By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Steroids really do make you stronger

We’ve had a lively discussion going on in the comments section as to whether steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs actually improve baseball players’ performance. The bottom line: studies of major-league statistics are inconclusive.

But I think we’ve been looking at the wrong thing. As this well-sourced Wikipedia article makes clear, steroid use builds muscle and increases “baseline strength” by somewhere between 5 percent and 20 percent. All things being equal, a baseball player would rather be stronger than not.

I’m old enough to remember the stories about Carl Yastrzemski‘s punishing workouts following the 1966 season, which enabled him to up his homer total from 16 to 44 during the Red Sox’ “Impossible Dream” year. And there’s a reason that Jim Rice had 382 career home runs to Jerry Remy‘s seven. Strength matters, and it always has, long before steroids became available.

But now factor in another 5 percent to 20 percent in chemically induced strength. Granted, some will be able to translate that into more home runs or a harder fastball and some won’t. But to argue that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire et al. would have done just as well without steroids strikes me as silly. We know their enhancements made them stronger. That has to count for something.

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  1. Bill H.

    It seems to me that the best testimony for the effectiveness of steroids is that, despite the penalties, some players continue to use them. Bonds and Ramirez, to name just two, had to know that, even without steroids, they were going to be good enough to make the Hall of Fame as well as a ton of money. Why would they risk the shame, monetary punishment, etc., especially so late in their careers, if steroids didn’t work?

  2. mike_b1

    For heaven’s sake, it’s never been a question of whether steroids make one stronger. But did you read all the other very real changes that have affected play in the past decade — not the least of which was the JUICED BASEBALL? Bill, you should read Nate Silver’s piece on the economic incentives behind PED use. It’s an interesting opinion piece.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: Yes, but you make it sound like one negates the other.

  4. bob gardner

    As Nietzche said during the dead ball era, pretty much anything which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. So what’s the flow of the logic here? As best as I can reconstruct it, it goes like this.1. Steroids make you stronger, undoubtably.2. This increase in strength has produced a change in the rate of home run hitting that is somewhere between inconclusive and undiscernable.3. Therefore, this inconclusive change has turned the game into a farce.Am I missing a step in your argument?

  5. endangered coffee

    And, Did steroids have any more of any effect on the game than amphetamine use, which every retired ballplayer admits was pretty much used by everyone from the 60s through the 90s? Yet, somehow, steroids are seen as the BIG EVIL, while the pill popping goes by with an oh, sure, everyone did it, no big deal.

  6. GFS3

    There’s no doubt steroids give you a better chance of hitting homeruns. Look at Brady Anderson.But I do agree with Mike that the one neglected crime of the MLB was juicing up the baseballs.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    GFS3: I don’t think it was neglected. I recall much talk, with MLB always denying it. But it was so widely understood that I think it’s one of the reasons McGwire and Sosa got a pass in ’98.

  8. Nial Liszt

    Baseball’s All-Enhanced Team from NY Daily News.

  9. matteomht

    I just can’t get beyond the fact that steroids make your gonads shrink to pea-size. Yes, under medical supervision perhaps some steroid use is safe and beneficial for some– but yeesh, I can’t imagine that’s the case for most users. Just steer clear of the damned stuff.Or, I suppose, we could adopt mandatory steroid use and settle this ridiculous debate once and for all.

  10. mike_b1

    Mike: Yes, but you make it sound like one negates the other.Dan, and you seem to want to dismiss that which doesn’t fit the “steroids inflate homers notion” and you effectively are saying that legions of number-crunchers are wrong, and you are right.More data to pore over (you are reading these, right?):From April 2005; key passage: ” [T]here have been two bigger drops in home run rates in April the past ten seasons and that’s verified by the information above. Using HR/PA as the metric, the April decline of .0030 HR/PA last year ranks as the sixth biggest drop since 1973 (the 2002 plunge–in the middle of the “steroid era”–of .0055 was the biggest). In absolute value, it actually ranks as one of the smaller differences from the previous season, meaning that the transition from 2004-2005 was one of the smoother of the past 33 years. In percentage value, the ranks are very similar. Rather than an unprecedented collapse of power, the drop in home runs from 2004 to 2005 is actually rather routine. … Briefly recapping, we’ve seen offense is down across the board, the weather this April was a little colder than last year, the vast majority of returning regulars are hitting slightly fewer home runs, there are more new players hitting fewer home runs than new players in previous seasons, and the change in April home run rate is well within the established variance in baseball over the past 3+ decades. It’s the last point that’s the most telling: this April is just like many other Aprils of years past.” March 2006; key passage: “Sometimes a very good power hitter will turn into an insanely great one, as Bonds and McGwire did. But this is no more common today than it had been previously. The players who have been most responsible for the Juiced Era home-run boom are the middle-of-the-road players: those guys who used to hit 15 or 20 homers a season and are now hitting 25 or 30.”

