Memo to non-believers: One more argument for the Steroid Era

Yes, there are actually smart people who don't believe that sports drugs defined performance for a good stretch of seasons in the 1990s and 2000s. Maybe they're even right. But here's one more small argument that they're wrong. Also, Ryan Braun.

Ryan Braun tried real, real hard to convince his manager that he was "trying."

Mike McGinnis / Getty Images North America

Some years ago, John Dewan -- then running STATS, Inc., and now running Baseball Info Solutions -- noticed that over a number of years, players who showed big slugging-percentage improvements in spring training were highly likely to continue this improvement in the regular season.

But now Dewan’s looked at the last five years (2009-2013) . . . and damned if the (apparent) affect hasn’t just disappeared, but actually reversed; over that span, players with huge slugging-percentage jumps in spring training actually have tended to have lower slugging percentages in the regular season than in the season before.  Which seems, in a way, even more surprising than Dewan’s earlier finding?

What, if anything, does it all mean?

In light of the dramatic difference in results between the two samples, I will of course not recommend potential power breakouts based on hitters showing less power this spring. At this point, I’m leaning toward an opinion that the only thing spring stats might predict are which young players may earn playing time.

Why the big difference between the two samples? As Dewan admits, this might simply be a matter of the samples not being large enough. Especially the first one, since the results were so surprising (to me, anyway). For a while, somebody was saying that teams with great spring training records were due for a big regular season ... but that one went away after the sample got bigger, too.

Maybe this isn’t about the sample size, though. Again, Dewan:

That said, I can think of reason why the original study and the new study both might have held predictive significance in their times rather than simply showing two small-sample blips that would regress over larger samples. The original study was run from 1996-2001, the height of the steroids era. It was not unusual for players who had never shown power tendencies to suddenly start hitting for power. It stands to reason those changes would show up in spring, following offseasons when players would have had an opportunity to train. Meanwhile, the current study from 2009-2013 is in the presumed post-steroids era, when power across the sport has been on the decline.

I don’t want to make too much of any of this. For a while, I’m sure, fantasy-baseball owners were seriously interesting in spring training statistics. But otherwise the earlier finding didn’t exactly unhinge the course of big-league history. Nor will this latest finding.

It’s a data point in a larger debate, though.

What? You didn’t know there’s a debate? There is one. There are still some people out there  -- smart people! -- who remain unconvinced that illegal drugs actually helped a bunch of baseball players play baseball better. Even with all the data points. I doubt if this one’s going to change anyone’s mind.

And I don’t want to spend a great deal of time belaboring the argument, because the percentage of you reading this who don’t believe (for example) that drugs helped Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds and so many more is exceptionally small. Yes, because our knowledge of who was doing what, and when, is ridiculously incomplete, it’s practically impossible to tie particular players to particular statistics. But we’ve got the anecdotal evidence, and we’ve got some statistical evidence, and we’ve also got the unanimous-in-my-experience opinions of the people who actually were inside the game, whether players or executives; to a man -- again, in my experience -- they simply don’t doubt that sports drugs, both legal and illegal, played a significant role in the power explosion of (sorry) the Steroid Era.

I think it’s okay to acknowledge the impact, however ill-defined, of sports drugs without also demonizing the users of those drugs. Not that I can fault anyone for finding Ryan Braun’s shenanigans reprehensible, but I also can’t fault the good fans in Milwaukee for doing what comes naturally. As Grant Brisbee explains so well and so accurately, Braun would have received exactly the same ovation if he played for any other team. It’s also been suggested, and also accurately, that fans really don’t care much about sports drugs, one way or the other; really, drugs in baseball is a media-driven narrative, and it’s driven largely by those media members who believe that numbers like 61 and 755 are more than just numbers.

Don’t get me wrong. Baseball is a better game without giant-headed players. It’s a better game without giant-headed players, and home-plate violence. It’s a better game without giant-headed players and home-plate violence, but also without moats around the expensive seats and without hyperactive strikeout rates.

So it seems you can’t get everything you want. Getting the illegal drugs out of the game is a pretty good thing, though. Another good thing would be recognizing the humanity of players who got caught up in a culture where if you weren’t cheating, your manager thought you weren’t trying. And Ryan Braun tried real, real hard.

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