Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Baseball Post

The big news this week? Roger Clemens, not going to jail.

A few points:

* As long as there's a shortage of prosecutor time and courtroom time -- in other words, always -- decisions about who to indict are about prosecutor discretion, not whether someone is guilty or not. Discretion involves both whether the case is very strong and how important it is. Obviously both the Bonds and Clemens prosecutions failed the first test; I've never seen a particularly good argument for them passing the second test, either. They may well have committed the crimes they were charged with or other crimes; many, many people commit crimes over the course of their lives (taxes, drugs, more) and are not charged.

* Did Clemens and Bonds use steroids? I have no idea. Nor do I care very much. It has zero effect on how I evaluate their careers.

* On steroids specifically, anyone who believes that they know (1) who used and who didn't, and (2) what effect it had on the field -- they're just fooling themselves. OK, I guess we have some people who we have some strong evidence that they used. But everyone else? We really don't know. I'd be shocked if there isn't already someone in the Hall of Fame who used. I would not be surprised if one or more of those who everybody knows were steroid users really wasn't, after all.

* More broadly, virtually everyone  -- my shorthand is that it's everyone but Dale Murphy -- who played in the major leagues in the last 60 years up until very recently violated the current MLB rules. I've yet to see any convincing argument for why Clemens and Bonds (assuming every accusation is true) are any different from Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Pete Rose.

* We haven't, I suppose, lost out on much on the playing field as a consequence of this nonsense. But still...I remember seeing Willie Mays, and I wouldn't have if his career was cut short a couple of years. There are kids now who won't remember seeing the great Barry Bonds because he didn't get to play his last couple of seasons. Thirty, forty years from now, no one is going to care whether he was a jerk or not or whether he "cheated" or not; he's going to have been the great Barry Bonds.

* As for the Hall of Fame: of course Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame. And I still expect that, eventually, everyone who is supposed to be in (the usual mistakes and biases included, of course) will be in. It might take a while, but the Hall has strong incentives to have regular inductions and to have a reasonable match for the group of players who people think of when they talk about Hall of Fame players.


  1. In both cases, the charges were perjury, false statements, and obstruction of justice (Congress in Clemens' case). A prosecutor can't just ignore that. If their judgment is they have enough evidence to convince a jury--not convict a defendant--about the underlying offense, then they are duty-bound to prosecute. Sure, the judgment of the seriousness of the underlying offense comes into play. But so too does the seriousness of the venues in which the testimony took place: a federal grand jury, and a Congressional committee, after which the Chairman and Ranking member referred the case to the Justice Department.

    I agree with Patrick Fitzgerald:

    "When citizens testify before grand juries they are required to tell the truth. Without the truth, our criminal justice system cannot serve our nation or its citizens. The requirement to tell the truth applies equally to all citizens, including persons who hold high positions in government...

    ...When I was in New York working as a prosecutor, we brought those cases because we realized that the truth is the engine of our judicial system. And if you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost...

    ...Any notion that anyone might have that there's a different standard for a high official, that this is somehow singling out obstruction of justice and perjury, is upside down.

    ...If these facts are true, if we were to walk away from this and not charge obstruction of justice and perjury, we might as well just hand in our jobs. Because our jobs, the criminal justice system, is to make sure people tell us the truth. ..."

  2. I have no opinion about the prosecutions, but I've never understood your strong form of the "who cares who used steroids" argument.

    Thought experiment: would other forms of cheating matter? Corking bats? Pitchers doctoring the ball? Paying off umpires or opposing players?

    All these things could be hard to detect, could happen on a large scale, and would cause some players to have longer and better careers while others had shorter careers or never made it past the minors because, for whatever reason, they didn't cheat the same way.

    But most minor leaguers would try to cheat. Any form of widespread cheating will make it hard for marginal players not to join in and do what everyone else is doing.

    But if they're all bribing umpires or corking bats, the cost in lost years of players' lives is probably lower than if it's steroids. (To say nothing of peripheral costs, like if there's an increased rate of domestic violence by players taking steroids.)

    Also: there are kids who won't remember seeing Chuck Knoblauch play because HGH ended his career early, and slightly older kids who will only remember him as the guy who suddenly, mysteriously, couldn't throw straight.

    1. It's hard to say that it's cheating when it effectively wasn't against the rules during most of the time in question.

      I don't see any inherent difference, other than rules, between steroids, amphetamines, vision-enhancement surgery...and perhaps things such as Tommy John surgery, modern nutrition, pain medication, caffeine...on and on.

      If that's correct, then it comes down to rules, and I don't think it's correct to say that steroids were technically banned until, what, after 2004?

