One of the constant themes here is the power of narrative in sports. We like a good, clean narrative. Take Tiger Woods. Let's say Tiger Woods never wins another major championship. I think he will win again, but let's just say for argument's sake that he does not. What will the narrative be?
It will be this: Tiger Woods was well on his way to becoming the greatest golfer who ever lived when his personal life spiraled out control and he never recovered from that.
Would that be the whole story? No. I don't think so. I'm not sure it would even be the major part of the story. If Tiger Woods never wins another major it will be because he hit his mid-30s when most golfers begin to lose their game, because his knee never came all the way back, because putts stopped dropping (as they tend to do), because talented younger golfers came along, because equipment changes flattened his advantages, because ... because ... because ... the world is more complicated than any single line. Was Tiger Woods' six-month romp through the tabloids devastating? I have no doubt. Did it play a role in his slump? I have no doubt. But there are a thousand other factors flying around here.
Over time, I suspect, those thousand other factors will be lost to time and the story will be: Tiger messed around, got caught, and never was the same.
Why? Because that's an easy-to-follow narrative. And because the public explosion of Tiger Woods' personal life is the most interesting part of the story.
This same, I think, is true for the sudden and rather shocking drop in baseball offense. We are only through about six weeks of baseball, so the sample size is small. But the drop does seem real and precipitous. Hitters throughout baseball are hitting .249/.319/.382. Even comparing that only to April performance over the last 17 years, the numbers are way, way down.
From 1994-2010, hitters in April hit .264 -- so that's down 15 points.
Their on-base percentage was .345 -- so that's down 26 points.
Their slugging percentage was .421 -- so that's down almost 40 points.
But it's more than just the averages. There has not been a single year since 1994 when batters hit this sparsely. The lowest batting average since 1994 was last year's .256, so that's down. The lowest on-base percentage was a .330 in 2007, so that's way down too. And in no season since 1994 have hitters slugged less than .400 in April.
So even just comparing April to April, early season to early season, the numbers are quite stark. That's if you go back to 1994. But, as you probably already know, if you go back to the decade or so BEFORE 1994, well, suddenly the numbers look perfectly in line.
To remind you, this year's core numbers: .249/.319/.382
From 1981-1993: .252/.322/.378
Yep, that's just about the same.
So, the narrative is clear and clean: What we have here is a return to normalcy, right? The clean narrative is that baseball has rid itself of the plague that was steroid abuse and now hitters are back to normal ... and that's the whole story.
Do I believe that's the whole story? No. I don't. Do I believe that it's even MOST of the story? No, I still don't. I suspect that the role of the decline of steroid use in the decline of offense is, percentage wise, the same as the role that Tiger Woods' personal foibles played in his decline as a player. I think steroids are a factor, yes. but I think there are a thousand other factors too, many of them that are hidden from view.
That said, though, I'll tell you something that I do believe: I believe that steroids are pretty much out of baseball. I don't believe this because the numbers are down. That's something more complicated. I have a different reason. But the main point is this: I think baseball is just about steroid free.
I know people are cynical about this, and they have every right to be cynical about it. For so long, just about everyone around baseball -- and I'm talking players, management types, owners, writers, broadcasters -- were blind to the steroid story in baseball. There were a few people who saw it pretty clearly early on -- this week's Poscast guest Bob Costas was banging the drum quite a while back -- but most of us didn't. There was no testing. There was no outrage. The home runs were fun to watch, at least for a while.
And while I tend to think that there were numerous other prominent reasons offense exploded in the 1990s -- hitter-friendly ballparks, a juicier ball, tighter strike zones, harder bats with thinner handles and so on -- it is undeniable that many of the hitters who dominated the era (McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Giambi, A-Rod, Sheffield, MannyBManny etc.) were either admitted or implicated PED users.
Baseball began more stringent steroid testing in 2005, but that's not the reason why I think steroids are out of baseball. We all know that testing can only go so far, that the cheaters will always have more resources and motivation than the testers, and that they will keep inventing new PEDs that don't trigger positive test results. Pro football has had testing for much longer, and I have little doubt that PEDs are rampant in pro football.
No, there's something more here: Massive, massive public pressure. If a player is caught taking steroids in baseball, he's disgraced. If he's a great player, he will get humiliated in the Hall of Fame balloting. If he's a good player, he will get savaged in the media and by fans. If he's a mediocre player, he will find it hard to get work -- teams don't need that sort of publicity anymore. We've seen this happen. We know it's real. And this sort of real public pressure is not there in football for many logical and illogical reason.
In baseball, the public pressure is so intense that, I think, it has transcended reason and fairness and perspective. Now, if a player has a hot month-long stretch, the whispers begin. If a player hits more home runs than his history suggests, the whispers turn to murmurs. With this sort of heat surrounding the game, it seems to me you'd have to be (1) Desperate; (2) Arrogant beyond reason; (3) Detached from reality to take the chance of getting caught using steroids in baseball these days.*
*MannyBManny, from what I can gather, was all three.
So, yes, I think steroids are pretty much out of the game now. Oh, I'm sure there are spare players who are still using, whose careers are on the brink or who just believe they are too smart to get caught. But baseball has ALWAYS had those players willing to push the edge. What made the Selig Era so troubling, looking back, is that there were much greater incentives to use than to not use. Baseball wasn't testing. Baseball was proudly peddling home runs. The odds of getting caught were miniscule. Nobody seemed to care. And the health-issues that steroids cause are fuzzy and disputed and, anyway, simply not a strong enough deterrent to prevent a lot of people from using steroids.
Now ... yeah, the risks have gone way, way up. Take steroids? Become infamous. And I think most players will not take that chance. Baseball players are no different from anyone else. The vast majority of them want to be liked. They want to be admired. They want awards and prizes. They want the best kind of fame. They want to be remembered well. Who wouldn't? When I was growing up and dreaming of playing baseball, I did not dream of being despised and considered a cheater. I dreamed of making All-Star Teams and having my posters on walls and signing autographs and going to the Hall of Fame. Getting caught using steroids in 2011 (as compared to 1999) can crush those dreams.
So, yes, I do think that steroids are mostly out of the game. I don't think that's the only reason that baseball numbers are down. I don't think it's the biggest reason. But I will admit it's probably the most interesting reason.