Is the Absence of Regulation the Evidence of Authority?

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Of all the damned-fool justifications Congress and its enablers are trotting out to defend tomorrow's unjustifiable hearings on steroids in baseball, the damned-fooliest may be that the government has a special prerogative to snoop through players' drug tests because Major League Baseball enjoys an exemption from federal anti-trust law.

This exemption, "House Committee on Government Reform" lead jock-sniffer Henry Waxman told the L.A. Times' moronic sports columnist Bill Plaschke, "undermines the point that the commissioner's lawyer makes that Congress has no business in baseball." Hall-of-Fame pitcher turned Republican Senator Jim Bunning went further, warning that an insufficiently boot-licking performance by Major League Baseball could result in that exemption being nullified.

Three quick points: 1) Why in hell should absence of industry regulation = extra governmental authority to investigative that industry's employees? By that logic, Plaschke himself should have his drug-tests made public (the L.A. Times, like many large newspapers, forces its workers to pee into jars), because his employers enjoyed a special exemption from media-ownership regulations when the Tribune Co. bought local television station KTLA. 2) Baseball's anti-trust exemption has historically benefited the owners, not the players, by allowing the employers to collude with one another in doing stuff like formalizing anti-competitive contracts (such as the late, unlamented Reserve Clause binding a player to his team for life), and preventing new clubs from entering the market. If the principle is somehow to punish those who benefit from the exemption (and I think that's a bad principle anyway), then Congress should target the owners, not the players. 3) One would hope that an exemption from anti-trust would be granted on the basis of its own virtues, and not be tied to something as irrelevant as the response to subpoenas about drug tests. I don't see where industrial policy and workout-recovery medicine intersect.

There's another bit in that Bunning article that you see everywhere, even though it's dead wrong (WARNING: statistics ahead):

[Bunning] said he doesn't remember the top hitters of his day, such as Hank Aaron or Willie Mays, gaining considerable weight or significantly increasing their home-run production as they got older.

"I don't remember anybody getting better from age 32 to 42; they all went the other way," he said.

This is, to put it politely, balderdash. Mays set his career high in home runs at age 34, and Aaron had a positively Barry Bondsian spike late in his career. From 1964-1968, at ages 30-34, Aaron averaged 34 home runs a year in 590 at bats, or one HR every 17.6 AB. From 1969-1973, at ages 35-39, he bumped those averages up to 41 homers in just 480 at bats, or one every 11.8. That is a very "significant" increase in home-run production, and when you compare Aaron's numbers to the context of the league he played in, and stack it up next to Bonds' late-30s numbers in the context of his league (I won't bore you with the math), the results are strikingly similar.

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  1. It would be nice to regularly review the urinalysis of MY employees, the US Congreffs.

  2. ” when you compare Aaron’s numbers… next to Bonds’ late-30s numbers … the results are strikingly similar.”

    Well, then it’s quite clear that Aaron was on steroids. Can we get him to testify to?

  3. With respect, Matt, your comments are absolutely false. Aaron’s seasons in Milwaukee and early in Atlanta were vastly more statistically productive than his seasons late in his career in Atlanta. His late-career home run resurgence is a statistical illusion owing to two factors:
    1. The Atlanta stadium was a far easier home run park than the Milwaukee stadium; if he played in Atlanta in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, he would almost certainly have gotten to 50-60 home runs (look at his season-by-season road homers if you don’t believe me)

    2. The league was scoring a lot more runs in 1971 than it was in the mid- to late-60’s, for various reasons.

    If you apply modern statistical techniques and evaluate Aaron’s seasons taking stadium and era into account (I’ll use the Bill James Win Shares method here, which is as good a method as any), Aaron’s best seasons (in order) are
    1. 1963 (age 29)
    2. (tie) 1959 (age 25) and 1969 (age 35)
    3. (tie) 1960 (age 26) and 1961 (age 27) and 1957 (age 23)
    6. (tie) 1962 (age 28) and 1967 (age 33)

    These show a relatively standard peak from ages 23-35. Aaron had a great year in 1971, at age 37, but it was not one of his seven best seasons, and his 1973 season (in which he hit 40 homers) was simply unimpressive relative to the league and the ballpark, at least in relation to his earlier seasons.

    Aaron’s numbers in relation to park and league are not remotely close to Bonds’s numbers in relation to park and league (recall that Pac Bell is perhaps the best pitcher’s park in baseball). Bonds has reached his statistical peak from ages 35-40, which is completely unprecedented in the history of baseball.

  4. Sr. Fuego,

    It would be nicer for them to allow us to perform urinalysis down their throats!

  5. i would also submit that, for so long as baseball enjoys its entirely illegal and fraudulent antitrust exemption — afforded it by the purchased beneficence of the american government — it should be pleased to show up for whatever goddamn hearings congress wants. the owners made their deal with the devil in 1922 to save themselves from competition. now they can pay that piper.

