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…. Just the facts, ma’am

Over at Baseball Musings, I found a link to Arthur Devany, who explains that there haven’t been any more home runs hit than expected over the last several years, that steroids couldn’t possibly be the reason for the feats of McGwire, Bonds and Sosa, and that our fearless leaders in Congress couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag without a pair of scissors and an instruction booklet, in this paper. The paper is long, very statistics-heavy, and dense with references and calculations. His conclusions and relevant arguments can be found here. Here’s a taste:

…. I went through the last Senate hearings on steroids in baseball and had thought that at least Jim Bunning would have some understanding of the issues. He is, after all, a Hall of Fame player from the not-too-distant past.

Here is what he had to say in his opening remarks to the hearings. I quote only part of it.

Senator Bunning’s statement puts it this way: “I remember when players didn’t get better as they got older. They got worse. When I played with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and Ted Williams, they didn’t put on forty pounds of bulk in their careers, and they didn’t hit more homers in their late thirties than they did in their late twenties…I’m willing to trust baseball, but players and owners have a special responsibility to protect the game. And they owe it to all of us to prove that they are fixing this terrible problem. If not we will have to do it for them.”

He doesn’t define the “terrible problem” but presumably it is the pace at which new records in home runs were set over the 1999 to 2001 period. It turns out that he is wrong on even the simple factual assertions he managed to make, aside from the leap to a conclusion and the speculation he states in other parts of his testimony. Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth did not go into a steep decline; they sustained a high level of home run hitting far beyond modern hitters like Maris, McGwire, Sosa, and perhaps even Bonds, though we have yet to see how his career goes. Nobody, so far as I can discover, put on forty pounds, except players of the past many of whom drank rather than trained as modern players do.

On this shallow basis, he is ready to write laws that dictate how a player may treat his body. A strict violation of the Constitution and the rights that any person should possess, irrespective of profession. For what? Because he feels he must “protect the game.”

The other evidence in the hearings was garbage. The Chairman of the meetings, Tom Davis had this to say: “After the 1994 MLB players strike, rumors and allegations of steroid use in the league began to surface. Since then, long standing records were broken. Along with these broken records came allegations of steroid use among MLB’s star players. Despite the circulating rumors of illegal drug use, MLB and the Players Association did not respond with a collective bargaining agreement to ban the use of steroids until 2002.”

He wants to legislate because there were rumors and allegations. That is no evidence. Where is the evidence? There is none in the record of the Committee hearings.

This is Senate reasoning, an Orwellian blend of puffery and demagoguery. If this is how the Senate reasons on a relatively simple matter, the laws they pass in more complex areas and the governance of this country are in question.

…. I take up the matter of steroids more directly and also such possible influences as “hotter” baseballs, altered ball parks, smaller strike zone and find them all to be lacking. They do not stand up to verifiable tests or statistics. And they shouldn’t because no explanation is required. There has been no increase in MLB home run hitting. Three home run hitting geniuses appeared in a brief time span and will soon be gone. Enjoy them and don’t look for explanations when none are required. The law of home runs and extreme human accomplishment that I develop tell us that we never know when this kind of genius will appear, only that it will be rare and intermittent.

On the matter of steroids, it turns out that body builder muscle hypertrophy induces a change in muscle fiber composition that reduces speed and power. Steroid-aided muscle hypertrophy would be conterproductive to home run hitting. More mass is helpful since kinetic energy is proportional to mass. So, the trick is to add a bit more mass without shifting muscle fiber composition from FTb/x to FTa or ST fibers or messing up swing mechanics and timing. The latter are clearly far more important, as illustrated by Babe Ruth’s last home run.

The Babe hit one of the longest home runs of his career in his last game, when he was already weakened by the cancer that would eventually kill him. He hit it all the way out of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, over the roof of the upper deck in right field. No one had ever done it before. I am trying to find out if anyone has done it since. If you know, let me know.

For those of you who don’t want to read the whole paper, here is the conclusions section.

…. There is a lot of speculation about steroid use in MLB, but the evidence is mostly anecdotal, misleading and incomplete. It is surely not an adequate basis for public policy to 1. assume that there is an increase in home runs, and 2. to assume that steroids are the explanation. The first statement is incorrect, there has been no increase. That makes point two vacuous. There is no need to invoke an external explanation like steroid use when there is no change to be explained.

The same law of home runs holds now that held 40 years ago. Year to year differences in home runs require no explanation; they are all within the variation of the outcomes under the stable probability distribution of home runs. The burst of new records does not require an external explanation like steroids; they are part of the pattern that comes from the nature of the law of home runs.

The pace of new records in recent years is due to the extraordinary accomplishments of three prodigious hitters. We have lucky enough to see three Babe Ruth’s in this generation. Hitters such as these may never appear again. You cannot take an ordinary player and turn them into home run hitters of the accomplishment of Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa by dosing them with steroids. It may even be harmful. Home run hitting of that magnitude is human accomplishment at its highest, as incomparably rare as the work of Einstein or Wagner.

Even greater performances are possible because the long upper tail of the law of home runs gives them positive and non-vanishing probability. The law of home runs says that the probability that Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs would be broken is 0.0109, about one in a hundred. Given enough time and hitters, it was almost sure to fall. Barry Bonds’ record of 73 will be harder to break. The probability that his record will be broken is 0.007206, about seven in a thousand.

I have just started reading the whole thing, anything pertinent or revealing will follow. But just read his conclusion; “The same law of home runs holds now that held 40 years ago. Year to year differences in home runs require no explanation; they are all within the variation of the outcomes under the stable probability distribution of home runs.” His paper goes to great lengths, at one point explaining how the same number of home runs per at-bat were hit during 1961 (Maris) and 2001 (Bonds).

He also explains that during Ruth’s home run explosion, the HR record was broken several times in a short span of time, demonstrating that once a record is breached, it becomes more available, much like what happened when Roger Bannister finally broke the four-minute mile barrier. Another factor that needs mentioning is that the game conditions that make it favorable for a record to fall also make it possible for it to fall several times.

He goes on to look at home runs per hit, a measure that he feels has the most importance:

…. I chose home runs per hit to get a sense of whether or not current hitters hit with more power than earlier hitters. Home runs per hit strikes me as a good measure of this; if hitters are more powerful, then of the hits they do get, more of them should be home runs. I want to note that technique has improved markedly over the years. Now, most players have well-schooled and soundly technical swing mechanics and that is a factor in generating power. Ballparks have changed too. And, to some extent, so have bats. Even though they are still made of wood, they can be made of denser wood and their design can alter the moment of inertia, a factor in power production. So, whatever you read into the statistics reported in the paper regarding power, technique, or steroids you must keep those factors in mind.

…. The stellar performer is Mark McGwire from the very beginning of his career in 1987*, nearly a third of his hits were home runs. *(italics mine)

…. Why do all the attempts at explaining an increase in MLB home runs seem to fail? I think it is because they are attempting to explain something that has not happened. There are no more home runs in baseball than before when the problem is properly analyzed. Once the number of games and other variables are factored into home run productivity and the random nature of home run hitting is taken into account, there is no change.

Excellent, detailed, and dense, Devany’s work is a must-read for anyone who wants to engage in this debate. Which means that no one in Congress or the mainstream media will read it, of course.


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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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