Before we begin, a related question:
Are those All Star game homer contest homers phony? Are the balls juiced? Are the bats corked? Has anyone else ever wondered. Herewith a thought-provoking letter from a reader, reacting to my column on pitchers and roids. He originally posted it several years ago.
RYAN AND SCOTT
By Bill Deane
Former Cooperstown historian
Nolan Ryan, in his prime, 25-31 (1972-78), averaged an amazing 10.08 strikeouts per nine innings. Then, ages 32-38, he dropped to 8.57 — still excellent, but consistent with the aging pattern of a well-conditioned athlete. It was during this period that his walk totals declined dramatically, and the Astros put him on a pitch-count limit, helping to offset some of the effects of age. During this period, Steve Carlton overtook him for the all-time strikeout leadership for a while.
Then in 1986 Ryan’s SO rate jumped to 9.81, his best in eight years. In 1987 his SO rate soared to 11.48, the best in baseball history to that point — and by a 40-year-old pitcher! And he nearly broke the record at age 42 (11.32), and was still well over ten at age 44! From ages 39-44, his SO rate was 10.48, better even than in his historic heyday. It was unprecedented. Ryan was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, we were told.
Meanwhile, his mound-mate Mike Scott was making history of his own. By age 30, Scott was only 29-44 lifetime with a CAREER total of 307 strikeouts. By ’86 he was almost unhittable: 306 K’s, an ERA title, a Cy Young Award, and a dominant post-season. Nobody in the 20th century had ever had 300+ K’s at age 31-plus – after never having even 150 before. He had three more very strong years before arm problems ended his career. It was all Roger Craig’s splitter, we were told, or he was doctoring the ball.
So we have two aging pitchers enjoying unprecedented turnarounds on the same team, at the same time, and it happens to be what we now realize was the dawn of the PED era.
And we’re supposed to believe it was just two freaks of nature?
‘ROIDS IN VALHALLAH –
By John B Holway
Fisk’s record raised no warning signs with the Red Sox. In his best year, 1973, he swatted 26 homers in 508 at bats. That’s 28 per 550 (I use 550 as a typical big league season). He was 25 years old. In his final year in Fenway, 1980 (age 32) he averaged 19 per 550.
Then he joined Chicago in 1981, trading a homer-friendly field for a tough one. Three years later he suddenly found new power.
Age Year ab hr hr/550 ab
35 1983 488 26 29
36 1984 359 21 32
37 1985 543 37 37
38 1986 457 14 19
39 1987 454 23 28
40 1988 253 19 41
My colleague, Gabriel, takes strong exception to this and most other conclusions in this thread. We look at the same data, and where I see footprints of a steroid user, he sees normal career patterns that can be explained without resorting to steroids. I assume that readers will probably also divide along similar lines.
Other players have had sudden career changes: Stan Musial, Carl Yastrmzski, and of course Teddy Ballgame in 1957, and steroids didn’t even exist then.
Boggs also showed a jump in his batting averages after moving to the Yankees in 1993 at the age of 35. He left Boston batting .259 then had four straight .300 years in the Bronx. In fact, he never batted .259 again – his lowest was .280 at age 40.
What do you think?
I keep putting Craig in and taking him out the urging of Gabriel. After much soul-searching, I compromised. I left out his early career and concentrated on his final years. They showed the following:
He went into 2007 needing just 70 hits to reach 3,000, an automatic ticket to Cooperstown. Could his 41-year old body do it?
It could. He got 130.
Several readers have written to suggest other players who seem “suspicious.” All I can go by are their stats. I took a look at them and my quick conclusions are:
No obvious statistical signs:
This not to say I concluded that they were clean. Just that I couldn’t find enough evidence to hang them, based only on sudden, or late, statistical jumps. I did not check out sudden weight gains. (Ortiz admits he used steroids once -by mistake, of course.)
Dennis Eckersley pitched into his 43rd year, which historically is unusual.
Dave Winfield went out with two of his strongest seasons:
Years age hr/550 ab
1991 39 28
1992 40 26
Paul Molitor did his heaviest hitting at the age of 36:
1992 35 12 Milwaukee
1993 36 22 Toronto
Barry Larkin had two power surges:
1990 26 6
1991 27 24
1995 31 17
1996 32 35
Jim Thome, who is not in Valhalla yet, had a Bondsian power leap at age 39:
2009 38 35
2010 39 70
Jim won’t be up for election for a couple more years, time for the writers to think things over carefully.
Now for the really hard ones.
San Diego’s favorite son seemed just too nice to give himself an unfair advantage. But his record shows that there were two Tony Gwynns:
years ages ba
1988-92 22-32 .331
1993-01 33-41 .349
At age 30 Tony had begun tailing off, which is normal for an athlete:
1990 30 .309
1991 31 .317
1992 32 .317
Then, shazam! It happened.
1993 33 .358
1994 34 .394*
1995 35 .368*
1996 36 .353*
1997 37 .372*
Tony came closer than anyone in 75 years to matching Ted Williams’ .406. Indeed, he said it was a batting tip from Ted that sent him off on his rocket ride to Immortality. Must have been some tip!
Caminiti later admitted to using steroids. He would die of a heart attack, possibly related to steroids and other drugs.
Before Gwynn’s election to Cooperstown in 2007, I tried to raise a warning alarm. If we’re going to find out anything embarrassing, better to find it out before a man is immortalized, not after. I was answered by indignant denials from Tony’s fans. Baseball shut its eyes. Now it’s got a problem, and there is no good way to fix it.
Finally, one more giant:
Over his long career, Hank averaged 33 home runs every 550 at bats, quite a bit below Babe Ruth’s 47. Five times between 1957 and 1966 Aaron swatted over 40 a year, each time with 590-631 at bats. By comparison, Babe slugged 60 in only 540.
In 1971 and 1973, Aaron was 37 and 39 years old, ages when other sluggers are tailing off. Instead, Hank was closing in on Ruth’s record. Babe had faced Father Time and retired at the age of 35. Aaron found a Fountain of Youth instead.
Hank’s raw totals in those two seasons were impressive enough, but they were even more so than they appear. That’s because they were slugged in less at bats, which made his averages per at bat the highest of his life.
year age ab hr hr/550 ab
1971 37 495 47 58
1973 39 465 40 47
The surges carried him to just one short of the Babe. He quickly picked that up the next spring, and went on to play through the age of 42, or seven years more than Ruth did.
Chemical help was not an issue in baseball in the 1970s, though there were hints beginning to filter out from the Iron Curtain. It was no worse than a movie actress bleaching her hair or getting a breast implant. Was it different than eye glasses, Tommy John surgery, huge fielders’ gloves, or spitballs? It would take a theologian wiser than me – an archbishop, or higher – to pronounce the degree of sinfulness involved.
Hank was trapped by a profound change in culture that no one then even foresaw.
If readers can suggest other players whose stats look suspicious, I would like to hear from you.
What’s the Solution?
You can impeach a president, defrock a priest, and even remove St George from the calendar of saints. But baseball saints?
Cliff Kachline, a former historian at Cooperstown, noted that there are too many bewildering plaques on the wall – and that was 30 years ago. His solution:
Create super Gold Plaques for Super Super Players. Ten per decade. One per year. We could quietly award the gold to men untainted by evidence of ‘roids. The others would still be on the wall – on their current bronze plaques.