A Response to Bill James' “Cooperstown and the 'Roids"
By Jeb Stewart
I have been a fan of the writing and analysis of Bill James for many years. My discovery of James forever altered my attitudes about baseball and the value of statistical analysis. In fact, as I am writing this, I count no less than ten books in my own baseball library which were authored by Bill James. Through his multitude of well-supported theories—particularly theories contained in The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract and Win Shares—I have been forced to abandon many incorrect (and all too frequently nonsensical) beliefs I had about the game of baseball.
In fact, I would argue James has been the most influential baseball writer over the last thirty years. His analysis has revolutionized the way Americans watch and understand baseball, and websites dedicated to a deeper understanding of the game have become a cottage industry as a result of his work.
When I recently heard Yankee broadcaster John Sterling exclaim that on-base percentage is far more important than batting average, I realized that James’s thinking has, indeed, become mainstream. My own take on James is that he has been successful in changing attitudes about the game primarily because:
His writing is engaging and often funny;
He backs up his opinions with supportable statistical analysis;
He recognizes that he does not have the only worthwhile opinion to offer about the game, but that other analysts often have extremely valuable insights (e.g., Voros McCracken, who developed Defense Independent Pitching Statistics.1). In fact, in Win Shares, James wrote that “… it is not the nature of research—good research or bad—to stand back and admire. In a living science, nothing represents the state of the art more than a few years … I am trying to move the chains.”2; and
James is generally consistent about some issues (such as refusing to play “what if” about players whose careers were cut short by injuries).3
As a fan of Bill James, I have long been interested in reading what he thinks about the subject of steroids. Accordingly, when I learned that he had written “Cooperstown and the ‘Roids,” I excitedly downloaded the article (PDF) from the ACTA website and began reading.
My excitement turned to numbing disappointment as I read the article, however. Not only does the article contain rambling and frequently disconnected arguments, but it actually contains a number of false premises and illogical conclusions. The most glaringly inaccurate claim by James is that steroids keep a player young. James writes:
… One of the characteristics of the steroid era was that we had several dozen players who continued to improve beyond the normal aging time frame, so that many of them had their best seasons past the age of 32. This is historically not normal. In the post-steroid era we are returning to the historic norm in which players hit a wall sometime in their early thirties. But what does this mean?
It means that steroids keep you young. You may not like to hear it stated that way, because steroids are evil, wicked, mean and nasty and youth is a good thing, but … that’s what it means. Steroids help the athlete resist the effects of aging.
James’s key assertion—that “steroids keep you young”—ignores the practical reality that steroids actually make a player bigger, stronger and faster. In point of fact, there is no evidence that steroids reverse the aging process (at least none that James can cite); however, there is a multitude of evidence that steroids make athletes perform better than even their prior statistical peak, not merely reverse the aging process. This is a serious causation fallacy in James’s article.
If steroids merely made a player younger, we would expect Sammy Sosa would have hit 40 home runs (his age-27 total) in 1998 when he was 29, instead of the ridiculous total of 66 (followed by 63, 50 and 64 home runs, respectively, from ages 30-32). If steroids merely made a player younger, we would expect that Barry Bonds would have hit 46 home runs (his age-28 total) in 2001 when he was 36 years old. Instead, Barry Bonds hit the previously unheard of total of 73 homeruns. Steroids made these players—and many others—far better than they had ever been, not merely younger. It has been reported that Bonds, in particular, gained 38 pounds of lean muscle mass from 1998 to 2001.4
As Allan Barra wrote about Bonds: “[f]rom 1989 [age 24] through 1999 [age 34] Barry Bonds was the best player in the NL and probably all of baseball, and even made a good argument for himself as the greatest all-around player in baseball history; then, beginning at age thirty-six for the next four seasons, he got so much better that a batting order of old Barry Bondses would have outscored a batting order of young Barry Bondses by very nearly two runs to one.”
It would certainly be one thing if Mickey Mantle could have taken a pill that kept him at 21 years of age and allowed him to hit 40-50 homeruns a season, but that is not at all what happened with steroid use. Imagine if Mantle had taken steroids, gained 50 pounds of muscle mass and hit 100 home runs. No one could rationally argue that he had merely gotten younger through the use of steroids.
James’ conclusion that steroids make players younger (as opposed to better than they had ever been) is a false and unsupportable foundation upon which the rest of the conclusions in his article are constructed. From this faulty premise he begins to speculate regarding drugs he expects future citizens to take to keep themselves younger, stating:
If we look into the future, then, we can reliably foresee a time in which everybody is going to be using steroids or their pharmaceutical descendants. We will learn to control the health risks of these drugs, or we will develop alternatives to them. Once that happens, people will start living to age 200 or 300 or 1,000, and doctors will begin routinely prescribing drugs to help you live to be 200 or 300 or 1,000. If you look into the future 40 or 50 years, I think it is quite likely that every citizen will routinely take anti-aging pills every day.
