Countless articles have been written about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and baseball. Users have been called cheaters, while the decline in offensive production across Major League Baseball has been tied to a perceived decline in PED usage. In Milwaukee, specifically, the poor performance by Ryan Braun in 2014 — a .266/.324/.453 slash line in 580 plate appearances — was celebrated as irrefutable evidence that his former MVP-caliber performance was nothing but a mirage.
It’s been well-established that Braun struggled with nerve issues in his hand/thumb last year, which prevented him from even keeping both hands on the bat through impact. The fact was largely ignored by many. I talked about Braun’s bad habits that developed because of the injury. I also suggested that his early-season slump would subside and the 31-year-old would pick it up. Since April 28, Braun is hitting .300/.373/.543 with 24 home runs — a .916 OPS that is eerily close to his career .913 OPS.
In other words, Ryan Braun can still rake.
Those leading the PED witch hunts now have to cope with the fact that the Brewers’ right fielder hasn’t tanked post-PEDs. This poses significant problems for the PED narrative. How does one hold that Braun’s numbers during his prime were a sham, now that he’s once again performing near his career norms? Does one plug one’s ears and ignore this season? Does one push in all the chips and baselessly assert that he must be back on the juice? How does one pick and choose which negatively-testing players are actually positive without defaulting to dislike or he fits the narrative?
What this entire discussion ignores, though, is that Ryan Braun is not the only wrench in the whole post-PED argument. Many of the highest-profile hitters who have been connected with PEDs in the past are tearing the cover off the baseball this year. Alex Rodriguez, the league’s favorite anti-hero, recently launched his 32nd homer and has a 137 OPS+, which is only five points below his career average. Nelson Cruz moved to Seattle, one of the worst offensive environments in the majors, and has 42 home runs. Furthermore, David Ortiz is nearly 40 years old and is hitting .273/.361/.555 with 35 home runs.
Those are just four prominent names. We could talk about Melky Cabrera’s red-hot second half or how Jhonny Peralta has a better OPS+ in St. Louis (110) than he had during his stints with Detroit or Cleveland. But I want to focus on the quartet of Braun, A-Rod, Cruz, and Ortiz because they’re the most prominent members of the recent league-wide PED scandal.
One of the counter-arguments that could be presented against the picture I’m trying to illustrate is that home run totals do not necessarily reflect true power. Braun, Ortiz, and Rodriguez all benefit from short porches in their respective home fields. The batted-ball data quickly dispels that line of thought.
|Player||Dist. (ft)||Rank||Velo. (mph)||Rank|
All four players rank amongst the league’s leaders in average batted-ball distance and batted-ball velocity. To put A-Rod’s 29th-place ranking in velocity in perspective, he ranks 29th of 315 batters who have at least 100 at-bats with velocity readings — so he’s still in the elite nine percent of the league by that measure as a 40-year-old third baseman.
One could, I guess, do some mental gymnastics and try to invent a way for these four to be taking PEDs without being caught, despite higher testing rates than the rest of the league. But if one won’t accept negative tests as acceptable evidence, then one must do the same with the remainder of Major League Baseball and no player is clean. Perhaps one assumes that a player is always dirty because he was that way in the past, but that’s nothing more than a moral judgment and isn’t grounded in anything verifiable.
At some point, the baseball community must realize that hitters hit. It seems likely that a player’s usage of performance-enhancing drugs in the past didn’t increase his hitting ability by much, which creates some cognitive dissonance. If something was illegal or against the rules, then it must significantly increase performance. Maybe. But it’s also possible that PEDs did nothing more than keep players on the field and off the trainer’s table. This doesn’t even address the fact that pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, yet we assume the PED problem is gone because the “power” has declined — when the power has seemingly transitioned to the mound.
All of this most directly pertains to the Hall of Fame and guys like Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, and Roger Clemens. In the next couple decades, however, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz will become eligible for the Hall of Fame. Ryan Braun may claw his way into the discussion, depending on his next half-dozen years, but one has to imagine his PED usage will at least impact his chances for the Brewers’ Walk of Fame.
It will be interesting to see how the PED discussion evolves over the next decade. As more “tainted” players have great years post-PEDs, baseball writers and Hall of Fame voters may recalibrate their stance on steroids and be more willing to vote for them. Likely, the conversation will transition to the character clause, rather than the actual numbers, because the real issue is that PED users took something away from us. When they admitted guilt, were connected to PEDs or tested positive, they took away the innocence of watching Barry Bonds’s record-breaking season or the home-run battle between McGwire and Sosa. The positive tests and media leaks stripped away the joy and left us with skepticism.
I don’t think Braun, or many other players, will be forgiven for that — no matter how much data is amassed after PED suspensions. The Brewers’ right fielder is 33 percent more valuable at the plate than the average major leaguer this year because gifted hitters don’t forget how to hit, nor do they become endowed with significantly increased power because they took banned substances. Hitters hit, and Ryan Braun is still one of the best hitters in the National League.