Defining the Steroids Era

I've been looking over some home run stats and trying to relate these to the Steroids Era of baseball. I've got several motivations for doing this, which I'll talk about at the end of this article. But exactly when did the Steroids Era begin and end? To try to figure it out, I looked at some numbers

I built a spreadsheet of games played and home runs from 1985 to this year, and computed the home runs per 100 player-games for each year. (One player-game is one player appearing in a game, so if 9 players appear in a given game, that's 9 player-games.) And I saw some interesting trends. Below is a graph of the results:



The part that stands out the most, obviously, is the stretch between 1999 and 2001. In 2000, there were 5,692 home runs hit in MLB, which I'm fairly certain is the highest total ever. But before that, there is rather sharp upward trend that starts in 1994. Now, it must be remembered that 1993 and 1994 were both milestone years in baseball: 1993 was the expansion year in which the Miami Marlins, and in particularly, the Colorado Rockies, began play. And 1994 was the big strike year; it was the year in which about 1600 games including the World Series were wiped off the schedule, and baseball took a huge black eye on public opinion. Matt Williams won the NL home run title that year with 43 HR, and Ken Griffey Jr. won the AL title with 40. That doesn't sound extraordinary, but it must be remembered that those numbers were posted in 112 and 111 games respectively. If you project Williams' numbers to, say, 150 games, you get 57. Bear that at this time, no major league player had broken 50 home runs since George Foster did it in 1977, and you can see right away that something funny was going on, although it wasn't apparent because of the season being shortened by the strike.

Now, Williams had never topped 40 home runs before 1994 and he wouldn't ever again; his highest ever total after that was 35 in 1999. But the league-wide home run rate was about to reach unforeseen heights. After a slight decline in 1995, it ballooned to 10.04 HR per 100 player-games in 1996, the first complete season since the strike. (Think about that... it means that the league average hitter, including pitchers in the NL, was hitting a home run approximately once every 10 games.) That year was the year that Mark McGuire hit 52 home runs, and Brady Anderson, not known as a power hitter, hit 50. Something definitely fishy was going on. 52 wasn't really that surprising coming from McGuire -- he had long been regarded as a potential slugger, but had been dealing with injuries for the previous three seasons. But prior to that year, Anderson's career high was 21. And in fact, Anderson would never come anywhere close to 50 again. Further, a previously little-noted journeyman outfielder named Sammy Sosa hit 40, for the first time in his career. There would, of course, be lots more to come from Sosa.

So did the steroids era began in 1994 or 1996? Based on the huge uptick in that year, I think it was 1994. This corresponds to anecdotal evidence from player testimony suggesting that they were beginning to notice PED use around that time, and to consider it for themselves in order to keep up with the competition. Given that one of the known side effects of anabolic steroid use is that the user develops an aggressive, short temper, one can't help but wonder if it contributed to the rancor of the 1994 strike.

So if 1994 was the beginning of the Steroids Era, when was the end? The Mitchell Report was commissioned by MLB in 1996, but it wasn't published until after the end of the season in 2007. We see that in 2007, the home run rate took a big drop, from 10.07 home runs per 100 player-games to 9.24. That was the lowest rate since 1993. Coincidence? I think not. A lot of the publicly visible work on the Mitchell Report, including player and team coaching staff interviews, was done in 2007. Everyone know something was going on, and several suspected high-profile players, including Sosa and Barry Bonds, quit after the 2007 season. The lowest home run rate recorded between 1994 and 2006 was 9.42 in 1997. That low point has since been topped only once, in 2009, when the rate reached 9.55. And as you can see from the graph, there has been an overall downward trend that started in 2007.

Now, granted there are a few complicating factors. Smaller ballparks started coming on line in the '90s (starting with Baltimore's New Camden Yards in 1992), replacing the 1960s-era multipurpose stadiums which typically had longer fences and generous foul territory. Also, there was the legalization of maple bats in 1997. Both of these factors are still effect today. But home runs are on a gradual downward trend in spite of these. If they were the determining factors in the Steroids Era rise in home runs, then that era's home run rates would likely still be occurring today.

So a good conclusion is that the Steroids Era started in 1994 and ended with the 2006 season. Those 13 years indelibly marked baseball, and not all in a good way. If one looks at the all-time top 10 home runs, six of the 10 -- Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Sosa and McGuire -- are guys who played most or all of their career in the Steroids Era. Now, at least some of those guys were probably clean; Thome in particular I've never heard any credible accusations against, and his career doesn't have the come-out-of-nowhere trajectory of a juicer. But in the entire extensive history of baseball, how likely is it that six of the sports top-10 power hitters would come from this relatively short period? How likely is it that they would all hit more home runs than Mickey Mantle, Mike Schmidt, Jimmie Foxx, Willie McCovey, or Stan Musial? Doesn't seem very likely.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I have some personal motivations for pursuing this. The obvious use of PEDs and the resulting corruption of the game thoroughly disgusted me, and led me to abandon baseball for almost 15 years. It's only within the last few years, now that the era has apparently ended, that I've gotten interested again. I'd like to be able to characterize exactly what the impacts on the game are, so that baseball fans who care can spot the trend and sound the alarm early if it ever happens again. There's no good reason why Hall of Fame players like, say, Eddie Mathews should get shoved aside in the record books by cheaters.

This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.

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