Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Big Mac and Roids - V

So how ought we evaluate the really talented players in the Steroid Era? Especially, how ought we look at the sluggers who have changed the record books with their cheating? A few thoughts:

  • One thing ought to be acknowledged at the outset -- there is zero chance that the record books can be changed, because there is really no way of determining how many home runs a slugger might have hit if he hadn't used BALCO's Little Helpers. To understand why this is, consider the case of Barry Bonds. Based on the best evidence we have, Bonds was clean until 1998, when he became angry about the antics of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Up to that point no one disputed that Bonds was a Hall of Fame level player. He hit 37 home runs that year, at the age of 34. While he wouldn't have challenged Aaron without the help of his friends, there's plenty of reason to believe he would have hit upwards of 600 home runs, perhaps more, without using the juice. The number that Bonds always targeted was 660, the career total of Willie Mays. That number seemed plausible to me.

  • There were also players in the Steroid Era who put up huge numbers without arousing much suspicion, especially Ken Griffey, Jr. and Jim Thome. It is possible that we'll find out otherwise some day, but for now they are in the clear, as are contemporaries such as Frank Thomas, Carlos Delgado and Fred McGriff. Of these guys, there probably wasn't going to be much support for the Hall of Fame, at least initially for Delgado and McGriff, but that might change now that we are beginning to sort out the cheaters. In some respects, you can compare Delgado and McGriff to a recent HOF inductee, Jim Rice. Even though Thomas was a statue defensively, he was one of best hitters I've ever seen and I suspect he'll make his way into Cooperstown on the first or second ballot.

  • In addition, one must remember that these tainted hitters were also facing tainted pitchers. Does that negate the advantage the steroid users had? I really don't know that you could quantify it.

So how do you sort it all out? I have an idea. It's a quick and dirty way to dock the cheaters while still acknowledging their great skills as ballplayers, especially among the sluggers. I propose the following:

For the home run hitters, when you look at their career totals, dock 30% of their career home run total.

Why 30%? And why impose the sanction for their entire career, especially if a player only cheated for a portion of the career? Simple, really -- it ensures that the sanction is a sanction.

So how does it play out? Let's look at the numbers. The official records show the top 15 all-time home run leaders this way:

1. Barry Bonds 762
2. Hank Aaron 755
3. Babe Ruth 714
4. Willie Mays 660
5. Ken Griffey, Jr. 630
6. Sammy Sosa 609
7. Frank Robinson 586
8. Mark McGwire 583
8. Alex Rodriguez 583
10. Harmon Killebrew 573
11. Rafael Palmeiro 569
12. Jim Thome 564
13. Reggie Jackson 563
14. Mike Schmidt 548
15. Manny Ramirez 546

If you use the unofficial adjusted totals with the sanction applied, the cheaters drop down and the Top 15 looks like this:

1. Hank Aaron 755

2. Babe Ruth 714

3. Willie Mays 660

4. Ken Griffey Jr. 630

5. Frank Robinson 586

6. Harmon Killebrew 573

7. Jim Thome 564

8. Reggie Jackson 563

9. Mike Schmidt 548

10. Mickey Mantle 536

11. Jimmy Foxx 534

11. Barry Bonds 534

13. Willie McCovey 521

13. Frank Thomas 521

13. Ted Williams 521

As for the others, Sosa drops to 32nd place, McGwire and Rodriguez to 37th, Palmeiro to 42nd and Ramirez to 46th.

I understand the limitations of what I'm suggesting here. My approach is utterly arbitrary and I'm hoping that everyone who reads this post shoots plenty of holes in it. My son Benster will be putting up a post of his own later in the week to voice his disapproval. But one thing baseball fans do, especially the hard-core ones, is try to sort out the best players. This approach is one way to put the Steroid Era into a larger historical perspective.

And if you can figure out a way to rank cheating pitchers, please let me know. Have fun!


W.B. Picklesworth said...

I think the idea of applying some kind of metric is a good one. It helps us conceptualize what "might" have happened without getting lost in the details. More specifically, it allows us to see how non-cheaters might fit into the all-time greats. Seeing Ken Griffey Jr and Jim Thome so far up the list makes an impression.

Right Hook said...

Records really don't mean that much unless there are standard measurements and criteria. I've always thought that the baseball home run stats can be misleading as the definition of a "home run" (i.e. hitting the ball out of the field of play in fair territory) is dependent on the size and configuration of the ball park.

Consider how many more homers Harmon Killebrew would have if he had played his entire career for Boston or the Chicago Cubs. A lot of mile-high deep flyouts at the old Met (especially under the original field configuration) would have been long gone of a turn-of-the-last-century format stadium like Fenway or Wrigley. How many career homers would Jim Thome have if he had played his entire career with the Twins (and how many more on top of that if the Hefty Bag had not been erected after 1982)? The same argument could probably be made for how many less homers by some of the big guys if they played in a different park.

There really isn't a good way to resolve this, short of standardizing ball parks and playing conditions (how much higher would Rod Carew's career average be if he had played his career on the fast Metrodome turf versus the thick, slow grass of Met Stadium?).

Maybe the answer is to look at what happened with Pete Rose. The man had Hall of Fame stats but his conduct kept him out of the hall and it appears to really bother him.