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.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 18:  Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles celbrates hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning during a baseball game against the against the Tampa Bay Rays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  The Orioles won 2-1.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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With each division now spoken for, our attention now turns to the Wild Card races. The Blue Jays hold a one-game lead over the Orioles for the first Wild Card slot in the American League while the Orioles have a one-game lead over the Tigers for the second slot. The Jays and O’s will do battle on Thursday night and each of the four other teams alive in the AL Wild Card race are rooting for the Jays to win. The Yankees and Astros can both be eliminated from Wild Card contention if the Orioles win one more game or if they each lose one more game. The Mariners are also active in the Wild Card hunt, currently two games behind the Orioles.

Over in the National League, the Giants have a one-game lead over the Cardinals for the second Wild Card slot. The Giants get to play the Rockies while the Cardinals face the lowly Reds. The Mets, who currently own the first Wild Card slot, have the night off.

Asterisks denote that the game is relevant to the Wild Card.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

*Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ New York Yankees (CC Sabathia), 7:05 PM EDT

Chicago Cubs (Rob Zastryzny) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (Ivan Nova), 7:05 PM EDT

*Baltimore Orioles (Ubaldo Jimenez) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Marcus Stroman), 7:07 PM EDT

Philadelphia Phillies (Jeremy Hellickson) @ Atlanta Braves (Josh Collmenter), 7:10 PM EDT

*Cincinnati Reds (Dan Straily) @ St. Louis Cardinals (Alex Reyes), 7:15 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Kyle Gibson) @ Kansas City Royals (Danny Duffy), 7:15 PM EDT

Tampa Bay Rays (Chris Archer) @ Chicago White Sox (Jose Quintana), 8:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Julio Urias) @ San Diego Padres (Christian Friedrich), 9:10 PM EDT

*Oakland Athletics (Kendall Graveman) @ Seattle Mariners (Ariel Miranda), 10:10 PM EDT

*Colorado Rockies (Jon Gray) @ San Francisco Giants (Johnny Cueto), 10:15 PM EDT

Who should win the MVP Awards? Who will?

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 20:  Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs bats during the second inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on September 20, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cardinals defeated the Cubs 4-3. (Photo by John Konstantaras/Getty Images)
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With the regular season ending on Sunday and most of the playoff spots locked up, there’s really only one big thing left to argue about: postseason awards. So let’s spend some time looking at who should win each of the four major awards and who will win them. Which are often totally different things. First up: The MVP Awards. 

Who should win the AL MVP Award? 

We at HBT have tended to lean toward the idea that the best player should win the MVP Award, regardless of whether his team wins or not. It’s not an iron-clad thing, of course. In the past I’ve supported some more narrative-driven MVP candidates and, more importantly, deciding who is “the best player” in an objective sense is not always a cut-and-dried endeavor. Defense is an inexact science. Players often have competing apples and oranges arguments for their candidacies.

If you look at “best overall player” this year, however, it’s hard to say that Mike Trout and his line of .318/.441/.556 with 29 homers and his usual solid-to-outstanding center field defense is not that guy. Yes, his team stinks, and no, his 2016 season isn’t head and shoulders above any number of his other excellent seasons, making him a less-than-sexy choice in a lot of ways. But it’s hard to stand head and shoulders above uniform excellence and no matter what you think of stuff like WAR and all that goes into it, Trout has a 1.5 WAR lead over Mookie Betts according to FanGraphs and 1.3 according to Baseball Reference. It’s a pretty significant separation, especially when you realize that, dang, Betts is having a whale of a season himself (.320/.365/.538).

Still, Trout isn’t a unanimous pick even with the HBT team, which has it this way:

Craig: Trout
Bill: Trout
Ashley: Betts

Who will win the AL MVP Award?

There has been a lot of talk about Betts and his teammate, David Ortiz, splitting the vote, as it were. Maybe that was a thing that happened more often back in the day when narrative-driven awards were more common, but I think today’s BBWAA voters are way more savvy than that. I think that Ortiz will get some votes thrown his way by virtue of his outstanding offensive season (.316/.401/.622, 37 HR, 124 RBI) and the storybook ending to his career, but I think Betts will ultimately carry the day with the better overall and all-around performance. MVP PREDICTION: MOOKIE BETTS.

Who should win the NL MVP Award?

There are a lot of guys putting up years that, under different circumstances, would be MVP worthy. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, Nolan Arenado, Daniel Murphy, Joey Votto and Corey Seager are all having outstanding campaigns. Most of them are bunched up as far as WAR goes, more so with Baseball-Reference.com’s version, a little less so with FanGraphs. Bryant leads both versions and is putting up outstanding offensive numbers. Murphy, Freeman and Votto are hitting a tad better than him depending on how you measure it, but have less defensive value. Seager’s mix of defense and offense may be closer to what Bryant is doing, although Arenado might have something to say about that. There are a lot of good choices.

Bryant is the best choice, however. His hitting — .293/.387/.560, 39 HR, 101 RBI — is better than the other all-around candidates and his defensive versatility — he’s played all three outfield positions as well as his usual third base — sets him apart. He’s been the best player in the NL this year.

Craig: Bryant
Bill: Bryant
Ashley:Bryant

Who will win the NL MVP Award?

This is one of those years where I suspect our views will match that of the voters. MVP PREDICTION: Bryant, possibly unanimously.