  6. What it boils down to is this: Waxman, et. al. do whatever they want, because they can.

  7. Adam — Bunning claimed that Aaron did not “significantly increase home-run production” after age 32. I pointed out that, on the contrary, Aaron did, both in raw numbers and rate. Whether that increase in production was based on the outside effects of league scoring and park homer-friendliness (which it undoubtedly was), is interesting, but ultimately a separate question from the basic factual matter at hand.

    Note, too, that I mentioned league context, and not park context, and in that my claims of similarity between Bonds & Aaron is spot on. Counting AB/HR, and starting with the seasons they turned 35 (1999 & 1969) Bonds/Aaron outhomered their leagues by the following percentages:
    295/360
    301/291
    458/454
    384/352
    376/435

    Pretty similar, no? You are right to point out that Aaron’s park advantages were greater than Bonds’, but don’t be too sure that Barry is losing homers in Pac Bell — in his five seasons there, he has hit more homers at home in four.

    As for Win Shares, I love them to death, but they don’t measure home run productivity, do they? And one of the reasons why Aaron’s ’71 doesn’t add up using WS, is that he only played 139 games, his lowest total since his rookie season.

  8. Too bad Ty Cobb isn’t on the witless list. I’d enjoy the look on Davis’ and Waxman’s face as Ol’ Ty’s spikes came sliding in towards the dais.

  9. Hell, let em bulk up and knock a homer every time at bat! The only people nuttier than those who take steroids are the ones who pay good money to see these apes.

  10. Matt Welch-

    Did you intend your Aaron/Bonds comparison to be some sort of implied evidence that Bonds is NOT on steroids? Or is it simply to disprove Bunning’s statement? I only ask because, putting aside any ethical judgements, I thought the issue of Bonds being on/not on steriods was pretty much cleared up by the leaked grand jury testimony.

    In other words, we can argue all day about whether or not congress should be investigating(they should not) or if steriods even matter (personal opinion – they do); but anyone arguing that Bonds’ increase in both bulk and home runs was NOT artificially enhanced bears the burden of proving their case more forcefully at this point.

  11. Matt,

    You’re right that Bunning was wrong in that Aaron’s absolute home run total increased in the late 1960’s. However, I think that your criticism of Bunning is misleading, in that it obscures the more significant point, which is that Bunning’s broader message was correct. Aaron’s power and productivity as a ballplayer declined substantially after the age of 35 (as I’ll elaborate on in a second), like essentially every other baseball player in history. Bonds’s late-career resurgence, in contrast, is no statistical illusion; he was the greatest player of the 1990’s, but he really is playing better now than then. This bizarre phenomenon is not evidence in and of itself that Bonds is using steroids, but it is certainly suspicious.

    Second, while your AB/HR numbers are correct, I don’t think these comparisons are meaningful in terms of comparing Bonds’s power to Aaron’s power. This is true for two reasons.

    1. The structures of offenses have changed since 1973. The average NL team in 2004 scored 178 homers, compared to 129 in 1973, a ratio of 1.38:1. However, the average NL team in 2004 scored 751 runs, compared to 672 in 1973, a ratio of 1.12:1. Offenses in 2004 are much more reliant on home runs than offenses in 1973, which scored runs in lots of different ways (the 1973 St. Louis Cardinals went scored 643 runs with 75 home runs!) Therefore, it was a lot easier for any home run hitter to exceed his league average by a lot in 1973 than 2004, since a lot more players didn’t have power in their skill sets. If you compare Bonds’s “overall offense” compared to the league average as compared to Aaron’s, Bonds kicks ass.

    2. Bonds got a lot fewer pitches and struck out a lot less frequently than Aaron. Hitting 45 homers while walking 232 times and hitting .362 is a lot more indicative of power than hitting 47 homers while walking 71 times and hitting .327, since the latter statistics implies that Aaron was simply swinging and making outs a lot more often.

    Bonds’s statistics in Pac Bell are freakish, but most players hit more homers at home than on the road, even adjusted for park quality. This is because of the general home-field advantage and because the player orients his swing for that park. If Bonds played in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 2001 he would have hit 85 homers.

    Finally, it’s true that Aaron played only 139 games in 1971, but Bonds played 130 in 2003 and still earned 36% more win shares. Generally, Bonds’s WS per game over the last few years have been a lot higher than Aaron’s. It’s also worth pointing out that Bonds played 147 games in the outfield at age 40, which is also a basically unprecedented achievement; that durability itself is a sign of the freakishness of Bonds’s recent seasons.

  12. A little off topic, but look at this ridiculous article on ESPN.com today:

    http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=2013674

    I’m trying to respond via email, but I’m too nauseous after reading the article.

  13. dlc — I intended my Bonds/Aaron comparison to be a corrective of a widely repeated error of fact.

    As for the leaked Grand Jury testimony, as far as I recall, Bonds said that he used two substances, each only for a matter of months, that might have been steroids, though he didn’t know that they were. He was under oath when he said that, and is not being prosecuted for perjury, so I’m leaving open the possibility that he might have been telling the truth. But if I had to make a wager, sure, I’d bet that he took steroids, based on how different his head looks, his late-career surge, and some of his comments this spring training. But it’d only be that — a bet.

