that outrage, became a catalyst for more investigation into the issues and for systematic change, and personally I think he’s one of the most contemptible sportsmen alive. No doubt he got singled out somewhat. No doubt other cyclists didn’t get the outrage they deserved. But the fact others didn’t get their fair share of punishment is no reason to suggest Armstrong didn’t deserve what he got. Likewise the fact a bunch of lower profile baseballers didn’t generate the outrage they deserved is no reason to suggest Bonds, McGwire & co didn’t deserve what they got.
Well said, psycho. Verrry well said.
Those of us who give a damn about track and field, about cycling, about other Olympic sports, know all too well the insidious distorting influence of illegal PED’s. Why some fans of baseball continue their denial is beyond me.
(Especially one like Sheehan, who tends to be a relatively thoughtful observer of the game. But illegal PED’s are a blind spot for so many.)
There’s a lot to sort through here, and I take issue with many of your comments. The 60-70% of the league doing it is questionable, and that steroids had equal effects across contact hitting/defense/stealing/power/fastball velocity/control whatever is also dubious. But just because homers were a precipitating factor for people caring about PEDs does not mean that it did not also markedly improve performance, especially power numbers.
There’s a value argument here as well, implied but not always clearly stated, that somehow we shouldn’t be so judgy of steroid users. This is sometimes applied to past or present users. This is harder to argue for or against simply because it’s about values. This sometimes surfaces in defenses of Bonds or Clemens, that somehow their natural greatness trumps their steroid use. I disagree with that, but I sort of understand where they are coming from even if I think they are wrong. But I really don’t have any idea why anyone would defend someone getting banned for 80 games for taking a rather obvious steroid when it is clearly against the rules.
The argument that white, educated, native-born players are better at evading punishment for wrongdoing–that could theoretically be true. That’s basically the same issue with *every* enforcement issue. But we don’t have any data to back that up. It’s just an educated guess. And moreover, it doesn’t lend itself to a clear path of “reform”. People who use steroids are still creating a non-level playing field, breaking the rules, and making it so marginal players have to make a choice between sticking harmful substances in their bodies and washing out of the league.
Everyone in this thread wakes up every morning and takes at least one performance enhancing drug: Caffeine. PEDs are a natural evolution of the game and human ability.
There’s all kinds of stuff available to players today that wasn’t available to prior generations — what makes PEDs so special? Because they’re “bad” for you? That’s irrelevant — there are lots of sports where the playing of the sport itself is “bad” for you (hello NFL).
In 2004 Barry Bonds had 120 intentional walks. ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY!. Only 3 guys had more than 120 BB’s that year.
Are you seriously trying to say that there is no correlation between him taking PED’s and hitting a ton of HR’s and teams deciding to walk him on purpose 120 times?
It does not take much of a batting eye or discipline to not swing at a pitchout 4 times.
Odd that you’d take the time to look up and post a comment ONLY about his IBB total from 2004, but then not glance up at his 90’s walk totals. Why not post them, too? He even had a 13.4% walk rate in 1986.
I agree with much of this, but PEDs most certainly can enhance contact skills, by allowing players to bring the bat around faster. They in effect expand any batter’s personal strike zone, the pitches he can get to. There are documented examples of players who said PEDs made the difference, not between being a light hitter and a power hitter, but between never getting out of the minors and making it to the bigs. If you can hit more pitches, both your % and quality of contact goes up, and your plate discipline is enhanced, because more of the pitches you can’t hit are balls. And of course, pitchers quickly learn to throw more cautiously to hitters like this.
And while the author of the article correctly notes other factors pumping up offense in the nineties, I’m surprised he didn’t mention the size of the strike zone. It was smaller then than it has been recently. The expanded strike zone has unquestionably had a major effect on K rate, and efforts to reduce it again, particularly the lower portion, may be contributing to the spike in HR we’re seeing now.
Finally, the author assumes that more testing means less PED use. That certainly hasn’t been the case in other sports, and one shouldn’t assume it’s the case in baseball, either. Anyone familiar with the anti-doping literature understands that tests don’t, and can’t, catch most users. In fact, only about 20% of the players suspended in connection with Biogenesis actually tested positive during the period they were clearly using.
You’ll have to refresh my memory; where and when was Clemens “proven” to have used steroids? He was acquitted of lying about using steroids, never suspended, never failed a drug test. This would seem to be the exact opposite of “proven”.
Still waiting. Down votes are not proof.
“No PEDs made Barry Bonds able to have the incredible plate discipline, batting eye and contact skills he kept late into his life. They don’t do that.” Wrong, wrong, and wrong. That was exactly the disingenuous argument Bonds made. But the same added strength that turned doubles into home runs permitted Bonds to wait longer–noticeably longer–on the pitch before beginning his swing, better judging the type of pitch it was, the speed, and the location. Greater plate discipline and contact skills come with withholding judgement until the pitch is on you, but worthless if the pitch is already by your ml average quickness.