Friday, August 6, 2010

The inevitable A-Ro(i)d Post

For a few weeks now, Sportscenter (and ESPN as a whole, really) has done what we as American sports fans have come to expect in our sports programming: find a noteworthy athlete nearing a milestone, and start covering his or her every move until the milestone is finally surpassed. We’ve seen it every time. Brett Favre is nearing retirement? Guess we better watch him teach a third-string quarterback at an obscure high school about footwork in the pocket. Alex Rodriguez is nearly at 600 home runs? How about even more unnecessary coverage of the Yankees? As if we weren’t already fed with an excess of news about the Bronx Bombers.

But shoddy media practices aside, I’d like to take a step back and ponder: what does number 600 mean for baseball? The plateau raises a number of questions: how long will it be until we see another member of the 600 home run club? What should we expect from A-Rod, given his magnificent production thus far in his career? And the most obvious: what does it mean to have a confessed juicer in the record books?

The first question isn’t too difficult to tackle. Jim Thome is stuck at 577, and Manny Ramirez isn’t too far behind at 554. But Thome’s role and power are both diminishing with age, and at 39, his chances of reaching the milestone are fast diminishing. More surprising is the sudden disappearance of Man-Ram’s power. After hitting 19 homers in 352 at bats in 2008 after suspension, Ramirez has hit only 8 dingers through 220 plate appearances in 2009. At 38, age is definitely a factor here. Or maybe it’s the lack of human chorionic gonadotropin in his system. We’ll address that later. (On a side note, for some reason, the hCG diet is making a comeback as of late. Perhaps it’s all the press Manny gave it?) Either way, our chances of seeing another member of the 600 club looks pretty slim for the time being, after we got to watch Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez cross the barrier over the past few years. Albert Pujols, at 393 homers at age thirty, is well on his way – but then again, Ken Griffey Junior was supposed to break Hammerin’ Hank’s all-time record. It’s just too early to predict whether a player like Pujols or Miguel Cabrera will reach 600 or even the magical 762 (somehow, that doesn’t sound as good as 755). But he’s got a pretty clear shot at it.

The second question? Well, A-Rod’s contract has him playing till age 42. Considering the number of home runs he needs to pass Bonds to take the all-time record, he can afford to decline steadily after a few years of good production, and still overtake Barry. For the bulk of his career, A-Rod’s WARP (wins above replacement player, an advanced metric of a batter’s performance that measures how many wins a player contributed to his team over a hypothetical minor leaguer) has fluctuated between 4.2 and 11.0, usually staying in the higher end of that range – 7’s, 8’s and 9’s. WARP numbers that high mean A-Rod certainly merits his place among the greats, but the scary part is this: A-Rod may already be on the decline. Think about it: from a traditional perspective, A-Rod’s posting career lows in batting average, slugging percentage, and on base percentage (if we exclude the 1995 season he played partly in Seattle). His WARP this year is at 2.1, putting him on pace to have one of his lowest WARP’s of his career, if not the lowest. A-Rod is in decline, no doubt about it. Will it be enough to stop him from breaking the all-time home run record? Probably not. But you can’t expect too much more than that out of him – and that’s one seriously successful career.

So we come to the last question of the three – the A-Roid question. Is there something wrong with having a juicer hold baseball’s most coveted record? Or at least in joining the select 600 club? After all, we have Barry “flaxseed oil” Bonds up there. Well, I know Arjun agrees with me in that we have no problem with juicers holding those records and making it into the Hall of Fame. And in fact, I’m not sure that PED’s are the biggest reason Bonds and A-Rod amassed such numbers.

My first argument is that the Hall of Fame (and these records) are for good players, not good people. If the objection to PED’s comes from the fact that these are harmful substances, then we can throw out every Hall of Famer who chewed tobacco (a large proportion of the Hall). Is it because PED use brings back the concept of the prisoner’s dilemma? (Imagine two players. It is in both players’ advantage to not take PED’s, but if one takes PED’s then he’s at an advantage over the other. Thus, both end up taking PED’s ‘just in case’ the other one does.) Is it because this pressure hurts the health of both players? Perhaps there is a point to be made there in the opposition to steroid use, but this has no effect on whether the steroid use actually tainted the production that created the new record. And if there’s a moralistic point-of-view, let’s throw out Ty Cobb and the scores of early players who were also viciously racist and shockingly bigoted by modern standards. It’s horrifying to think about some of the terrible things that early “stars” did and said, and to me that’s much more disturbing than Alex Rodriguez or Roger Clemens injecting HGH or another substance into their bodies.

And secondly, what effect does steroid use actually have? I’m a huge fan of JC Bradbury, author of The Baseball Economist, and his book offers some ridiculously insightful commentary on the situation. Baseball has always fluctuated between eras of hitting domination and pitching prowess (see the 2000 Rockies and 1968 Dodgers for further evidence). Part of this has to do with the natural dispersion of hitting and pitching talent. It’s pretty self explanatory – if pitching talent is more dispersed while hitting talent remains constant, then there are more low-quality pitchers in the league who face the top hitters, and offensive numbers are inflated. The same concept also works in reverse. So as an alternative to the explanation that PED use and PED use alone caused a spike in offensive numbers, let’s look at the explanatory power of the dispersions. Bradbury analyzes the OPS’s and ERA’s of players over every relevant time period, and uses the coefficient of variance for each as a measure of their dispersion. Both are roughly constant at first, but a few events in baseball history cause certain changes. Around the 1990’s however, the talent dispersion of pitching began to widen quite a bit. And what do we call the years after that? The Steroid Era. More good hitters had a chance to feast on substandard pitching, say the data, and that’s why offensive numbers seem bloated.

But hold on! Are we essentially just chalking up a decade or two of huge production, which came alongside the emergence of PED allegations, to nothing but a bit of chance? Not at all. In fact, there’s a clear reason why this pitching talent got more dispersed. In 1993 and 1997, the MLB went through two rounds of expansion, opening up more spots in the league for players who otherwise would not have cracked a big league roster. But with expansion, shouldn’t hitting talent get dispersed too, increasing pitching numbers as well? In fact, it did! Strikeouts for pitchers have gone way up, with many fireballers passing the 300 strikeout mark throughout the past few seasons. Perhaps we can call this era the “mediocre competition era,” if anything.

Now this isn’t to say that PED use had no effect on A-Rod or any other player that used PED’s. It’s just important to note that while A-Rod did get his 600th as a confessed juicer, it’s pretty ludicrous to think that he wouldn’t have reached the mark pretty soon even without the drugs. Sure, the number loses a bit of its shine, but the fact of the matter is that the story of number 600 is not so much the one of a cheater fallen from grace, gaming the system, but much more the story of a great player who continues doing great things on the diamond. So enjoy ESPN’s media circus now, because it may be a while until we see another member of the 600 club.