  14. BUNNING: (Insert pretty much anything he says in public these days)

    SH: hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

  15. Win shares on H&R?
    Ahhh, my 2 favorite web sites have merged!

  16. Adam — When facts get sacrificed for “the more significant point,” that’s when I worry.

    Aaron’s power and productivity as a ballplayer declined substantially after the age of 35.

    Regarding Aaron’s power, that’s just wrong. Taking only his road stats from 1969-74, here’s the percentages by which he exceeded the league average in HR/AB:
    69: 366
    70: 224
    71: 303
    72: 307
    73: 371
    74: 266

    That’s two years of homering with 366% more frequently than the rest of the league … on the road. Bonds, by comparison, has five years of 366%+ total.

    1. The structures of offenses have changed since 1973. The average NL team in 2004 scored 178 homers, compared to 129 in 1973, a ratio of 1.38:1…. Offenses in 2004 are much more reliant on home runs than offenses in 1973, which scored runs in lots of different ways.

    The structures of ballparks have changed radically since 1973, which I would argue has a hell of a lot more to do with HR numbers than most anything else. Instead of the Astrodome, Riverfront and Veterans, we’ve got Minute Maid, Great American Ballpark, and Citizen’s Bank … plus new bandboxes in Phoenix and Milwaukee, to say nothing of the “baseball” played in Denver. Offenses “are more reliant on home runs” because they can hit more home runs, which has a way of discouraging Little Ball. That said, as recently as 1992 (the last year before expansion, which always increases offense), home runs in the National League were far more scarce than they were in 1973 (every 52.1 AB, as opposed to 42.7). This was also true in 1991, ’90, ’89, ’88 … and every year between 1973-92 except for the expansion year of ’77 and the spike year of ’87. Did offenses conduct a radical restructuring overnight in 1993? Or maybe expansion + new ballparks just made home runs easier to hit.

    Therefore, it was a lot easier for any home run hitter to exceed his league average by a lot in 1973 than 2004, since a lot more players didn’t have power in their skill sets.

    That’s a nice theory, but does it hold up? The NL leader in “Steroid Score” in ’73 (Willie Stargell) had 360; Bonds led in 2004 with 375 (minimum 502 plate appearances, otherwise Aaron would have led in ’73). In the American League, the ’73 winner (Reggie Jackson) had 260; in ’04 Manny Ramirez had 229. If we use the Bonds- and Aaron-free AL as a “control” league, we can see that from 1954-2004 the years with the highest league-leading Steroid Scores were, in order: 1992, 1972, 1954, 1956, 1990, 1961, 1957, 1967, 1968, 1996 … not exactly a clean-looking trend line.

    If you compare Bonds’s “overall offense” compared to the league average as compared to Aaron’s, Bonds kicks ass. … Finally, it’s true that Aaron played only 139 games in 1971, but Bonds played 130 in 2003 and still earned 36% more win shares. Generally, Bonds’s WS per game over the last few years have been a lot higher than Aaron’s.

    True. But we were talking about home runs.

    It’s also worth pointing out that Bonds played 147 games in the outfield at age 40, which is also a basically unprecedented achievement; that durability itself is a sign of the freakishness of Bonds’s recent seasons.

    Sam Rice played 147 games in the outfield at age 40 — including 15 in center — back when they only played 154 in a season.

  17. And Bunning forgets that there are other less-often employed talents that can still shine at an older age….To wit – 42? year old Nolan Ryan pretty much kicking then 27? year old Robin Ventura’s ass when RV charged the mound after being nailed by a tight Big Tex heater at the Ballpark in Arlington circa 1994-5.

  18. First off, Buning is a major nut case.

    Secondly, ever since the ’94 strike they’ve been using a baseball for a max of 5 pitches per game. Prior to that they would only remove a ball if it was hit out of play or was scuffed badly and the umpire or batter notcied it. I can assure you a clean white ball is so much easier to see it is much easier to hit. And let’s not forget about laser eye surgery.

    The 40-year old Steve Finley is at the peak of his game, I never hear him mentioned as a steroid user. And no one ever mentions the wear and tear on basketball players, yet Kareem, Robert Parrish, and Kevin Willis all played regular minutes into their early 40’s. But there’s no “power” statistic in any other sport besides baseball so no one ever stops to think if perhaps there could be something other than steroids involved in productive longevity.

    Nolan Ryan – what a sore loser asshole. Couldn’t stand Ventura taking him deep so many times.

  19. Russ D, Parish and Kareem were durable, and kept playing at almost the same level of their youth as they got older. This is a far cry from Bonds, who has gotten considerably better as he’s gotten older.

  20. joe,

    You purposely skip my point about “power” stats, then.

    Sure, Bonds has better power numbers than before, and because of that they walk him all the time. But his speed is noticeably slower, and he never runs out ground balls if he can help it. He used to be a center fielder and now gets put in left where the bad outfielder always goes, especially the one with the weak arm.

    Power is the ONLY part of his game that has improved, most every other part has gotten worse.

  21. I will add that Bonds has improved his batting average late in his career. And I don’t recall anyone claiming that steroids make you see better. If they do, I want ’em!

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