By Father Gabe Costa
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Mr. Jacob Carpenter is another student presently taking a course on sabermetrics. In this installment of By The Numbers, he doesn’t mince words as he looks at some “controversial” numbers.
There comes a time in every baseball player’s career when age, or sometimes an injury, will get the better of him. Most players accept this fact and continue to play their beloved game until teams in the big leagues no longer find them useful. This is something that they accept with pride as they leave the league with their heads held high. Other players, however, refuse to accept their inevitable defeat against time by taking advantage of “extra help” to extend the prime time of their careers.
I began my research by considering home run hitters known for alleged steroid use. Easily enough, I found many players to be used for my analysis. After collecting data on 14 players “in the mix,” I was able to quickly see a common theme in most of their single-season home run statistics.
On average, most big hitters would either hit a peak in their home runs or begin to fall or plateau around the five-year mark. This seems reasonable, and we could realistically assume that many players in Major League Baseball reach a similar plateau in their respective specialties within a given time frame.
The odd thing about the 14 players I have studied, however, is that after a short drop or plateau after the first “relative maximum,” these players were either able to dramatically increase their season HRs and their career HR average (CHRA) for a number of years, or they were able to sustain their performance from that point on.
I will highlight two sluggers: Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.
The possible use of steroids was associated with McGwire during the 1989-90 offseason, after which Big Mac hit 39 HRs in the 1990 season. There was also an alleged connection with steroids after his injury in 1993-94. We saw a rapid increase until 1998 when he hit his record-high of 70 HRs, during a season which ultimately led to more controversies.
The second graph shows how his career home run average changed over time. Notice the peak around the five-year mark and how it holds steady until the 10-year mark, where he begins to greatly increase his CHRA.
A career average statistic, (CAS) in my opinion, is a very powerful metric because it is very hard to change the longer one’s career endures. For typical players, we expect to see an increase in a CAS in the first few years of play until they begin to plateau. It is reasonable to say that they can sustain this level of play for a few seasons until they start to become unfit for the game. as compared to the younger, more able-bodied players around them. At this point, we would see a decrease in their CAS until they eventually retire.
With “extra help” users, we do not see a plateau. We see their careers extended instead of declining. In McGwire’s case, he peaked, sustained and eventually increased his CHRA.
Bonds also had a relative HR peak around his five-year mark. He was able to sustain his numbers until his 10th season — at which point there was a significant increase. His CHRA differs from McGwire’s, however. Instead of a peak-sustain-peak pattern that McGwire had, Bonds’ CHRA shows a steady increase throughout his entire career (minus his last three seasons).
Performances such as McGwire’s and Bonds’ season HRs or CHRA with a peak-sustain-peak pattern — or Bonds’ constant increase over a two-decade career — arouse suspicions in both viewers and the people associated with Major League Baseball.
I recognize and admire the hard work that professional athletes put toward their sports, but I am realistic when it comes to age and the ever-present clock that continues to tick against these players.
When athletes put up numbers that transcend the factors of age and time, it is hard to deny that something fishy went on.
Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…