The Danger of assuming someone is clean

Leave a comment

At the outset of his righteous defense of Frank Thomas’ Hall of Fame credentials, Joe Posnanski launches into discussion of steroids. The interesting part: after dealing with the usual steroid suspects, he wonders whether it’s possible to create a list of clean players, which he refers to as his “Fair Play” list:

Then there is the non-users list. The fair play list. This is a list
of players — and everyone has their own list — who we have to believe,
deep down, did not use performance enhancing drugs. How does someone
get on this list? Well, it’s tricky because just about everyone SAYS
that they did not use PEDs. And as soon as you start to celebrate
someone, someone else writes a book about him.

Still, by consensus, I would say a Fair Play List might look a little bit like this (feel free to add your own players):

– Frank Thomas
– Ken Griffey
– Greg Maddux
– Pedro Martinez
– David Eckstein
– Jamie Moyer
– Every Royals hitter since 1985.*

I love Posnanski because despite the fact that he has covered baseball for years, he always manages to take a fresh look at things, rarely if ever falling into cliche or conventional wisdom.  But in this case I think he’s off base. Not in naming those particular guys as non-users — if I had to bet money one way or the other I’d wager that they didn’t — but in engaging in the very exercise of sorting users from non-users itself.

Part of this is because we simply can’t know who didn’t use. Denials — even strident ones — have proven to mean nothing when it comes to figuring out who used and who didn’t.  Neither have body types or production (Randy Velarde, anyone? Ryan Frankin? Kent Mercker? Fernando Vina?).

But Josh Fisher of The Hardball Times points out a bigger problem than our ignorance:

The truly insidious aspect of assuming certain kinds of players did not
use is that it reinforces inaccurate notions of which players do use. By determining that David Eckstein
is a non-user because he is in danger of being blown away by a strong
wind and cannot ride some roller coasters, we add silent suspicion to
other small players with better physical tools. By identifying Jamie Moyer as a non-user because his fastball is often at no risk of a speeding
ticket, we baselessly affirm that players who throw hard are more
likely to be users. Our perceptions about what players do not use are
as inappropriate as our mental image of a the type of player who does.

While I’ve been called a steroid apologist in the past, that’s simply not true. What I’m against is (a) the demonization of PED users as profoundly evil people; and (b) the perpetuation of lazy and destructive assumptions about steroids, who may or may not use them and what impact they have on the game and the record book.  As Josh so accurately notes, any effort to make a “Fair Play List” from a pool of players who were never subject to steroid testing leads to (b) and, depending on what we write about the people on such a list, gives us cover for a lot more (a).

I see what Posnanski is trying to do here, but I think such an effort has the potential to be more destructive than helpful.  Let’s just work our way through the next decade or so of Hall of Fame votes as best we can, evaluating each player on their own merits the best we can, taking what we know — and only what we know — about their PED use or lack thereof, and leave the list-making out of it.

Mike Trout says Harper and Machado’s free agency experience sent up “red flags”

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mike Trout signed a record-setting contract extension last week, agreeing to ten more years tacked on to his existing deal at $35.45 million a year. It’s certainly nothing to sneeze at and, I’m quite sure, Trout will not lose any sleep over financial matters for the rest of his days.

One wonders, though, what he might’ve commanded had he hit free agency. If he had been bid on by more than one team. Sure, there is some upward limit to how much even a guy of Trout’s caliber might get, but you have to assume that if a couple more teams were able to get in on that action that that $35.45 million a year could’ve been topped.

Did he give any thoughts to testing the market? Maybe not serious ones, but he certainly observed the market this past winter and didn’t much care for what he saw. He said this to Fabiran Ardaya of The Athletic last night:

“I kind of saw what Bryce and Manny went through and it drew a red flag for me. I talked to Manny and Bryce. It was a tough couple months in the offseason. They put it perspective in my mind.”

He added, “I obviously want to be an Angel for life. That was a big key,” so it’s not like this was purely some matter of Trout being scared off the market. But it’s also the case that the market has become fraught for even the best players in the game and has influenced their decision making to a considerable degree. Part of Mike Trout’s decision to sign that deal was how unwelcoming the free agent market looked like it’d be even for him.

And it’s not just Trout. To see how unpalatable free agency has become one need merely look at the bevy of contract extensions agreed to over the past week or two. Each one of those, however lucrative they may be, represent a player foregoing the open market in favor of negotiating with a single bidder with greater leverage as a result. While some of those choices, like Trout’s, do not cost the players much more than, perhaps, some rounding error on his ultimate contract, others, like pre-arbitration players, are likely foregoing tens of millions of dollars in order to make a deal now instead of a few years later. And, of course, each team that signs a player to an extension is less likely to be active in an upcoming free agency period, reducing the number of bidders and thus applying downward pressure on salaries for those players who do hit the open market.

For the first century or so of baseball history the Reserve Clause ruled baseball economics. Under that system, a team which possessed the rights to a player could not be deprived of that player’s services if it did not want to be. When it came time to decide what to pay a player only one team could bid, giving it all the leverage. Then free agency came. Owners fought like hell against its implementation. They lost that battle and then attempted to roll it back as much as they could, even employing illegal tactics at times in an effort to do so, but they didn’t have much luck.

In the past two or three years, however, they have done what decades of efforts could not do: they have effectively taken away a full and open free market for players and have returned the game to a state in which the team which holds a players’ rights is, effectively, the only bidder for his services and has the power to retain him on favorable terms.

It’s not the restoration of the old reserve clause, exactly, but when the best player in baseball since Willie Mays is wary of the open market, you have to admit that it’s far, far closer to it than anyone thought the owners would ever get.