Why I discount PED use in HOF evaluation

The idea that McGwire is a step above Palmeiro certainly isn’t an uncommon one, but I’m far from certain it’s a correct one. McGwire was certainly a fearsome hitter who hit home runs like few other players in baseball history. His career .263/.394/.588 batting line is outstanding, as is the career 157 wRC+. From a purely offensive standpoint, Palmeiro’s .288/.371/.515 slashline and 130 wRC+ are obviously a step behind McGwire, but, while I certainly won’t endorse the “McGwire hit home runs and didn’t do anything else” line of argument you sometimes hear brought out, in some ways Palmeiro was superior at the plate to McGwire. His batting average is obviously better, but that’s trivial to this discussion. McGwire drew a fair amount more free passes than Palmeiro, thanks in no small part to an impressive number of intentional and un-intentional intentional walks he earned at the height of his mashing, but he also struck out in more than his share of at bats, and Palmeiro’s career strike out rate (11.2%) is just a little more than half that of McGwire’s (20.8%).

In other words, while McGwire could put a hurting on a ball like few players in history when he got a hold of one, Palmeiro was markedly better at putting the bat on the ball consistently. And with 1,192 career extra base hits and 569 home runs, Palmeiro wasn’t exactly the second coming of Slappy McNutt out there.

Of course, offense isn’t everything for a player, even for a slugging first baseman, and once you look at aspects of the game other than hitting, Palmeiro clearly stands above McGwire. The most striking difference is in defensive value, where both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs credit Palmeiro with being roughly 70 runs better than McGwire over the course of his career. Palmeiro was also much better at staying healthy than McGwire which, while not necessarily a true skill, is nonetheless a not unimportant aspect of value. A player on the disabled list isn’t helping his team, and McGwire played in at least 150 games only three times after his age 28 season, while Palmeiro played in fewer than 150 games just three times after his first full season at age 23. Those three seasons? 2005, his final season, and 1994 and 1995.

Add it all up, and I’m frankly not surprised that both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs have Palmeiro slightly more valuable for his career in terms of WAR, and the idea that McGwire would be a Hall of Famer without steroids while Palmeiro wouldn’t frankly lacks any sort of objective basis, to me. In fact, the very premise that PEDs are so effective that they can take a non-HOF caliber player and allow him to put up Hall worthy numbers seems completely dubious to me, and to be blunt, such a premise is way outside of the scope of what we know about the effects of steroid usage. At best, the player who was pushed over the threshold would have to have a “natural baseline” of being a borderline Hall-of-Famer to begin with to get such a boost from PED usage.

And also, just to play devil’s advocate, given that one thing we certainly do know about anabolic steroids is that they make you stronger, and considering that, without question, McGwire’s most valuable attribute was his raw power, I think it’s actually much easier to make a case that, absent any PED usage, Palmeiro would likely be the superior player of the two (considering their respective injury histories unchanged, anyway).

To sum it all up, the “this player wouldn’t be Hall-worthy without ‘roids” premise seems superficially fair and nuanced, but getting below the surface it seems far too similar to the old “he just doesn’t feel like a Hall-of-Famer” chestnut to me, and I absolutely despise that standard. And that’s why, though I certainly understand the desire to try to find a nuanced way to view this question, ultimately I don’t think there’s any way to apply such a standard in anything approaching an objective or scientific fashion.

And that’s why, if I had a vote, I’d vote based on performance, full stop, and pay no mind at all to the PED usage question.

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

21 thoughts on “Why I discount PED use in HOF evaluation

  1. lazlosother

    Agreed. I've thought from the start that there is no way to go back and parse PED use – and if we try, shouldn't we then root out the players who used coke, greenies, doctored baseballs, corked bats, etc.?

    The approach you lay out is the only sane one.

    • BrienJackson

      I think you can *maybe* do it with truly marginal players, by which I mean that if a player is a borderline Hall of Famer in your mind AND a steroid user, then there's nothing wrong with discounting him due to PED use, but the arguments that say Palmeiro wouldn't otherwise be a HoF'er without PED use simply ascribes a much larger effect to steroid usage than we know is possible. His numbers are REALLy good.