This type of claim (with absolutely no actual scientific support cited for the supposed reliable foreseeability) is wildly speculative and reads like a cheap dime store B-novella from the 1950s predicting that Americans will one day eat food pills and travel in flying saucers and jet packs. Determining whether the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) by athletes in the “steroid era” was proper, or not, based on what future generations might do fails to advance James’ argument.
Against this backdrop, James offers a second argument:
“Eventually, some players who have been associated with steroids are going to get into the Hall of Fame. … If nothing else, somebody will eventually get in and then acknowledge that he used steroids. … [o]nce some players who have been associated with steroids are in the Hall of Fame, the argument against the others will become un-sustainable.”
This argument is nearly as untenable as the previous one, but is actually more insulting to the reader, by advocating that voters are incapable of learning from, and reacting to, mistakes.
First, there’s the old adage that we learned as children—two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because a player “gets away with it” does not create justification for other players to get away with it. When a murderer gets off on a technicality, does this make society collectively throw up its hands and declare that the days of prosecuting accused murderers are over? Of course not; and the same logic applies to the Hall of Fame.
Assuming a scenario where a PED user gets into the Hall of Fame and then admits to using PEDs, this might actually make some voters less likely to vote for anyone from the steroid era. And, in the past, where mistakes have been perceived in Hall of Fame voting (most notably with the election of Bill Mazeroski)5, rules have actually been changed to prevent mistakes from being repeated.
Second, and perhaps more compelling, let’s have Bill James respond to the flawed logic of his above argument (that once the seal is broken all qualifying PED users will ultimately gain admittance to the Hall of Fame), in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame:
The Once-You-Lose-Your-Virginity, What-Does-It-Matter approach is an argument commonly used by advocates of players who have an outstanding weakness. The argument is, essentially, that once a player who has an outstanding weakness has been elected to the Hall of Fame, that weakness no longer counts, and can no longer be used as a reason not to elect another player who has the same weakness.
In the same text, James cites this argument as one in a series of “false arguments that attend the Hall of Fame discussion.”
Interestingly, in the same section of this book, James then uses Bill Mazeroski, in part, to deconstruct the-above argument for admission to the Hall of Fame, writing, “Bill Mazeroski hit .260, almost the same as Aparicio, and was the premier defensive second baseman of his day, if not of all time … but on the other hand, he didn’t play 2,599 games and never led his league in anything as a hitter. He’s got to find his own balance, throw in his own positives. He can’t skate on Aparicio’s pass.” Similarly, I would argue that if a current Hall of Famer admits to using PEDs that this should not allow Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, etc., to skate on that Hall of Famer’s pass.
I agree with the earlier Bill James. Just because a player with an outstanding weakness gets into the Hall of Fame does not mean that other similar players should gain admittance.
James next advances two additional arguments, which do not merit much discussion:
First, he argues that history will forgive steroids users, but their numbers will endure. I would argue that history has not forgiven members of the Black Sox, none of whom have been admitted to the Hall of Fame, despite largely being painted as victims, rightly or wrongly, since the publication of Eight Men Out in 1963.6 Moreover, this argument is particularly questionable where steroids users are concerned, because the numbers they put up will be largely viewed, also rightly or wrongly, as the product of their own wrongdoing.
Second, James argues that non-steroid users elected to the Hall of Fame will “speak up” for steroid users. He cites Andy Pettitte as being a likely Hall of Famer who will lobby for Roger Clemens. This is a curious and almost ludicrous statement, given the fact that Pettitte is an admitted user of Human Growth Hormone, which is a PED. There may well be lobbying from non-users, but I doubt that lobbying will come from Andy Pettitte, whose numbers make him a borderline candidate and whose own PED use will make him a non-candidate.
Finally, James raises the second most critical point of his article, where he rhetorically asks whether Steroid use was even wrong in the first place. He writes, “[t]he discrimination against PED users in Hall of Fame voting rests upon the perception that this was cheating. But is it cheating if one violates a rule that nobody is enforcing, and which one may legitimately see as being widely ignored by those within the competition?” He then raises a number of questions regarding whether MLB actually outlawed PEDs prior to 2002. I suppose this is James’ “No Rule/No Foul” argument.
Fundamentally, a fan, and ultimately a Hall of Fame voter, must decide for himself whether the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs was wrong or not. Not surprisingly, I long ago decided that the use of PEDs was wrong, not only for the players, who put their health at risk to chase numbers and bigger contracts, but also for the integrity of the game because of the blurring of the record books.
However, I won’t bother to try to defend “The Mitchell Report” or its argument that PEDs have been banned since 1991.7 This is because I have more serious concerns regarding the true independence and objectivity of the report, which was authored by a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox.8 In any event, I have reached the conclusion that steroids have been bad for baseball for two principal reasons.
