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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Steroids and Stats

Interesting article by Alan Schwarz in the NY Times titled "Trying to Keep Records Pure Could Prove to Be Futile" in the wake of the Palmeiro revelation. You have to register to read it.

Schwarz intviewed several members of SABR's records committee at the annual convention last weekend in Toronto about whom he says.

"The members of this committee are known for two things: caring deeply about home runs, batting averages and other statistical details; and, just as starkly, never agreeing on anything. After all, these are the people who argue for days about a double here and a putout there, and whether Ferdie Schupp of the New York Giants actually posted the National League's lowest earned run average back in 1916 - a jaw-dropping 0.90."

Sounds like my kind of people.

After going through some of the history of tainted statistics he circles back to the committee and offers that the idea of purging baseball of tainted statistics or introducing asterisks stems from a "revisionist impulse" common to the human experience as a mechanism for forgetting bad things that happen and pretending that people or events did not exist.

To the members of the committee this is an example of "simple-minded thinking" in the words of Bill James since statistics are not "pure" for a plethora of reasons (night games, travel, gloves, weight training, etc.) not related to performance enhancing substances. Removing statistics also destroys the double-entry bookkeeping aspect of the game, which has always been one of its strengths. In the end Schwarz quotes David Vincent as saying.

"A record's a record. A number doesn't have any moral value. People do."

My position is the same as the tenor of the committee. While we can study the effects we think the steroid era has had on the records, we can't go back and edit them willy-nilly. The stats are what they are and altering them would only serve to make it more difficult in the future to analyze them.

That said, what baseball needs to do is make sure that as few players as possible can play while on performance enhancers. The appeal process, as noted by Will Carroll, on BP Radio last weekend, is too long and given history would allow a player who tested positive to play out the remainder of the season and post season. That can't happen. Any appeals have to be swift and decisive so the player can't taint the game for long.

Secondly, what baseball can do is make sure those who have cheated don't continue to benefit from it by receiving awards and accolades. For example, if it shown beyond reasonable doubt that Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro knowingly took steroids, they should not be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose's offense was no worse. Both destroyed the competitve playing field that is one of the things baseball is selling. This should be extended to MVPs, Cy Young's and even a celebration of an event like a 3,000th hit or 715th homerun. These are all present and future actions. Let the past rest and let's get on with doing things right.

And to those who say that since baseball was complicit because of their blind-eye mentality in the 80s and 90s, and so it's not fair to punish its players, I can only say that two wrongs don't make a right and that grown men know cheating even when those who are supposed to police it shirk their responsibility. End of rant.


hedgehog said...

since Palmeiro tested positive in May, before his 3000th hit, are you suggesting that he should be stripped of all the hits he has collected since then? And should he be suspended indefinitely until he is proven to be "clean" and restart the count once he come back? I like the logic of this line of thinking, but doubt the realistic chance of things happening logically in sports.

Dan Agonistes said...

No, I believe Palmeiro should have had his day in court but am arguing that the process takes way too long. He tested positive in May and he goes through the rest of May, June, and July without any consequences. The appeal process needs to be much speedier so that the rest of the season isn't tainted.

My argument is that he *shouldn't* be stripped of any hits but had the test and the appeal been completed in a timely manner, we and MLB, would not have celebrated his 3,000th hit in the same fashion.

Mike said...

With all due respect, steroids and gambling are not the same. The reason that gambling is elevated above all other sins isn't moral. It's practical. If the fan believes that the players (or coaches) on the field have goals other than to win the game, the game is doomed. Gambling is elevated because it raises this possibility, while steroids do not.

Before anyone says it, yes, Gary Sheffield said he intentionally booted balls, and yes, sometimes teams have goals other than to win the immediate game (or even season), but it's not the same thing. Having long term goals or not giving maximum effort isn't the same.

Dan Agonistes said...

I agree that steroids don't cast doubt on whether players are playing to win. But is the fan's confidence in the game any less affected when they think the results are unfair because some players have access to better pharmaceuticals?

The essence of sport is a fair competition. I still contend that steroids destroys that as much as gambling.

Anonymous said...

Not exactly.

The game can "tolerate" a far lower level of "throwing games" for gambling gains than it can "tolerate" performance enhancing substances.

Both are bad, and both should be eliminated/minimized.

The game has shown that it can tolerate say, 20% or even 50% of its players on performance enhancing substances and still survive, and even thrive (attendance is still growing).

I'd hazard a guess that if even 2% to 5% of its players were known to be throwing games for gambling gains, that the game would suffer serious declines in many ways.