Saturday, July 23, 2011

Juiced

Watching your team's prospects as they come up, wondering whether they are going to make it in the pros - or whether the players who made the team are ever going to be stars, there are two main factors to consider. Age and injury.

Injury is obvious. Injured players don't perform. I mention it because so many people leave it out of their calculations when projecting.

We used to say that baseball players improve until they are 26-28 years old. Some sabermetricians would shade that to 27-29 on the basis of newer statistics which they prefer. I disagree, but fine. At about age 26 or 27, BA starts edging down and power edges up. Players often maintain something near their peak value until age thirty. Most are gone by 33, certainly by 35.

Look up your favorite players from the past if you doubt this. The best players can often sustain a high level for many years, but even allowing for this, check out which year Nolan Ryan got his 383 K's, for example. Leave modern players out for the moment. Just browse around in the old days long enough to establish that even in the pitcher's era 1963-68, a hitter might have is best year in that age range.

I learned this from Bill James, who I admire as an explainer of statistics, an evaluator of talent, and a writer. But he knew the statistics well enough to know that steroids were changing the game, and he mentioned barely a hint of it. That is moral cowardice.

There are exceptions to the 27 +/- tendency, of course, but these are minor. And they are usually gradual, revealing a pitcher who is learning his craft, for example, or a hitter learning to be more selective and draw walks under a particular batting coach.

In the modern era, there are many exceptions, and we can guess why. It is tough to know for certain with many players, because the change is gradual, or because it involves an excellent player hanging on at a higher level than one might expect.

Armed with this knowledge, consider the statistical jump, at this age, for this player. A 200-point rise in OPS at age 29, and another 200-point increase at 30.

It just doesn't happen.

3 comments:

Wyman said...

There was a day at school once where we'd seen a graph about how violence and drug use had skyrocketed shortly after school prayer was banned. When I was talking to you about it afterwards, you pointed out to me the unfairness of that presentation: that there were lots of things happening in the 60's that could've lead to those jumps, it wasn't fair just to point to a rise or drop and say "it was because of this." I could draw a graph that showed how violence in urban areas dropped steadily after the Challenger explosion, and I'd be correct, but connecting those two ideas would be a fallacy. We tend to thing post hoc ergo propter hoc, but we're almost always wrong.

You look at Bautista's numbers and say "there's only one conclusion," rejecting out of hand even the possibility that there's reason to reconsider his specific case. But that misses that there's other variables at play than just Player + Steroids.

Since baseball started widespread steroid testing in 2004, and instituted its current policy in '06, we've seen a steady decline in power numbers across the board, the indication being that the effects of the steroid era are being slowly phased out. Have we eradicated steroids? Probably not. But we're clearly making progress.

We talk constantly about the Bigger, Faster, Stronger corollary that connects each sport together: in the Olympics, in football, in basketball, in whatever, these individuals are simply better athletes than they used to be. Some of it must be drugs, we know. But some of it is better nutrition, better training, better video playback, better coaching, better management, better information about injuries, better planes to take players from place to place, and better medicines and machines to keep them on their feet. Every Olympics, every swimming record is broken, simply because we are constantly making progress on the limits of the human body.

It is possible that it is this progress that made James believe that we had taken such a huge leap forward in '98 when Sosa and McGwire leapt to the front of the national imagination. But it's unfair to blame just him. We all accepted it at the time, we wanted to. We remember being much more suspicious of it than we really were. The truth is, we wanted a reason to believe in baseball again.

We notice the changes more on the outliers and say "those people must be juicing." But no one's saying that about Jamie Moyer, who steadily continues to be a mediocre starter at 48. We're just better at keeping players athletes.

Is Bautista's jump startling? Absolutely. Almost unheard of? Yes. Do I have fears that it might be from juicing? Of course I do.

But I would say that there's reason enough to look at his story (the swing change, his disastrous stint with the Pirates' abysmal farm system, the way he was originally touted to be this sort of hitter and simply never developed) and accept it as logical. Just because players didn't do this during an era where everyone smoked and ate hamburgers every night and didn't work out during the winter doesn't make it impossible that it's happening now.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ah, my work here is finished. Thank you, Ben.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I admit to the additional prejudice - unfortunately based on experience, including Sox players - that the Dominican connection makes my suspicions stronger.