  2. Tomas

    The problem that I have with Palmeiro is the picture of him shaking his finger at Congress, and not too long after thatgetting caught with steroids in his system.

    As to HOF, I feel that WAR is as good a point to start as any, and my personal baseline is 50 WAR total career, I'll think about it, and 75 WAR for his career should be a slam dunk first ballot HOF.

    • Eli

      I don't think the method you propose for WAR as a measure for HOF is adequate. Example Jeff Bagwell has a carrer WAR of 79.9 yet, I don't think his numbers make him a "slam dunk first ballot candidate." While at the same time Joe Torre with a WAR of 55.6 is not and should not be in the HOF as a player.

      • BrienJackson

        Bagwell is a slam-dunk first ballot HoF'er, not that the rigid formulation is necessarily a great idea. It's a pretty decent benchmark though.

      • Damian

        Yeah I think Bagwell is a slam dunk as well. Look at the numbers. Higher OPS+ than a lot of HoFers, including a lot of no doubt HOFers. Even compared against corner-position defensive players from whom excellent offense is more of a requirement, he measures up just fine.

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Tomas, yours is a good comment, so please don't think that I am picking on you. But Palmeiro was not caught with exogenous (artificial) anabolic steroids in his system. The testers cannot pluck molecules of exogenous anabolic steroids out of an athlete's urine sample, for the simple reason that on the molecular level exogenous anabolic steroids are chemically and atomically identical to endogenous (natural) anabolic steroids that we all produce through our natural biochemistry.

      Testing for anabolic steroids is based on various theories regarding POPULATIONS of anabolic steroid molecules. The best of these theories has to do with the carbon atoms that are a major component of anabolic steroid molecules. Most carbon atoms are C12 atoms, meaning that they contain 6 protons and 6 neutrons. But a few carbon atoms are C13 atoms, and fewer still are C14 (carbon 14) atoms. The theory is that exogenous anabolic steroid molecules contain fewer C13 atoms than do endogenous anabolic steroid molecules. The difference in C13 atoms is very small in any case, but it can be measured (a tricky business, but it can be done if it's done carefully).

      Some (including me) have argued that this theory is not perfect, and that there can be reasons other than doping why an athlete might have fewer than expected C13 atoms in his anabolic steroids. But in any case, it's not accurate to say that Palmeiro was caught with artificial anabolic steroids in his system. It's better to say that measurements performed on Palmeiro's urine sample were consistent with the possible use by Palmeiro of artificial anabolic steroids. In simpler terms, it's possible that Palmeiro never doped.

      • Sabrina

        Larry your explanation of carbon is really good. the carbon on the periodic table is a sum of the isotopes of that carbon which is c12,c13,and c14..hence has an average mass number. The testing is faulty because carbon can be the backbone of a steroid molecule or a glucose. I know im adding too much to your explanation but its the future doctor in me lol

        • LarryAtIIATMS

          Sabrina, my explanation above is wildly oversimplified, as I'm trying to make a point about what these tests actually show. But for you, a future doctor, I can give a slightly fuller explanation. As a rule, testing for anabolic steroids looks at characteristics of various anabolic steroid metabolites. The testers are not measuring the proportion of various carbon isotopes generally present in an athlete's urine samples, but are only looking at these proportions in specific metabolic substances found in the urine. In other words, they're not looking at glucose. Yes, there's always the danger that some of these metabolites may be breakdown products from chemical substances other than anabolic steroids, but at least the testers try to narrow their focus to the stuff that actually matters.

          More specifics: what the testers try to do is to compare carbon isotope ratios for anabolic steroid metabolites to the carbon isotope ratios for similar substances naturally produced by the body. As the old saying goes, we are what we eat, and the carbon isotope ratios for the chemicals we produce are related to the carbon isotope ratios in our food. These ratios are not necessarily the same as the average mass number shown on the periodic table. For example, most plants prefer C12 over C13 and C14, and will naturally contain less C13 and C14 than you'd expect from the average mass number for carbon. Some plants like corn do not exhibit this preference, so big corn eaters will naturally have more C13 in their systems. Reportedly, artificial anabolic steroids are manufactured from soybeans, a plant that prefers C12. So in theory, the metabolites of artificial anabolic steroids should be lighter in C13 than metabolites of other similar chemicals produced by the body from the food we eat.