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: I think we’re (1) all in agreement that steroids make you stronger. And I’m pretty sure we all (2) agree that strong guys hit more homers than weak ones.So even though there are all kinds of non-steroid reasons you can point to in order to explain variability in home runs, it really doesn’t matter.Unless you want to dispute points #1 and #2, then steroids absolutely must account for some increase in homers, aside from whatever other reasons you want to cite.

  12. LFNeilson

    There’s a bigger question: Long-term health concerns. The primary concern in banning the use of anabolic steroids is to discourage people, especially kids, from using them. The unfair competitive edge has validity, but the health problems are the driving issue. Okay, you can be a big star and make millions. But what are you going to tell your liver when it doesn’t want to work any more?

  13. bob gardner

    Point number (3) Dan is that there is an accurate record of how many home runs are hit and there don’t seem to be many more hit when there are steroids being used than when they are not used.But I’ll concede that your logic is irrefutable. So I propose that we look for whoever is undercounting those home runs which must have been hit.I know it sounds a little far-fetched, but I can’t find a flaw in your logic. My gut feeling is that we will find that the culprits who are miscounting home runs are people who are already unpopular for other reasons.

  14. mike_b1

    Dan, who is the strongest guy in MLB? Is it A-Rod, who is on track to break the all-time HR record? Or better, Ken Griffey Jr., who for the better part of his career looked like Rick Burleson could beat him up? Is Chase Utley (6’1/200, 140 HRs in 2840 ABs more or less stronger than Grady Sizemore (6’2/200, 117 HRs in 2832 ABs), who is bigger but has about a season’s fewer HRs in the same number of ABs? How about Carl Crawford (6’2/215; 71 HRs in 3921 ABs) or Benjie Molina (5’11/225; 126 HRs in 4059 ABs), both of whom are bigger but have far fewer HRs per AB? Varitek always looked like a strong guy to me…he doesn’t hit many homers…. Pedroia slugged almost .500 last year and he’s smaller than your picture.Just a question.

  15. Bill H.

    So, Mike, what are you saying? That steroids have NO effect on home runs or run production? I’m not sure that anyone–or at least I’m not–is arguing that bigger necessarily means more home runs, just like smaller means no power. Hand-eye coordination, proper mechanics, etc., all play important roles, but steroids enhance strength, which affects bat speed, etc. If a little guy who would ordinarily hit 5 home runs a season takes steroids and hits 10, his production has been markedly increased, just as if Bonds would ordinarily hit 40 and after the juice hits 45, that is a remarkable increase. My point is, I guess, that steroids–along with innumerable other factors–have a significant effect on anybody’s statistics. Or am I misreading your point?

  16. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: If you agree with my two points, above, then your question is kind of a non sequitur. The question is whether a particular player will hit more homers if he is stronger. In most cases, the answer will be “yes.”I say “most” because steroids might not help a line-drive or ground-ball hitter that much — not to mention a guy who can barely make contact.

  17. Nial Liszt

    Maybe the steroid advantage presents itself at the other end of the swing. The added strength is not used to swing harder but to swing quicker. Hitting for power is a trade-off between bat speed and bat control. A harder swing is useless if it is out of control. But if you can swing quicker and are able to wait on a pitch an extra, say, two or three hundredths, it moves the ability to process the pitch information slightly in the batters direction on the Batting Practice – Randy Johnson continuum.

  18. Amused

    1. I have seen no evidence that steroids alone make someone stronger. As I understand it, they enhance the benefits of vigorous exercise.2. Being stronger may well turn doubles into home runs. But one must still put bat on ball and do it squarely. I know of no steroid or performance enhancing drug that accomplishes this.3. Let’s just organize a ‘roid league, let them get as big as they want and bash the ball all over the place. So they damage themselves. So do the participants in those martial arts sports and they’re popping up on the fake sports channels faster than Billy Whosis and his toll-free number. My bet it it would last about as long as the XFL.4. As long as Big Charley O’Connell and blonde bombshell Joanie Weston were steroid-free, I can deal with any name you may care to throw out as a steroid abuser.

  19. The Arranger

    The argument that sometimes a smaller person will hit more home runs than a bigger person hardly goes to the point. Obviously, strength is not the ONLY factor in homerun hitting. One can point to Tim Wakefield and argue that velocity isn’t that important in pitching, but no one will believe you.The argument that steroids cannot help someone put a bat on a ball who otherwise cannot may or may not be true. Clearly, steroids do not improve the basic hand-eye coordination that is required in hitting. But if steroids can improve bat speed, its can help hitters “catch up” to fastballs they otherwise may not be able to hit, or allow the batter to wait on a swing slightly (due to the greater bat speed generated), allowing a “longer look” at a pitch. These two factors could increase the “contact” rate.If steroids increase baseline strength by 5-20 percent, that would seem to be significant, even at the low range of the estimate.I think the case for amphetamines being a performance enhancer are thinner. In Ball Four, Jim Bouton, a pitcher, said he found they gave him a false sense of confidence but no real physical advantage. I think “greenies” were generally used as “pep pills,” to allow a tired or hung-over player to perform when he otherwise would be below peak. Performance enhancing? Perhaps, but not in the “change the shape of the game” way steroids are believed to be.Bob in Peabody

