Why we can’t talk intelligently about steroids in baseball


Matthew Artus has a good story up over at NJ.com today. In it he takes Murray Chass to task for his steroids accusations against Mike Piazza.  We’ve covered that here before, but Matthew makes a grand point towards the end of his piece:

Every time we engage in a “Did he or didn’t he?” debate about PEDs in baseball, we stop debating the player’s achievements in the context of his era and his peers. While the players do themselves a disservice by continuing to stonewall efforts to understand PEDs in baseball, they also lack the incentive to do so since an admission will result in immediate expulsion and discredit from the baseball writers’ historical gaze.

If the writers won’t own up to their failure to raise the PED issue at its height and the players will not provide an intimate understanding of steroids in baseball, then how can any of us possibly ever hope to understand what we just saw? … I want to talk about the Steroids Era in baseball, not as a means to vilify players I didn’t like or to vindicate my favorites, but rather as a hope to judge baseball on its merits and in proper context

It’s a great point, and one I wish was made more often. But it has rarely been made, and the reason for this, I think, lies less with the writers themselves than with Major League Baseball.

It was Major League Baseball that decided that the most interesting and important thing about steroids in baseball was who used and who didn’t as opposed to what they meant and how they damaged the game and its users.  It did so when it commissioned the Mitchell Report which had as its climax a woefully incomplete naming of names as opposed to anything approaching a real understanding of the issue.  The writers merely took Major League Baseball’s cue in making this a gotcha game rather than a thorough understanding of PEDs and their role in baseball.

In doing so, the following topics (and many other germane ones) have been utterly ignored:

  • How often did people use?
  • Were the primary users were people who got hurt and were trying to come back more quickly? Stars who wanted to blast their way into the Hall of Fame? Minor leaguers who wanted to become major leaguers?
  • When did users actually start using? High school? College? In the minors? After making The Show?
  • Was drug use a personal thing? Specifically, did guys decide on their own, based on their own personal experiences to use steroids, or was it a peer pressure thing in which certain clubhouses promoted a “steroid culture?”
  • How did players connect with their dealers? Word of mouth, or did the dealers seek out their customers?
  • What dealers — besides the dumb ones named in the Mitchell Report who took personal checks and shipped drugs to ballparks — were the big players?
  • Were the people who didn’t use choir boys who had moral objections, or did fear of the dangers of steroids and/or a belief that they simply didn’t need them inform their decision making?
  • What impact did steroids have on actual performance, both actual and perceived?

But these questions were never answered, never asked. Indeed, the Mitchell Report and everything that has followed has evinced a profound lack of curiosity about such topics.  A lack of curiosity that mirrored the blinkered approach to the matter the press and the game took in the 1990s. To the extent we know the answers to any of these questions the information is piecemeal and, without the imprimatur of Major League Baseball, unofficial, unacknowledged and not at all rigorously researched.

But then again, the Mitchell Report was not meant to answer any questions. It was meant to stop them. To put a bookend on the p.r. disaster that Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco uncorked in 2002. To put a bookend on the steroids era itself, really, and to allow fans, the press and the government to pretend that steroids use was limited to a certain unfortunate time and to certain unsavory group of people.

In this same way, the writers’ current stance on Hall of Fame candidates — the dirty out, the clean in! — is an effort to avoid the tough questions presented by PEDs in baseball.  To impose certainty when there is none. To avoid having to ask why so much was missed before and what, exactly, should be done about it now.

Like the Mitchell Report, the current take by most of the baseball press on steroids is lazy, misleading and close to useless.  And like Matthew Artus, I wish it would stop and that we could move on to properly contextualizing this stuff.  Actually considering the merits of players who were known to use — rather than vilifying them — would be a great place to start.

2018 Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs.

Perhaps motivated by a 2017 season that underwhelmed, the Cubs did anything but stand pat. The club won 92 games, winning the NL Central, but that marked an 11-win decline from the previous season in which they won the World Series. This past October, they were knocked out of the NLCS by the Dodgers in five games. During the offseason, the Cubs signed Yu Darvish (six years, $126 million), Tyler Chatwood (3/$38M), Brandon Morrow (2/$21M), Steve Cishek (2/$13M), Drew Smyly (2/$10M), and Brian Duensing (2/$7M).

Darvish and Chatwood marked the Cubs’ answer to losing Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to free agency. Between the Rangers and Dodgers last year, Darvish posted a 3.86 ERA with 209 strikeouts and 58 walks across 186 2/3 innings. He had two solid starts in Game 3 of both the NLDS and NLCS, but he famously struggled in the World Series against the Astros. It was revealed after the fact that Darvish had been tipping his pitches. That’s something new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey must be confident in being able to fix and prevent going forward.

Chatwood, meanwhile, has spent most of his major league career with the Rockies. His numbers are underwhelming, but he has significant splits. At Coors Field, his home park since 2012, he has a 5.17 ERA. At other teams’ ballparks, he owns a 3.31 ERA. While Wrigley Field isn’t the most pitcher-friendly park, it looks like Petco Park in comparison to Coors Field. Chatwood should enjoy his new digs.

Both Darvish and Chatwood will pitch behind Jon Lester, who had his worst season last year since 2012. The lefty finished with a 4.33 ERA and a 180/60 K/BB ratio in 180 2/3 innings. Lester’s walk rate hit a five-year high, he allowed home runs at his highest rate as a percentage of fly balls, and was markedly worse at stranding runners who reached base. The 34-year-old is clearly not out of gas yet – he finished second in NL Cy Young balloting in 2016 – but things are going to get tougher and tougher the deeper into his 30’s he gets.