      The other things you mention are all clearly against the rules. Steroids (and pills, or the special coffee) were not, no matter what anyone thinks of them.

      *Should* steroids be banned? I'm okay with the ban. It's in the players' interest to ban anything that gives short-term gains and long-term because without a ban you'll get strong incentives to use. So there's a collective action problem solved with a ban, if those are the facts.

    2. Knoblauch? I don't know. He had a terrific two-year peak at ages 26-27, and then turned out not to be durable, which isn't unusual for a 2B. Ask Jerry Browne, or Carlos Baerga, or Edgardo Alfonzo, or Jose Vidro, Robby Thompson.

    3. And to take it a step further, there are young men who will go on to suffer various health problems because they took steroids in an attempt to make it to the majors, even though they weren't blessed with quite good enough eyes or whatever it is that separates a good hitter from a strong guy.

      The highlight of the Mitchell Report isn't "Barry Bonds took steroids?!?" It's "Chad Allen (seriously, I just picked the first name listed on the wiki page under the Radomski heading) took steroids? Wait....who's Chad Allen?" It's not that the stars take it. It's that everyone takes it, and many of them will never come close to the bigs.

    4. This never occurred to me previously, but the steroid era has to matter for the sake of baseball's equity. Did a bitter Barry Bonds start using after his extraordinary 400/400 accomplishment in '98 was overlooked for the McGwire/Sosa chase? Uncertain, but the story's plausible, fits observed facts, and...its compelling for the casual fan.

      If the steroid era doesn't matter, than Jeffrey Maier doesn't matter (because umpires have final discretion). And Bartman really doesn't matter, since unlike Maier, he didn't reach into the field of play. If steroids don't matter, then nothing matters other than the action on the field, which typically comprises around 6.2 seconds out of the 3 hour time frame for a baseball game.

      If soap operas like the steroid era don't matter, eventually the fan base splits in two: the hardcore sabermetric group, who will gladly use the 99% downtime in a baseball game to search for a new acronym to parse the game, and the other 95% of fans, who will use the 99% downtime to see what other sports are on tv. Pretty soon baseball will be about as popular as jai-alai.

  3. I mostly agree with you - I think the prosecutions were a waste and the moral panic about steroids is overwrought. I also think Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds should unquestionably be in the HOF. (I think there are some steroids users where you could make a case that the steroids should keep them out - Rafael Palmeiro come to mind. But that's more of a performance thing.)

    However, when you write the following, you lose me completely.

    "Did Clemens and Bonds use steroids? I have no idea. Nor do I care very much. It has zero effect on how I evaluate their careers.:

    This is silly - the evidence is absolutely overwhelming in both cases that they did use steroids. We only "don't know for certain" in the trivial epistemological way that we can never absolutely know anything for certain that we didn't directly experience.

    Also, it has "zero effect" on how you evaluate their career? Why? I agree it isn't the only, or even the most, important fact about their careers. But I think it's one moderately important (and moderately unsavory) fact. Given that both Bonds and Clemens performed in their early 40s at a fairly unprecedented level, I think it probably is quite relevant.

    1. But the thing is, I think, when it's one or two players cheating, that's one thing. You can keep Pete Rose out of the Hall of Fame if you want; he cheated.

      But if almost everyone's doing it, then at a certain point it become more fair to toss up your hands and say "Hey, that's how the game was played at that time" than to pick out a handful of scapegoats. Like how we don't penalize white players pre-1947 for segregation, or players of the 60's for amphetamines. Or (most) 80's players for cocaine. That was all Really Bad Stuff. But there's nothing anyone can do about it now, and it (mostly) wasn't the fault of any one person in particular. So we learn from it and move on.

      You could make a similar argument about the Black Sox, even-- throwing ballgames was epidemic back then, and Shoeless Joe and crew simply committed the most egregious known violation. But at least they DID do something extraordinary: They threw the World Series! Do we actually know that Bonds and Clemens were worse cheaters than all the other cheaters? Or even particularly heavy cheaters in the context of the game at the time?

      These are the things we don't, and can't, ever quite parse out. Since we can't, I'd rather learn from it and move on than invalidate 20 years of baseball history.

    2. Excellent post GW. I came here to make the exact points you made and now I dont have to.

    3. GW,

      I think I should backtrack on whether Bonds, in particular, used steroids. My understanding is that what he's said is not what SM said below, but close: he did not do it deliberately, but does not contest that what he took thinking it was OK was in fact steroids (the "clear"? I don't remember). I think the testimony that it was in fact steroids, however, while unchallenged because it wasn't relevant to the trial, was less than overwhelmingly convincing.

