Statistical Blips and Possible Steroid Use

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Dugout Central has run a couple of very long, but quite interesting pieces the past two days entitled “Statistical Blips and Possible Steroid Use.”  Part I is here. Part II is here.  The premise, very crudely put, is that the remarkable thing about the PED-implicated players of the current era is not necessarily the raw number of home runs they hit — eras and ballparks and equipment change, after all — but the deviation from the baseline, be it their own established norms or league averages.  “Blips” is the term author Bill Wellman uses, as in “Barry Bonds averaged 41 homes a season outside of 2001, so his 73 that year was a “blip.”

What Wellman does is to look at blips throughout modern (or at least post-WWII) baseball history, not just the post-1987 (i.e. Jose Canseco) period.  Why?  One reason is to figure out how much the numbers really were inflated by steroid use in the generally accepted “steroid era.”  The short answer is that, yes, there’s a clear bump post-1987, as you might expect.

But a far more interesting reason for his research is to determine if 1987 and the emergence of Jose Canseco truly represented something new or if, alternatively, there is any evidence suggesting a gradual increase of PED use — or at least “blips” — over time.  Wellman thinks this is important — and I do too — because it seems nonsensical to simply establish a 1987 starting date for “the steroid era” based on when Jose Canseco showed up.  Steroids existed before Canseco. We even know of baseball players who used them before him.  It stands to reason, therefore, that they were in the game before Canseco arrived.

In light of this, Wellman breaks down the post-war period into three separate eras — The Improbable Era (1946-90); the Anecdotal Era (1961-86); and the Steroid Era (1987-present) — and tries to figure out what effect, if any, PEDs may have had on home run totals.  he then goes on in Part II and breaks down the blips of multiple famous players, including Hank Greenberg, Carl Yastrzemski and the usual, more modern suspects, in many cases wondering whether or not PED use could have played a role in the blips.

I find the raw data interesting.  I’m less sold on some of Wellman’s speculation (though it should be noted that he’s not throwing bombs here).  Players aren’t automatons who can be expected to perform at the same level every year.  Fluke seasons happen.  As do seasons when Major League Baseball quietly experiments with things like lively baseballs, as it certainly did in the 1930s, almost certainly did in 1987 and is rumored to have done post-1993.  Weird things happen, so just because something odd occurs doesn’t mean something nefarious is going on.

But the general conversation is a worthy one.  While new names continue to emerge, for better or worse, we are still very much in an era where people cite statistical anomalies as evidence of PED use.  If we’re going to continue to do that — and if we’re going to make Hall of Fame decisions based on such anomalies — we should at least be more thorough in doing so.

Wellman tries todo that here.  His work in this regard is not perfect, but it is a start, and for that reason I recommend that anyone interested in the subject take a look.

UPDATE:  I had not seen this when it first ran three and a half years ago — I actually had a life then and wasn’t blogging about baseball yet — but apparently Baseball Prospectus’ Nate Silver did this sort of thing back in March 2006.  And, I might say, did a better job of it. 

Still, I think Wellman’s piece is worth reading, if for no other reason than it appears that people decided to ignore Silver’s findings that players back in the day were just as likely as modern players to have fluke seasons, spikes, blips, or what have you.

The 2017 Yankees are, somehow, plucky underdogs

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There’s a lot that has happened in the past year that I never, ever would’ve thought would or even could happen in America. Many of them are serious, some are not, some make me kinda happy and some make me terribly sad. I’m sure a lot of people have felt that way in this oddest of years.

There’s one thing in baseball, however, that still has me searching my feelings in a desperate effort to know what to feel: The New York Yankees are the postseason’s plucky underdogs.

This is not about them being lovable or likable — we touched on that last week — it’s more about the role they play in the grand postseason drama. A postseason they weren’t even supposed to be in.

None of the three writers of this website thought the Yankees would win the AL East or a Wild Card. ESPN had 35 “experts” make predictions back in March, and only one of them — Steve Wulf — thought the Yankees would make the postseason (he thought they’d win the division). I’m sure if you go over the plethora of professional prognosticator’s predictions a few would have the Yankees squeaking in to the postseason on the Wild Card, but that was nothing approaching a consensus view. Their 2017 regular season was a surprise to almost everyone, with the expectation of a solid, if unspectacular rebuilding year being greatly exceeded. To use a sports cliche, nobody believed in them.

Then came the playoffs. Most people figured the Yankees would beat the Twins in the Wild Card game and they did, but most figured they’d be cannon fodder for the Indians. And yep, they fell down early, losing the first two games of the series and shooting themselves in the foot in spectacular fashion in the process. Yet they came back, beating arguably the best team in baseball and certainly the best team in the American League in three straight games despite the fact that . . . nobody believed in them.

Now we’re in the ALCS. The Astros — the other choice for best team in the American League if you didn’t think the Indians were — jumped out to a 2-0 lead, quieting the Yankees’ powerful bats. While a lot of teams have come back from 0-2 holes in seven game series, the feel of this thing as late as Monday morning was that, even if the Yankees take a game at home, Houston was going to cruise into the World Series. Once again . . . nobody believed in them.

Yet, here we are on this late Wednesday morning, with the Yankees having tied things up 2-2. As I wrote this morning, you still have to like the Astros’ chances given that their aces, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, are set to go in Games 5 and 6. I’m sure a lot of people feel still like the Astros’ chances for that reason. So that leads us to this . . .

It’s one thing for no one to have, objectively, believed in the Yankees chances. It’s another thing, though, for the New York Yankees — the 27-time World Champions, the 40-time American League pennant winners, the richest team in the game, the house-at-the-casino, U.S. Steel and the Evil Empire all wrapped into one — to officially play the “nobody believed in us” card on their own account. That’s the stuff of underdogs. Of Davids facing Goliaths. Of The Little Guy, demanding respect that no one ever considered affording them. If you’re not one of those underdogs and you’re playing that card, you’re almost always doing it out of some weird self-motivational technique and no one else will ever take you seriously. And now you’re telling me the NEW YORK FRIGGIN’ YANKEES are playing that card?

Thing is: they’re right. They’ve totally earned the right to play it because, really, no one believed in them. Even tied 2-2, I presume most people still don’t, actually.

I don’t know how to process this. Nothing in my 40 years of baseball fandom has prepared me for the Yankees to be the David to someone else’s Goliath and to claim righteous entitlement to the whole “nobody believed in us” thing.

Which, as I said at the beginning, is nothing new in the year 2017. I just never thought it’d happen in baseball.