Saturday, August 04, 2007

Yes, Joe Morgan Sucks, But People: We're Better Than This

FIRE JOE MORGAN links a terrific piece flaying Morgan by Phil Mushnick in today's New York Post. Mushnick ably tackles Joe's various crimes against sports fans and mostly I agree with him. However, there's a curious paragraph about Barry Bonds that deserves another look:

For a man given to detailed expert explanations and historical perspectives (few of which make sense or are supported by facts), Morgan has been disinclined to explain how Bonds hit 25 homers at the age of 26 but 73 at the age of 36, 34 at 27 but 46 at 37. At least give it a guess, Joe.

Whoa there, Phil. We're straying into dangerous territory here.
Nobody can really explain this. I agree that Joe Morgan is batshit crazy and unworthy of the mantle of baseball "analyst." I agree that Barry Bonds probably exposed himself to massive doses of the same gamma radiation that turned Dr. Bruce Banner into the Hulk. Whatever, I don't care. The point is it's lazy and irresponsible to say that "Bonds hit 25 HR at age 26, and 73 at age 36, ergo...steroids!" C'mon.

Here are a few other historical perspectives. The game changed
immensely in the 10 year period in which Bonds' HR totals nearly tripled. Expansion introduced four more pitching staffs into the game - that's roughly 46 pitchers who might otherwise be toiling in the minor leagues. Plus there was a major shift in the way ballparks were conceived and constructed; I don't know that the new parks are objectively easier on hitters than the older ones, but who knows. In 1991 the NL league OPS was .705; by 2001 it had jumped to .749. Clearly the game had changed in those ten years.

Here are still more historical perspectives:
Paul Molitor had his career high in HR - 22 - at age 36. Frank Howard hit 91 HR in his ages 26-29 seasons but 172 HR in his ages 30-33 seasons. Luis Gonzalez's HR totals from 1999-2003 go 26, 31, 57, 28, 26. How do we explain all this?

The thing is, we really can't. This is a problem of
epistemology. We can take the easy way out and just say "steroids" and go have a beer, or we can concede that reality is far too complex to be explained by conjecture and tenuous links.


Anonymous said...

Bonds was on 'roids. Thats how you explain it. You mention Molitor and his 22 at 36 years old. 22! thats not 73! And the 46 other pitchers that were in the bigs due to expansion? How many did Bonds hit off those guys? I didn't research that, but I'd guess he might have faced 1/4 of them. You're probably one of these yankee fans who LOVES A-Rod and still thinks all of his accomplishments are clean. Nice try, Bro.

Joe Morgan Sucks!

J Ballot said...

You missed the point. The point isn't whether or not Bonds was "on 'roids." He almost certainly was but I don't care.

The point is that reality is irreducibly complex, and it is lazy and irresponsible to claim with absolute certainty that steroids = 73 HR. The cause and effect is not so simple.

The explanations for why a ballplayer would hit more HR at age 36 than at 26 are endless: better training, proper nutrition, improved coaching, intensive video study, LASIK surgery, marriage/stability at home, experience, luck, the weather...shall I go on?

Baseball history is rife with uncharacteristic performances. Bert Campaneris, 22 HR in 1970. Wade Boggs, 24 HR in 1987. Is it your position that they had chemical help, or just had fluke seasons?

The real point is that nobody can definitively state how steroids improve performance. Sure, muscles (and heads) grow, fatigue is reduced and players allegedly "bounce back" faster, but so what? Most baseball skills (superior hand-eye coordination, plate discipline, arm strength, speed, baserunning instincts) aren't improved with bulging muscles.

The narrative that steroids are the magic elixir that turn Mendozas into All-Stars and All-Stars into Roy Hobbs is fatuous and simplistic. It serves baseball's perpetually aggrieved punditry in their self-appointed role as the Keepers of the Game's Purity and Virtue. The only problem: most fans don't care. Really. Sportswriters are preaching to a public that is growing outraged by their outrage.

I'm not suggesting steroids can't help, only that I don't know to what extent, and neither do you. Let's stick to what we know and admit to what we don't.