Archive for Monday, May 16, 2005

Commentary: Decline of homers tied to drug testing

Still, there could be reasons other than lack of steroid use for reduction in dingers this season

May 16, 2005

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— Our nation's baseball scribes are in a fact-finding tizzy. They've been joined in the investigation by suspicious, grassy-knoll-theory-loving fans who enjoy a compelling mystery.

At issue is the decrease in major-league home-run totals. Last season, 2.25 homers were cranked per game, and that included an average of 2.16 for the first five weeks. This year, the barrage has dipped to 1.97 homers per game.

The power drain has prompted a rush to judgment. Is MLB's stricter anti-steroids policy forcing sluggers to wean themselves off the magic juice? If you endorse the theory, then you believe that the downsizing muscle is causing long fly balls to fade at the warning track.

I recently mentioned the trend of fewer homers to a couple of Cardinals pitchers.

"Gee, I wonder why," Matt Morris said, with a wink.

Do I detect a little sarcasm there?

It seems that pitchers are inclined to believe their earned-run averages no longer are being shredded by weird science and artificial hulks and that there's a renewed fairness in the pitcher vs. batter matchup.

For now, I'm unconvinced. I'd like to see more games played, warmer weather, more of the schedule burned off and a pile of evidence before joining ranks with the Oliver Stones of the baseball universe.

Raw numbers reveal fluctuations in home-run production in recent seasons. Some discrepancies seemingly knock down the steroids theory. Why, for example, did home runs increase from 2.14 per game in 2003 to 2.25 per game last season? Testing for steroids began in 2003. If players feared getting caught, then why would homers increase in 2004?

And consider this: in the midst of the alleged steroids boom period, 2002, hitters bashed 2.09 homers per game, a plummet from 2.25 homers per contest in 2001. But then the number climbed back to 2.14 homers per game in 2003. Earlier in the so-called steroids era, we saw another substantial drop in homers from 1996 (2.19 per game) to 1997 (2.05).

Research conducted by the Baseball Prospectus concluded that the rate of homers per batted balls put in play essentially is unchanged from 2004. While the current rate of offense is down from 2004, the decrease in the American League is more dramatic than in the National League. Through Thursday, slugging percentage was down 28 points in the AL, but only seven points in the NL. And while the ERA in the NL was virtually the same as last year, it has fallen from 4.63 to 4.28 in the AL. So to accept this new steroids theory, you'd also have to assume that AL hitters must have been juicing more than NL hitters.

I have a theory. A lot of offensive stars have spent time on the disabled list. That group includes Barry Bonds, Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Nomar Garciaparra, Frank Thomas, Wily Mo Pena, Magglio Ordonez, Jayson Werth, Scott Rolen, Jose Cruz Jr. and Jose Valentin. Last season, those players combined to hit 381 homers. Through Thursday, they had swatted only 28.

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