          The flaw I see in this theory is that it is too simple to account for the complexity and diversity of human biochemistry. In the real world real humans seem to produce metabolites that vary in their C13 content even without using PEDs. Even when humans take artificial anabolic steroids, the C13 content varies between different metabolites of these artificial steroids.

          I wrote an absurdly long piece about this once upon a time. But the take-away lesson is a simple one. We don't test for the presence of artificial anabolic steroids. We test for a characteristic of metabolites of anabolic steroids that we believe is associated with the use of artificial anabolic steroids. This belief probably holds true in the majority of cases, but may not hold true in every case.

          I hope this makes things clearer. At least for you!

          • Sabrina

            Yes it does. In essence you are saying the test proves nothing. I like your absurdly long pieces. They make sense!

          • LarryAtIIATMS

            If you like my absurdly long pieces, you'll LOVE this one:
            http://trustbut.blogspot.com/2008/08/larrys-last-

  3. Al Bundy

    I agree that trying to guess what a player's number would be without PED's is a horrible way to do this. It is also unsatisfying to simply look at their numbers due to the decent chance that the PED's allowed some of these players to accumulate many more PA's in their career then they otherwise would have had. However, there is no way you can accurately perform the "discount" that Calcaterra (and others like Heyman) use as their measuring stick. So I say you have to just go by the numbers. It's still the closest guess we have to their true ability.

    The ballot is going to be a giant mess very soon if some of these guys aren't voted in. It will be even harder for guys like Raines and Edgar and Bagwell to gain votes when the huge names come on the ballot and some of the writers will not have enough room on their 10-man ballot to include Raines and Bagwell and Edgar along with Clemens, Bonds, Maddux, etc. Even if the PED guys only get 40% of the vote, that will still result in some deserving guys getting pushed off enough 10-man ballots to make a difference. In other words, not voting for the PED guys will not only keep them out of the HOF, but by allowing them to linger on the ballot and soak up 40% of the vote every year, it will hurt the chances of other guys like Raines, Edgar, Mussina, Schilling, Smoltz, etc as well.

  4. Frank S.

    I agree with you completely, Brian, that PEDs should be ignored altogether, as there is no reliable way to account for their effect. But one other thing that troubles me here is this notion that there is a known list of players – Bonds, Palmeiro, Clemens, Giambi, A-Rod – who are "PED guys," while everyone else is not. But how do we know? Certain guys were named in the Mitchell report. There's the list of 177 that no one has ever seen. There are guys like A-Rod who had the misfortune of being the target of a sportswriter with an obvious ax to grind. And there are also guys that everyone suspects but were not named or ever "outed" in some other way (e.g., I-Rod, whose head and body seemed to baloon and then deflate).

  5. Frank S.

    (continued from above) Look, I love Bagwell and Edgar, but how do we know they were clean? I think everyone who played in the era and had any semblence of a muscular physique is under a cloud of suspicion, which is sad. But that also means that when it comes to HOF consideration, the PED "effect" — if any — has to be ignored for both those who are "known" PED users and those who we just can't know about. Which means pretty much everybody. If a writer wants to keep Clemens and Bonds out of the HOF — or Palmiero for that matter — do it because they committed perjury, which is a crime — not because of the fact that they took steroids.

  6. Boni

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought taking steroids was a crime. It just wasn't a crime that mattered because it wasn't explicitly against the rules of MLB. Plaxico Burress didn't break the rules, he was just an idiot, and if you want a baseball reference, the names Lenny Dykstra and Doc Gooden com immediately to mind. Ty Cobb may have committed murder, right? Do crimes actually keep people out of the hall or perhaps just limit their ability to perform because of physical damage (drug use), or jail terms. This subject is too shifty to squarely hit with the moral sledge and quite frankly I come down on the side of measuring the players of the PED era against each other in a league relative context (I'm pretty sure that's already been done) and maybe culling based on historical data suggesting the number of HOF players that an era is capable of producing. It doesn't make sense to put them all in if that means a significant abberation in, let's say, HOF'ers per decade, but PED use is such a marginal boost that it only makes sense that the best get in. I hope everyone gets over this soon. I mean, there's compelling evidence that Ruth used a corked bat. Kenny Rogers cheated in a playoff game on national TV in '06. WTF?

