Deer antlers: the hot new PED

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Given how many baseball players spend their offseasons hunting you’d think we would have heard about this by now, but this is the first I’ve heard of ground up deer antlers being used by athletes as a PED:

They harvest the so-called velvet antler (a soft coating that covers deer antlers) in New Zealand, freeze-dry it and then grind it into a powder. It then gets shipped to the United States, where it gets put into either capsules or liquid extracts that can become a simple mouth spray. You can buy it for $68 a bottle.

For the elite athlete, experts say it’s essentially a human growth hormone, one of the substances organized sports is trying to keep out. The difference here is deer antlers are natural, not synthetic, and properly discovering it in a test falls somewhere between extremely challenging to virtually impossible.

Apparently the active ingredient — IGF-1 — is one of the main proteins in human growth hormone. The author of the piece — Dan Wetzel — talks about its use being widespread in the NFL and gets quotes from the usual hand-wringing suspects about just how awful this is.  Indeed, as this story was being written I was asked to ship my personal fainting couch to the WADA offices in Montreal because they’re suffering a shortage.  It wouldn’t be so bad but everyone up there is afraid that the medication doctors prescribe for cases of the vapors might unfairly impact their job performance.

Of course, you know where all this is heading:

Freeze-dried, ground up, liquid extract, New Zealand velvet deer antlers. That’s the level the athletes will go to gain an advantage. Anyone got any good ideas how far the leagues have to go to stop it?

I suppose that question is inevitable. Seems to me that another question should be asked first, but isn’t: does the stuff actually improve athletic performance one iota?  Because HGH hasn’t been proven to do so. At all.  But of course, anti-doping groups don’t care nearly as much about that as they do about coming up with, selling and promoting the latest drug testing methods and shaming those who don’t seek their seal of approval, so it’s understandable why that’s all glossed over.

Oh well.  All I know for sure is that given what passes for reasonable suspicion these days, Luke Scott’s Hall of Fame case is in deep trouble.

No one pounds the zone anymore

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“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.

Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:

Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?

There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.

As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.