Friday, March 25, 2005


Addendum on player performance

As I argued previously, numerous factors render it difficult to compare player performance across time. I forgot to mention, that any serious baseball fan knows that there are numerous factors that skew player performance records even among contemporaries. A hitter who plays 81 home games in a hitters park, like Houston or Denver for instance, will likely have inflated hitting statistics. Furthermore, we also know that a hitter will compile better numbers and perform better if he bats in a better lineup – a great hitter in a weak lineup can lose lots off his performance stats because opposing teams consistently pitch around him. And speaking of which, Barry Bonds (steroid allegations aside) might well have 100 extra home runs by now had opposing teams refrained from the arguably “unsportsmanlike,” or at least unsporting practice of pitching around him and intentionally walking him to the tune of 150 to 200 walks per season the last few years.

All of these factors create significant distorting affects on performance records as a measure of athletic skill, and for all we know skew the records more than steroid use.

UPDATE: Paul Noonan has some interesting and "electric" commentary on this issue here, responding to my Asterisks post. This addendum, written after his post, may answer some of his contentions.


Indeed it does Oscar. The difference in ballparks is probably the best argument against my point. Baseball is probably the most non-uniform game out there (By the way, have you read the Bill James interview here: He advocates even less uniformity)and certain players are going to have inherent advantages over others.

I would argue though, that players have an opportunity to mitigate a lot of these due to things like free agency. For instance, if a player is concerned with his stats (not an unreasonable thing, as his future pay at least partially depends on them)he could choose to play in Colorado (although, as you know, that will just make any numbers he soes put up suspicious, See: Jeffrey Hammonds) or avoid Florida, where the deep power alleys reduce HR numbers, or take less money to play on a good team. Or don't take less money and become a Yankee.

Bonds and his giant head have been penalized by years of Benito Santiago hitting behind him, but no one has held a gun to Bonds' enormous head and forced him to stay on the Giants either.

On the other hand, if certain players are cheating (and I view steroids as the functional equivalent of using an aluminum bat), it puts a lot of pressure on others to do the same, at great personal and professional risk. How many HRs would Frank Thomas have hit if he used? If many players choose not to use, which is certainly rational, then we have a problem.

Tom Bozzo correctly pointed out in an e-mail to me that this really only matters if the steroid use was "significant", in other words, it got Mac and Sosa and Bonds the record, and has greatly inflated numbers over what they otherwise would have been. I think it has, and has improved performance to a measurable and significant extent.

We intuitively know how to account for sluggers in Colorado and Florida (See: The Cubs and Derrick Lee), and if there were an obvious steroid user on either team, I think we could similarly adjust for the effects of stadium+drugs. (And maye there is, but I can't think of one.)

But Stadia also make a significant difference, and I suppose to be consistent I should hold the short porch in Yankee Stadium against Babe Ruth, and the short porch in SBC against Bonds. I can do that.

So, in conclusion, there are a lot of vairables unaccounted for in baseball stats, but I would argue that:

1. Steroids are secret, so it is harder for fans and stat-heads to discount for them.
2. Steroids are not uniformly used by all players (probably).
3. Individual players have a choice regarding what team they play for, and the advantages and disadvantages of playing for said team.
4. The natural advantages of certain parks are well known.
5. Individual players are fairly powerless if they are disadvantaged due to someone else's steroid use.
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