  7. Mister D

    While I appreciate your point of view, it is no more objective and scientific than the one you criticize. Since you can't tell who used steroids, you are going to ignore the fact that some players cheated, and essentially pretend that it is right to put heavy users on the same level as those who never touched the juice. I hate to break it to you, but as much as I support the use of advanced stats in baseball, HoF worthiness is a qualitative and subjective judgement. Lie to yourself if you must, but your method is no better than any other.

    • BrienJackson

      Un-scientific? Sure, I suppose. There are never going to be enough studies on the effects of roids to really know how to adjust for their impact (and don't forget the impact on pitchers/defenders as well), so there's really no such thing as a scientific means to evaluate it. But subjective? I don't think so, in so much as I'm not striving to make any distinctions between different classes of users.

      Also too:

      "Since you can't tell who used steroids, you are going to ignore the fact that some players cheated, and essentially pretend that it is right to put heavy users on the same level as those who never touched the juice."

      Since you don't know who used and who didn't, there isn't anyway to sort these two groups out conclusively.

      • Mister D

        The decision to place known steroid users on the same field as other players is itself a subjective decision, just as is the decision to keep out all players from that era, or the decision to punish players a writer suspects used. __Again, your vote, your rules. I don't take issue with that. I do take some small issue though with characterizing Craig's system as "too unscientific", implying that yours is somehow more scientific. That's all nonsense. There simply is too much unknown here to have a sound, empirical decision making process that does not depend on an arbitrary, personal decision on how to treat known and suspected PED users. The great veil of uncertainty that cloaks this era of baseball is, for me, its greatest frustration.

  8. DAGlazer

    It seems to me that what steroids enabled hitters to do was hit for both average and power. Prior to the steroids era, very few players could do both. I have read that steroid use could improve eyesight and reflexes. Thus, players were not only stronger, but could see better and react quicker to pitches.

    When we look at Palmeiro as a young player with the Cubs, he had no power, but was an accomplished hitter. He even lead the NL in singles one year. The Cubs traded him because they did not think that he would develop power and Mark Grace was ahead of him. So, it is plausible that Palmeiro had a potential 3000 hits type bat, but the real question is whether or not he would have received the playing time necessary to reach that number without the power he gained from using steroids.

    • BrienJackson

      I don't know. He hit for reasonably good power in the minor leagues, and like all other forms of this argument, it seems to assume players just started taking steroids in the mid-90's even though we know they were in the game at least as early as the early-80's. Which is to say that it just begs the question of why Palmeiro waited until his 6th full season in the big leagues or so to start juicing.

  9. PrinceNasim

    I don't think steroids should be a factor in HOF voting in any case. It's the "Hall of Fame" not "Hall of Morals" Cheating is defined as: "Act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, esp. in a game or examination" Like someone else pointed out, other current HOFers had been caught cheating and were still enshrined, whether it was corked bats or loading the baseballs. Wherever there is any sort of competition in life there will always be people looking to beat the system. After steroids there may be other "upgrades" that can be done to the human body (pills like in the movie "Limitless" or chips implanted in the brain that turn the body into a 100% efficient machine, etc) My point is that cheating is a part of life and will never be 100% eliminated. If you are going to allow some cheaters into the HOF then it is not fair to draw the line at a specific form of cheating, like steroids use.

    Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, etc were all good for baseball, they put people in the seats and made games interesting. Sure they manipulated the "purity" or "morality" of the game but then again the game is not the same as it was when it was first invented, there have been variables added to give/take away advantages to certain players (higher mound, different strike zones, etc) and now we have a few extra playoff teams. All I'm saying is that a juiced Barry Bonds made the game much more entertaining with his mammoth home runs that the Barry Bonds in his Pittsburgh days when he was a 5-tool player (and for the record I definitely believe that Bonds would have made the hall regardless of his steroid use, maybe not break the home run record but his talent was undeniable)

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