Kyle Hendricks returns for his fourth full season in the majors. He has quietly become one of the most reliable starters in the game. He finished third behind Lester in Cy Young voting in 2016, then followed that up last year with a 3.03 ERA and a 123/40 K/BB ratio in 139 2/3 innings. Hendricks’ fastball sits in the mid-80’s, but he uses tremendous movement and deception to induce weak contact. Comparisons to Greg Maddux are hackneyed, but they do get the point across.

Jose Quintana rounds out the Cubs’ incredible starting rotation, which probably ranks as the best in baseball. After coming over from the White Sox last July, Quintana made 14 starts for the Cubs, posting a 3.74 ERA with a 98/21 K/BB ratio in 84 1/3 innings. For a No. 5 starter, it’s hard to do better than this.

Brandon Morrow replaces Wade Davis as the Cubs’ closer. The oft-injured right-hander has been a lights-out reliever when he’s healthy, but he has racked up a total of 59 2/3 innings over the last two seasons and is entering his age-33 season. Thankfully, the Cubs do have a handful of capable relievers who could step up and close out games if Morrow were to succumb to an injury again. They include the aforementioned Cishek and Duensing as well as Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Justin Wilson, and Mike Montgomery.

On offense, the Cubs have the same lineup. Willson Contreras will start behind the plate, backed up by either Chris Gimenez or Victor Caratini. Last season, Contreras hit a solid .276/.356/.499 with 21 home runs and 74 RBI in 428 trips to the plate. He has also become one of baseball’s better defensive catchers, showcasing a powerful arm. His caught stealing rate was right at the league average (27 percent) but it would be higher if his pitching staff were better at limiting the running game.

Perennial MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo returns to first base. He had a nearly identical year to 2016 as in both years he hit 32 home runs and knocked in 109 runs. He posted a slightly lower OPS, at .899, but stole 10 bases and scored 99 runs. Rizzo also brings with him a fine defensive acumen at first base, an often overlooked and undervalued skill.

Javier Baez, one of the most fun players in baseball to watch, will once again handle second base for the Cubs. He hit .273/.317/.480 last season with 23 home runs and 75 RBI in 508 PA. Like Rizzo, Baez also flashes some good leather at his position – emphasis on the word “flashes” as he’s a very flashy defender as well.

Addison Russell has been quite good for the Cubs in his three seasons, but his bat was underwhelming last year. He hit .239/.304/.418 with 12 home runs and 43 RBI in 385 PA. He battled plantar fasciitis, which almost certainly impacted his output. When healthy, he’s among the best defensive shortstops in the National League and can be more capable with the bat as well.

Rounding out the infield, 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant reprises his role at the hot corner for the Cubs. He followed up his MVP season by hitting .295/.409/.537 with 29 home runs and 73 RBI in 665 PA last year, finishing seventh in MVP balloting. His HR and RBI totals weren’t as prodigious as they were a season prior, but thankfully we live in a time where those are not the only barometers by which we measure players. His OPS was slightly better at .946 compared to .939 and come out about identical with adjusted OPS (143 to 146) which factors in ballparks and league quality. In a league that also includes Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, and Justin Turner, it’s impossible to say Bryant is unequivocally the best third baseman in the NL, but there’s at least an argument to be had.

Kyle Schwarber will cover left field for the Cubs. Normally, that would’ve been a setup for someone in the comments to make a fat joke, but Schwarber is a more svelte man now, having lost about 20 pounds over the offseason. He hopes that will translate to better defense and more impact with the bat. Despite hitting 30 homers and knocking in 59 RBI last year across 486 PA, Schwarber had a pedestrian .211/.315/.467 batting line.

Center field appears to be a platoon including Albert Almora and Ian Happ. The right-handed Almora hit a solid .298/.338/.445 in 323 PA last year. The switch-hitting Happ blasted 24 home runs with 68 RBI in 413 PA last year. He is following that up with a tremendous spring, hitting .342 with five home runs and 10 RBI in 38 at-bats.

Jason Heyward returns to right field. He’s been something of a disappointment after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs in December 2015. Over the past two seasons, he has a meager .669 OPS, but he has made up for it by playing Gold Glove-worthy defense in right field. According to FanGraphs, only Mookie Betts and Adam Eaton have been better defensively in right field than Heyward over the last two years. The Cubs would, of course, love it if Heyward were to figure things out on the offensive side of things, but they have more than enough offense out of the other eight spots and Heyward carries his weight with his glove anyway.

The Cubs also have Ben Zobrist, who functions as a super-utility player with the ability to play seven positions. The 36-year-old struggled mightily at the plate in 2017, batting .232/.318/.375 in 498 PA, but it was his first down year of his career. It’s not a trend yet and, at any rate, Zobrist is a tremendous asset off the bench.

This Cubs roster doesn’t really have any weaknesses. As mentioned, Morrow’s health is always a question, but the Cubs will be able to deal with that situation easily should it arise. Compared to their other NL Central competition, this is a very complete and deep roster. FanGraphs is projecting 94 wins while PECOTA has them at 92. I’m a little more optimistic.

Prediction: 96-66, 1st place in NL Central