      However, I think my "I have no idea" is probably too strong.

      On Clemens, I think the evidence is murkier; we have his absolute denial, accusations and fairly unreliable evidence from the same source, some vague additional testimony, but equally vague and self-interested denials.

      As far as the Bonds late peak: what we know is that he started a serious strength program that preceded the power surge. The strength program may or may not have been aided by steroids (or, if you prefer: was probably, or almost certainly, aided by steroids). It's unknown what the effect of the strength program was generally, or the extent to which the steroids part of that mattered.

      (Not to mention that for all we know, he was using from the 1980s; I don't rule that out, either).

  4. This conversation is also interesting in light of another common conversation here: why are conservatives so irrational in support of folks like Sarah Palin?

    Following GW above - as Jonathan no doubt knows, Barry Bonds' 4 best OPS+ seasons were at ages 36-39; indeed #4 is more than 15% better than #5. I'm about 99% certain that there are no Hall of Famers with anything close to that profile.

    Thus, if we are testing the hypothesis that Barry Bonds employed unusual means to produce his age 36-39 year results, we can look at the actual data and surmise that the odds of Bonds' relative numbers happening by chance is very small; perhaps 1 in a million. As such, as statisticians we conclude that Bonds' age 36-39 years certainly did not happen by chance (i.e. "naturally") - this is the essence of statistical inference, which again Professor Bernstein of course knows.

    Why, then, do the rock solid principles of statistical inference go out the window when Professor Bernstein considers the allegations against Barry Bonds, superstar for his beloved San Francisco Giants? Probably for the same reason otherwise reasonable conservatives lose their mind over those like Sarah Palin - it stops being about intellectual factors; its basically an emotional thing.

    1. CSH:

      You make a good point. But, how do Bonds' best OPS+ years look if you factor out the ludicrous number of intentional walks that he received?

    2. That's a good question. Its too bad there isn't an easy way to download every baseball statistic ever into a couple hundred easily sortable Access databases, since that's a good question (among several hundred others), and I'm not sure an easy way to address it.

      On the age 36-39 OPS+ issue, colloquially we might think of Hank Aaron, who pulled ahead of Mays at that time in his eventual overtaking of Ruth. Aaron had one good OPS+ year at ages 36-39; otherwise he was in decline. A better comparison is probably Ted Williams, the greatest pure hitter ever, who legendarily worked on his swing for several hours every night in his hotel room. As a result of his diligence, Williams could apparently see where a fastball hit his bat well into his 60s.

      Williams had one good OPS+ year in age 36-39; 1957 when he hit .388 as a 38-year-old. That outlier result was definitely caused by an exogenous factor; we know what that factor was, he was injured that spring and thus was a bit slower in his swing that year - as a result he hit the ball the opposite way, behind the famous Williams shift, accounting for a lot of his production that year.

      In summary, as a statistical matter, something exogenous clearly occurred for Bonds at ages 36-39, as there's (apparently) only one remotely comparable data point (Williams' .388 year) and we know the exogenous cause of that result. Perhaps it was, as Jonathan suggested above, a unique strength program.

      However, aging ballplayers must have been undertaking strength programs since time immemorial. If Bonds' really worked - and didn't just work, but worked like that, it was a real missed opportunity for that guy not to monetize his secrets.

      He would have made a fortune!!!

    3. The thing is: how many players are in a position to seriously step up their conditioning at any point beyond age 35?

      Right away, you can eliminate anyone who is already maxing out their conditioning throughout their careers -- plus everyone who isn't good enough to play to age 35.

      That knocks out a very high percentage of all players.

      Of course, the other part of this is that up until around 1990, the conventional wisdom among baseball people was that bulking up like that was counterproductive (which is why baseball players mostly didn't use steroids earlier, BTW).

    4. Not to get all Jared Diamond here, but some historic baseball player must have noticed their aging body declining and compensated by increasing their workout production; if that generically worked somebody else would have caught on and it would have become SOP in baseball long before Barry Bonds arrived on the scene. I agree that there aren't a lot of 35-year-old candidates; OTOH just about every aging ballplayer steps up his physical maintenance efforts - AFAICT no one has ever succeeded anywhere near as well as Bonds.

      More Diamond: if Bonds really did tap into such a workout regimen, he, being Bonds, would surely have talked about it, and he, also being Bonds, would have had a lot of enemies around to hear what he was doing. Considering his extraordinary 36-39 yo numbers, copycats should have sprung up quickly and we should see some evidence of replication, in spite of baseball's harsher policies toward PEDs. AFAICT, there is no such evidence anywhere in the sport.

