Monday, April 30, 2007

Steroids Affect the Floor, Not the Ceiling

Earlier today, before it was buried by the avalanche of hits from the BTF link (thanks Repoz!), I said this in reference to the Radomski steroids plea:

The names of the big stars [who are outed by Radomski as steroid abusers] will get the most press, but I predict that marginal players will make up the vast majority of the accused on the theory that the incentive is greater for modest talents to juice in order to make a roster than it is for above-average major leaguers to become stars. This is why I do not think steroids -- for all of their ills -- undermine the integrity of the game or the record book. Steroids, for the most part, affect the talent floor, not the talent ceiling.

Matt Roney is the kind of guy I'm talking about. A 1-10 major league record, riding the shuttle from Syracuse to Toronto. One run of good fortune -- a month of lights-out ball -- and Roney is back to big league meal money and having other people carry his bags. The incentive for him to do something -- anything -- to make the leap is so great that it's understandable that he'd risk a 50 game suspension, which amounts to $30K in salary, for the chance.

The same incentives don't apply to the biggest stars in the game. Yes, you and I may argue about whether Barry Zito is worth $126M, but either extreme of the debate makes Zito an obscenely wealthy man. He simply doesn't have the incentive to cheat the way someone like Roney does.

I may one day be shown to be very wrong about this, but my sense is that once we know everything knowable about steroid use over the past decade or two, we'll see that the vast majority of offenders were marginal prospects and aging veterans trying to hang on for one more year. Ego cases who were already superstars and who wanted to go from solid to inner-circle hall of famers like Bonds are going to be the exception, rather than the rule.

I don't say this in an effort to minimize the steroid problem. Indeed, minor leaguers and players who aren't superstars constitute the vast majority of professional ballplayers. If my theory holds, the problem could be far greater than that which is portrayed by sportswriters who like to caricature only the most prolific sluggers as juicers. If I'm right, our concern over records and the Hall of Fame would seem pretty petty in comparison to the scores of regular Joes who are ruining their health as they walk the line between a lifetime of comfort and a job at a warehouse. Players that the steroid moralizers in the media almost uniformly ignore.

What it would mean, however, is that the record books and much talked about integrity of the game would not be in the sort of peril in which many perceive it to be. The record books are safe because it's really only the superstars who threaten records, and under my theory, the superstars are more likely to be clean. The integrity -- defined by me as the fairness and quality of the competition -- is also safe, and may even be enhanced, because rather than feasting on the historically-hapless bottom of the roster players, the superstars have been forced, by virtue of steroids, to face historically-enhanced roster fodder. Obviously Barry Bonds blows a gigantic hole in the records argument, but we've been treating him as some sort of alien oddity for four years now, so what's a few years more?

But what say we if Alex Rodriguez hits 800 home runs? Or if Albert Pujols breaks Aaron's RBI record? Or if Jeter somehow creeps toward 4000 hits? Maybe their achievements would be greater because they had to face the amped-up Matt Roneys of the world as opposed to some rubber arm palooka from the days of yore.