Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Thoughts on Biogenesis and PED-Users Becoming All-Stars

In case you haven’t heard, the big news in baseball this week is the Biogenesis suspensions. After investigating the Florida-based clinic, MLB came up with a list of fourteen players to suspend, plus a few other names cleared.

Ryan Braun was suspended a few weeks ago. Monday saw the suspensions of Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, Everth Cabrera, Antonio Bastardo, Jesus Montero, Francisco Cervelli, Jordany Valdespin, Fautino De Los Santos, Jordan Norberto, Cesar Puello, Fernando Martinez, and Sergio Escalona. In addition to those thirteen, Alex Rodriguez is appealing his own suspension (which, for some reason, is three to four times harsher than every other player involved, but that’s another can of worms), while Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, and Yasmani Grandal were all cleared of additional wrongdoing (all three were given suspensions last year).

Everyone likes to focus on Rodriguez and Braun, as they are the biggest names involved. Even Cruz and Peralta are drawing attention, thanks to playing key roles on pennant teams. However, I think the other names on the list are what make it interesting.

I’m going to be honest, there were players on this list that I have never heard of, and I consider myself a passionate baseball fan. I just somehow had never come across Jordan Norberto, Sergio Escalona, or Cesar Puello until their names turned up. That made me think, though.

See, everyone likes to think that the games all-stars are all drug users, or at least, that’s what it feels like. Why else would people accuse players like Chris Davis or Jose Bautista of using steroids based on nothing more than hitting home runs? People like to think that we’ve identified a “prototypical juicer”, if you will. In theory, this player hits a lot of home runs and plays at an all-star level, for a start. However, any objective look at steroids seems to tell us that’s not the case. Look at the list of players suspended for testing positive, for example. So far, that list contains 46 players with major league experience on minor league rosters and 31 Major Leaguers. Of those 77 players (prior to Biogenesis), only 10 had ever been All-Stars (and that includes people like Edinson Volquez and Ryan Franklin, hardly anyone’s usual definition of an All-Star). That seems like fairly convincing evidence that steroids don’t turn players into All-Stars.

The Biogenesis Suspensions provide us with another interesting cross-section of players, though. In case you think MLB’s tests are missing All-Stars for whatever reason (I’ve seen some people remain unconvinced for reasons like the Ryan Braun appeal, for example), let’s look at a basic breakdown of players caught in Bud Selig’s tangled web.

In total, seventeen players wound up being investigated and tied to some sort of drug on MLB’s banned list (Danny Valencia and Gio Gonzalez were apparently also investigated and cleared). There are several ways we can break down these players, but one of the more interesting ways for our purposes would be to look at former All-Stars versus everyone else.

All-Stars: Rodriguez, Braun, Cruz, M. Cabrera, E. Cabrera, Peralta, Colon
Non-All-Stars: De Los Santos, Escalona, Norberto, Bastardo, Grandal, Cervelli, Montero, Puello, Valdespin, Martinez

That comes out to seven former all-stars out of seventeen. Those seven players account for 28 All-Star selections, although half of those belong to A-Rod alone. Either way, seven out of seventeen seems like a lot; it’s over two-thirds, at least (41.2%). So obviously, it’s fair to assume All-Stars are more likely to be PED-users, right?

Except being an All-Star is much more common than you’d think. For example, a simple search of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index turns up 265 active All-Stars, and that’s not even counting players who may one day become All-Stars.

Or, to put it another way, let’s use a year that’s already well behind us. For example, in the year 2000, 291 players who would at some point be all-stars played in at least 20 games; 862 players in total played in at least 20 games. That works out to about 33.4% of players in the game eventually becoming all-stars. For what it’s worth, if one fewer Biogenesis player had been named to an all-star game in their career, it would be a virtually-equal percentage of players (35.3%). I feel like that’s well within the margin of error, especially since we’re dealing with a small sample size to begin with.

To put it another way, I compiled a Fangraphs custom leader board of the implicated players. Ten of the batters tied to the clinic have played in the pros this year; they’ve been worth an average of about .88 Wins Above Replacement across 61 games. To be fair, the games played total is hurt by thing like injuries and demotions, but at the same time, aren’t two of the benefits of PEDs supposed to be improved play and health?

Even if you want to expand the window, the result doesn’t come out too rosy for PEDs. Say you want to look at the three full seasons prior to this. Now, I have no idea what timeframe these players supposedly used from, but the eleven major league hitters in that three-year window averaged only 5.14 WAR, or about 1.7 Wins per Player per Season. Even with Ryan Braun’s 2011 MVP campaign, the group as a whole couldn’t even average starter-level production.

The pitchers don’t fare much better; only Colon and Bastardo have pitched in the majors at all this year. From 2010 to this season, the five have combined for 10.7 Wins, almost all of it from Colon and Bastardo. That comes out to something like half a win per player per season, production that wouldn’t even make for an above-average reliever.

This is not at all exhaustive, but it touches on something that has irked me. Some fans like to leap to conclusions about players using drugs based on nothing more than performance. Players like Jose Bautista and Chris Davis have had their names dragged through the mud more or less under the reasoning of “steroids=dingers”. While it may feel like only the best players get caught, that’s more a form of selection bias than anything. The Biogenesis scandal turned up almost exactly the number of All-Star players you would expect given the number of players that were named and the percentage of players that become All-Stars each season. The players that MLB’s testing is catching are at a rate well below even that.

This isn’t to say that the drugs do or do not help players. We can’t know how a player using drugs would have done without them, although I think that there are convincing arguments that the common perception is wrong, or at least the perception that steroids are a baseball miracle drug. I also think MLB has actively hurt itself in an attempt to actually determine what these drugs do and how best to fight them; if anything, their approach has only hurt the sport, by both leading fans to actively speculate on whether current players use drugs without any evidence to go on, and by giving steroids the reputation of being said miracle drugs without much hard proof to support it.

The former is the problem I’m addressing here, though. For as much as some people say that they can spot a steroid user just by how well the player is doing or laugh off players that fail while taking drugs as oddities, there doesn’t seem to be a noticeably higher rate of drug-users becoming All-Stars when compared to the general population of Major League Baseball, at least from the groups we have to look at.

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