      One other thing, an aside to Gordon Danning: the problem with parsing out Bonds' IWs is that they are an integral part of his eye-popping 36-39 yo productivity. Do we just remove them from consideration? A big reason for a lot of the IWs was the fear that the alternative would be something worse. If we remove the IWs, we have to credit back some amount of "something worse", no? Since that "something worse" was conventionally big flies, its possible that Bonds' ridiculous OPS results actually go up further if you factor out the IWs.

    5. But there are players who have had late peaks; it's certainly plausible that some of those late peaks were from serious improvements in strength, fitness, whatever. The thing is: for a normal player, that would have to kick in earlier, because otherwise they'd be out of baseball before it kicked in.

      As far as the Bonds workout regimen: he did talk about it a lot. It was, by all accounts, exceptionally rigorous and therefore difficult for people to just plain imitate, just as not every guitarist is going to practice until their fingers bleed or whatever. And of course it's certainly extremely possible that he was able to do work that hard because of steroids -- but note that lots and lots and lots of players used steroids by all accounts, and none of them had similar late career surges.

      One really important thing to understand about all of it is, steroids or no, there really was a strong prejudice against bulking up in baseball, and that once that prejudice disappeared, guys got a lot bigger. Steroids were surely part of that, but only part.

  5. Anecdote: Some of my friends and I don't recognize the records Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, etc. set at all, not even with an asterisk. (I grew up in WI, so Ryan Braun's transgression is a real sore spot.) We used to love and study baseball stats, but stopped because of the steroid era. Perhaps some people won't care about steroids thirty years from now and will just regard Bonds as a great player. But that will be in part because people like me were so put off that we stopped being part of the conversation. (I'm thirty years old, so a teenager during the peak of that era, btw, not some cranky old purist. Perhaps a cranky young purist!)

    Admittedly, there is some whitewashing of history to accept some records but not others. But instead of taking Robert John Burke's route of forgiving all, I moved in the other direction of supposing one can't know who earned what legitimately, and it all goes out the window. Not everyone playing the game was to blame of course, but everyone pays some price. It's sad.

    BTW, I thought Bonds admitted to using steroids (the clean and the clear), though unknowingly? If that's right, we can be sure he took them at the very least.

    1. Steve,

      Everyone has a right to like whatever they like, and dislike whatever they like, so I wouldn't try to argue that. But as far as the logic of it: do you also refuse to recognize Aaron, Mays, and the rest of the players from the pills era? I really can't figure out any reason to count the one, and not the other.

    2. Were greenies as underground as steroids were?

      What I mean is: apparently, greenie use was enough that you can casually toss off a reference to the pills era. How much of an "unfair advantage" were pills considered then? I think that, by the 1990s, steroids were considered an unfair advantage. In that vein, it was "cheating" in a way that greenies might not have been.

      But, I don't know the answer to my question, so I don't know that that's true. Can anyone shed light on that? Were greenies so widespread that their use was simply a matter of personal preference? Or, were players somewhat secretive about it?

    3. First, thanks for clarifying on the "CREAM ('clean'? *facepalm*) and the clear" issue above.

      Second, what's this? I have to defend the logic of a view I spouted off without justification? I thought this was teh internetz!

      Regrettably, I have to plead ignorance, as I do not have a grasp of what the pills era was like nor its consequences for baseball numbers. Perhaps I would be forced, according to my own standards, to disregard the numbers from that era, as well - an unsavory consequence, to say the least.

      It's tricky - one wants fairness among players within a generation but also intergenerational fairness as well. But technologies and rules change over time, of course. Few, if any?, think we can realistically compare Rod Laver with a wooden racket to Federer with cutting edge synthetic. Similarly, technologies in swimming make it the case that intergenerational comparisons don't make much sense, either. I don't know why I demand something like it in baseball. I know I really was let down by baseball in the steroid era.

      I'll offer this perhaps paltry comment: I have a hard time believing pill-popping in the sixties was as efficacious as steroid and HGH popping in the 90's and 00's (to build muscle, prevent injury, enhance recovery, lengthen duration of peak or near peak performance, etc). Perhaps there's some relevant difference due to degree of efficacy. For my part, I wouldn't like it if every player were using steroids, and so there were no advantage in that sense. It sounds like you would perhaps be fine (from a baseball perspective) with steroids if everyone had equal access?

    4. See, the thing is, neither pills nor HGH helped the players at all. It was more a perceived benefit. Players are extremely superstitious.

      I used to wear the same socks during a monster hitting binge. Did it help?


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