  20. Mike from Norwell

    Greenies do “help” in that you are wired. Don’t think that they are going to change your abilities, just make you more alert (and also do some things that an ordinary non hopped up individual would do).Remember being up in Montreal to see the Who at the old Forum in ’80, and the day after we decided to head over to watch les Expos take on Pete Rose and the Phillies. This is the second or third game of the season in the afternoon, so attendance (and significance) is sparse. Foul ball gets hit to third base side and Rose playing third dives headlong into the dugout to get the ball without a care in the world. Of course, in that stadium the home dugout was on the third, not first base side. Greenies at work (fortunately he didn’t break anything unlike Mo’s infamous first game in CA).

  21. mike_b1

    Bob in P:The data show that swings and misses have increased over the past decade. That could be because:1. Hitters are so “strong” (DK’s term), they can’t time the ball well2. Pitchers are juiced up and throwing the ball right by the hitters3. Everyone is swinging for the fences, drugs or no drugs4. Other as yet unidentified causesGoing back to Dan’s hypothesis, in all likelihood, it’s just noise. Dan says: “The question is whether a particular player will hit more homers if he is stronger. In most cases, the answer will be ‘yes.’ “But the data don’t show that more homeruns are being hit. So…either players aren’t stronger…or stronger players don’t hit more homeruns.

  22. Mike from Norwell

    Mike, let’s end the sideshow that we all seem to be disagreeing on, namely home runs. Stats or not to prove whether steroids have an impact are useless (when we can’t even identify who was and who wasn’t on the juice, any sabermetric study itself is nothing but noise to begin with – how do you clarify the population who was using and was not?). Did remember that from my stats classes and more importantly beyond when things were a little less academic with real money on the line (GIGO – Garbage in, Garbage out).If this stuff has no impact, think back to Occam’s Razor: if it is nothing more than a placebo, why are so many athletes with access to the highest end trainers on this stuff? There must be some effect.

  23. The Arranger

    mikeb1:I agree that if both pitchers AND hitters used using steroids, as it seems the did, it’s hard to use the data to prove anything.I believe that while steroids are a factor in the increase in home-run hitting there are other, more important factors:1. Sabermetrics, and the slow death of the notion that somehow clever hitting behind the runner wins more ballgames than crass 450-foot home runs. I think the increase in home runs and swinging and missing is related to a shift in what baseball considered optimal offensive strategy.2. The realization that weight training actually helps baseball performance — Brian Downing comes to mind as the guy who led the way. This ultimately led to the steroid era.3. The shrinking strike zone and an increasing pateince on the part of hitters, another outgrowth, in part, of sabermetrics.I can’t agree that use of steroids by major-league baseball players prove their effectiveness, although you must give it weight as evidence. Plenty of people do all kids of crazy things that don’t work, from using Skin-So-Soft as bug spray to responding to notorious spam emails to the bigger issues.When you say home runs aren’t increasing, mikeb1, what are you using for a timeframe? Canseco in his book said he started using steroids in 1984. Bob in Peabody

  24. mike_b1

    Mike, based on those who have been caught, it seems the use of PEDs is heavily weighted toward the mediocre players, not the good ones. The range (and presumably, quality) of trainers in MLB is immense. The most notorious trainer in recent memory — Brian McNamee — was an ex cop who majored (not sure if he graduated) not in physiology or kinesiology but in athletic administration. Many players have their own, with whom they work outside the team’s prying eyes. Are they good trainers or friends from the hood? I haven’t the slightest idea.Bob, I’m using adjusted numbers over the past 10 years compiled by Baseball Prospectus, which show that home run rates after testing was introduced stayed within the same boundaries as in the years before testing was mandatory. I think your first point may be the most telling. Most every hitter swings for the fences now. And the harder pitchers throw (and they do throw harder today than 30 years ago), the farther a ball will go upon good contact. Mike and Bob: And yes, pitchers and hitters were using, and yes, that makes it hard to prove steroids = improved performance, which takes me back to what I’ve said all along — there’s no evidence that supports the premise.For many people, if something seems obvious, then it must be so. But in engineering, in statistics, in science, etc., you subject the hypothesis to rigorous tests to be sure. So until someone develops a rigorous and repeatable methodology, the notion that steroids = performance can’t be proved.

  25. derek hutson

    so u are telling me that just because ppl take steroids it does effect their playing ability i dont think so now if he was a muscle builder then yes but the weight and strength have nothing to do with homeruns it does not matter on how strong you r it all depends on how u hit the ball some one who does not take them still can hit homeruns everything to do with that sport has to do with technique not strength look wat it has done for barry bonds it made him slow as hell because of the side effects now in my opinion it as hurt him more than done him good or anyone else for that matter

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