First, steroids may or may not have been banned by Major League Baseball before 2002, but they were certainly a controlled substance in the United States as early as 1990.9 Moreover, if there was nothing wrong with the indiscriminate use of steroids, one wonders why so many players felt the need to lie about using them to the press, and later having to apologize (or having to lie some more) once they were caught. Some actions are malum in se, meaning they are wrong independent of any law banning those actions. Certainly the players who lied about using steroids must have inwardly recognized this concept and known they were cheating.
Second, and most importantly, as a baseball fan, I value the use of statistics. I want to compare Babe Ruth’s statistics to Hank Aaron’s numbers. I want to debate who the best center fielder in New York was during the 1950s. I even want to compare current players with players of bygone days. In fact, Bill James wants to do the exact same thing, which is why he wrote Win Shares in the first place. As he stated in the introduction to that book, “… there are millions of fans who ‘know’ that Clemente was better, because they saw him play, and there are millions more who ‘know’ that Kaline was better for the same reasons. I don’t want to ‘know’ that way. I want reasons.”
And therein lies the true fallacy in James’s steroids essay. James advocates that if all players were using steroids, the use of steroids was not cheating. However, once the subject of steroids is injected into the debate, no one can really know if Barry Bonds or Willie Mays was better, at least not statistically speaking, because Bonds cheated the game. The raw statistics might suggest that Bonds was a better player than Mays, but such a comparison always has to be followed with a “yeah, but …” acknowledgment. The use of PEDs has robbed baseball fans from ever really statistically knowing the answer, or even engaging in meaningful debate on the subject.
We were robbed in 1998 while we were duped into following a home run race that was built on a house of cards, much as Roger Maris was robbed of his record while his family sat and watched, never knowing that the two primary competitors were doing suspect things that, quite frankly, Roger never did.
And, really, Bill James has been robbed of the ability to compare the players of the steroid era with the players of yesteryear. In an effort to cure this problem, he finally concludes, “So what?”, and advocates the simple answer (acting as if steroids were never a problem), which somehow restores his ability to analyze those numbers without wanting to question how the numbers were reached.
James’ article on steroids is an apology at its core, completely lacking in real analysis and support, and full of speculation. He has failed to persuade me; I hope the halo effect of his star power will fail to persuade others, taught by James to think their way through baseball discussions and to always demand proof to support an argument.
- For James’ discussion of McCracken’s Theory, see Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, pp. 885-888 (2001).↑
- Bill James, Win Shares, p. 8 (2002) (Emphasis supplied).↑
- “Players in most cases have to be evaluated by what they actually did, not by what they would have done or might have done.” Bill James, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, p. 341 (1995) (discussing Thurman Munson’s Hall of Fame candidacy).↑
- Allan Barra, Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries, p. 265 (2004). Of course, the weight gain does not tell the entire story of Bonds’ dramatic rise in home runs. Rather, “[i]n 2002, when Bonds’ weight was reported to be 228, Greg Anderson [Bonds’ trainer] told the New York Times Magazine that Bonds’ body fat was even lower [than his previous low of 8 percent]: 6.2 percent.” See Mark Fainaru-Wadu and Lance Williams, Game of Shadows, pp. 274-275 (2006).↑
- I am not arguing or even suggesting that the election of Bill Mazeroski was a mistake, or that he should not be a Hall of Fame member. However, it is virtually undisputed that the Veterans Committee’s voting process was changed as a reaction to the election of Maz to the Hall. See here↑
- In contrast, I would argue that banning the eight members of the Black Sox has had the intended punitive effect of deterring players from accepting money from gamblers to throw games. Perhaps banning PED users from Hall of Fame admittance might deter players from using PEDs.↑
- See “The Mitchell Report,” (PDF) p. 41 (2007) (“Vincent was the first Commissioner to expressly include anabolic steroids among the substances prohibited under baseball’s drug policy, which he did in the June 1991 version of the memorandum.”). The Mitchell Report also proposes that, by implication, steroids were banned as early as 1988, through the passage of federal law concerning steroids distribution without a valid prescription. See Id. at 18-19.↑
- James criticizes “the commissioner’s periodic spasms of self-righteousness.” Bill James, “Cooperstown and the ‘Roids”, p. 4 (2009). However, he offers no criticism of an apparent conflict of interest by the author of “The Mitchell Report.” This is not surprising, given the fact that James is, himself, the Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox.↑
- See “Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990,” Pub. L. No. 101-647, Sec. 1902, 104 Stat. 4851 (1990) (amending 21 U.S.C. 812(c) (1981).↑
About the author
Jeb Stewart is a lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, who enjoys taking his two sons to the Rickwood Classic each year and buying them cards. He spent most of his youth pitching a tennis ball against his front porch steps, in hopes that a Yankees’ scout would happen by and discover him. Although he remains undiscovered, he still has a passion for the Yankees and collecting baseball cards.