Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Doubt and Data

Generally speaking, human beings lie, and data doesn't. Visual evidence, statistical evidence, it was all there. Anyone who thought Mark McGwire did not take performance enhancing drugs was just ignoring the data. Baseball is a very statistically driven game. In no other sport do you get thousands of samples per player (i.e. pitches, which lead to at bats). When you get enough samples, you can make very good statistical predictions on players. A player with a lifetime batting average of .310 will probably hit somewhere between .290 and .320 the next year. More samples, less variance, it's pretty basic.

So when a player undergoes a dramatic shift in his performance based on previous history, something is usually amiss. Injuries cause players to perform worse and those scenarios are very explainable and occur quite frequently. But when a player makes a dramatic shift in the other direction without much to explain it, America's eyebrows become raised with doubt.

McGwire admits in his confession that much of the reason he took steroids was to avoid injury and stay healthy longer. This could very well be true. Baseball certainly isn't football or hockey or any other contact sport, but its regular season lasts 6 months and 162 games. It's not difficult to see how it can become a grind both mentally and physically for a player; and without the aid of performance enhancers, it would be very reasonable to expect minor dings to add up over the course of a season.

Take a look at this page:


With the exception of Roger Maris in 1961, no player who hit more than 30 home runs by the All Star break hit more than 20 in the second half of the year.

Until 1996.

Then look at the list. Beginning with Brady Anderson (a guy who hit 50 home runs that year and never more than 24 in any other season in his career), there were 12 instances of a player who hit more than 20 in the second half of the year. Most telling are the 30+ home runs hit in the second half of a season by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds.

That's data. And I'm sorry, but when you couple that data with each players' changes in physical appearance over the years, performance enhancing drug use just screams out at you. It's my contention that one of the reasons steroids changed the game is that players are more able to maintain their peak performance throughout the year than they would without them. Never mind the additional distance and power the hitters were able to achieve, just look at how they maintained their health for the entirety of the season.

Here is some more minor data to support that, in this case, Alex Rodriquez: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/rodrial01.shtml

From 1996 when he was 20 years old to 2000 when he was 24, he had only 1 season where he played in 160+ games. Beginning in 2001, when he was 25, in 5 of the next 6 years he played in at least 161 games. Not coincidentally, in 2001, he hit over 50 home runs for the first time. By his own admission, those were the years he began using steroids. Play longer at your peak and inflate your numbers. Don't you think you'd be more likely to play a full season when you're 20 or 21 than when you're 29?

The bottom line is that baseball statistics are nearly sacred to American sports fans. If I say 61 or .406, you know exactly what those numbers mean, and who achieved them. So when something taints those numbers and their meaning, it taints the entire sport and its legacy. It's a shame really. Let me ask you this question: if you were offered a guaranteed contract for $114 millions dollars in exchange for taking steroids and negatively impacting your health seven years later, would you do it? Jason Giambi did.

But I'll close out with a little bit of, OK maybe a lot of, cynicism. It's not just baseball folks. It's just about every sport there is if there's enough money involved. Golf might be an exception. It's simply not possible to compete in professional sports without them. If someone's doing it, they're skewing the average and I just don't think that there are any natural athletes able to compete with those who do. So the pressure will always be there to do it. Look for athletes that respond with "I never failed a drug test" as their response. Big deal. Do I suspect Lance Armstrong used them? Yes, I do, but only because of the statistical improbability that he was such an outlier in a sport of probable users for such a long time. Do I suspect Brock Lesnar used them? Yes, I do, but only because of the environment he was in with the WWE and the physique he had back then. It's just not physically possible to carry that much muscle mass and so little body fat with out drugs. Sure, you could be the one in one billion genetic freak that does, but I'm not buying it. He was with the WWE, an organization forever associated with steroid and other drug use. Is Brock clean now, ever since he began his MMA career? He could very well be, and I wouldn't necessarily doubt it. But he's softer now, his physique is more in line with that of a natural athlete than a professional bodybuilder.

I'm just at the point where it's getting tougher to be a fan of any sport, because I'm simply so suspicious about anyone's ability to perform so well for so long. Do I hope the truly outstanding athletes like BJ Penn and George St. Pierre are drug-free? Absolutely. Would I be surprised if they weren't? Sadly, I wouldn't.


RedXBranch said...

I agree...totally. I have often wondered why these guys (all pro atheletes) aren't subjected to weekly mandatory testing. With as much money as there is in professional sports I don't think testing costs could possibly be the reason it isn't done. The reason? They don't want to get caught.

DrChako said...

This is part of the reason I started boycotting MLB. When they went on strike in 1994 it felt like they were just pissing on the fans. The steroid use was just a continuation of their contempt.

The real question for me will be if the official stats-keepers will change the record books. I know there's no way to erase the home run records, but I'd be pretty happy to see an asterisk after all records achieved via performance enhancing drugs.

I'm extra pissed at McGwire because, despite my boycott, I remember grabbing my son so we could watch when he broke the record.

Apparently McGwire called Roger Maris' widow to apologize after the news broke. I'm still waiting on MY phone call of apology.


IamwhatIam said...

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Numbers may be objectively true, but one's interpretation of them rarely is.

No Joke said...

Test should be done for fair play. it's gonna be unfair if the other pro athelete will be positive on whatever test..

Pokerwolf said...

BJ Penn has a bad case of "Bonds Head". Look at pictures of him when he was younger versus pictures of him now. That ain't just the effects of age.

Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

Well said. Sports today have all been tainted by the bad acts of a few (many) who could care less about things like integrity and history. And the sad truth is, for just about anyone who you've *ever* wondered if they took PEDs, they probably did, in any sport.

Jordan said...

Would it solve the problem if athletes were allowed to use steroids? I mean, it would suck because every athlete would have to take them to be competitive, but that's the same situation we have now. In the end, athletes are really entertainers. Sure, they entertain by their ability to throw or catch a ball, but the purpose and the money behind these professional sports are in the fans. So, stop all the controversy about illicit drugs by acknowledging that these physical athletes take special supplements to allow them to perform so highly. Ah, shit. That'd just further encourage the over-medicization of this great country. But its happening anyway...

Anonymous said...

No-one seems to have mentioned that part of the problem is the obsession with the numbers in the first place. It's the same with US horseracing, where animal flesh and blood is "broken down" into furlong by furling rates. In baseball (our nearest comparator is cricket) the stats ignore (without taking into account the drug abuse) the changing abilities of the opponents. However, it appears that there is a desperate need for an "objective" way to measure how "good" a player was. Why? Sport, like art, brings joy to the watcher. But no-one applies statistical measurement to George Clooney vs Cary Grant.
I remember my favourite sportsmen for the joy they brought me, not for the dry numbers in a stats report. Surely if you take that line, then you can simply say "sure, he scored well, but he was obviously on drugs, so I got no joy from it".

Good luck with the running! Oh, and is 334lbs possible? I think I'm ambling along at 168lbs, but I feel that's 14lbs too much.


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