FIRE JOE MORGAN: Clarification: Eric Walker

FIRE JOE MORGAN

Where Bad Sports Journalism Came To Die

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Monday, January 28, 2008

 

Clarification: Eric Walker

Some of you have emailed me to defend Eric Walker, cited and gently mocked in the post sub as a guy who thinks that steroids didn't increase HR (which he does). I introduced him as "a guy you may have heard of" for precisely this reason -- he is one of the good guys, I think, who recently established this site as a scientific investigation on the true benefits (or lack thereof) of PEDs. It's excellent, and I recommend it, especially this page, which is dedicated to the actual effects (or lack thereof) of steroid use. (He can also be found right here on Blogger, with his excellently-titled "Is It a Blog Yet?", a more general-interest kind of deal, but fun reading.)

I love Eric Walker. Eric Walker is awesome. The problem with that article in my opinion, whether it is due to a lack of context or Walker's own words (or both), are:

(1) The author (not Walker) attributes a "late-30's surge" to Aaron, when his numbers were pretty similar in that period to those from his early 30s (which itself is impressive, I suppose). This is not the same thing as suddenly out of nowhere hitting 73 HR in a season when you've never before hit more than 49 (and that was the year before), and also you are 36/37. It's not the same. Not. Same.

(2) Walker, who is smarter than I am and much more thorough, challenges us to find a counterargument rooted in mathematics, and there is one, and I linked it. [EDIT: Please see comments for a good counter-argument to the study, and a call-to-arms.] Now, obviously, the standard deviation break-down of Bonds's season does not in any way link the HR to steroids -- nor does it attempt to. What it does, is: it shows the extreme improbability of a 37 year-old man hitting 73 HR in a season. Is it possible that Bonds is, actually, just the 1 in 53 million who could do it? I suppose. But he's also, apparently, the #1 abuser of PEDs -- not just steroids, but crazy, never-before-seen-or-analyzed shit -- in baseball history. That is worth looking at, I think.

A large part of Walker's site's argument has to do with the fact that steroids add more muscle mass to the upper body than the lower body, and that power is generated in the lower body. Problem is, I don't think the Cream or the Clear were used in those studies. And I don't know what counts as "steroids." (This could be due to my own careless reading of the site or its many sister sites. There's a lot of stuff there.)

He also seems, when he does his calculations, to use only "lower body" muscle gain, and I am not sure if that includes the torso or not. Because Bonds's torso is massive, and so was Giambi's when he was using, and so was McGwire's. It is unclear to me whether torso muscle mass is being included in Walker's calculations, and I am reasonably certain that Prof. Adair mentions in his writings that power is generated primarily from legs, ass, and torso.

Walker also seeks to disprove the notion that the rejuvenation effects of steroids help guys, really, in terms of HR-hitting, but the way he does it (as far as I can tell) is by arguing that they can't recover that quickly from injuries that would make them miss games, and even if they did, since the best HR hitters only really hit like 2 a week or so, it wouldn't make that much difference. But he doesn't, I don't think, try to quantify the effects of steroids on just minor nagging injuries that might make a guy play who's playing at 80% effectiveness feel good-as-new. Cortisone is a steroid, and guys get cortisone shots all the time to relieve pain, and it helps them play better. [EDIT: please see comments.] Perhaps the true benefit of steroids is in this marginal universe, where a guy who might just be banged-up gets to feel tip-top. (I truthfully don't remember offhand whether Walker deals with that specifically -- I'll have to check again.)

Anyway, I was just responding to the specific things in that article that seemed slapdash. As for the first comment I made, about him ignoring the spike in 50-HR seasons, well, that was probably knee-jerk. He mostly uses the Power Factor thing in his analysis, which, since he is smarter than I am, I am going to assume is worthwhile. I still would like to know why it is that the three guys who have hit 60+ HR since Maris are all hard-core PED users. Small Sample Size? Coincidence? I guess?

Anyway, I digress, a lot. I promise I love Eric Walker. I aspire to be as intellectually rigorous as he is. But I also reserve the right to be lazily critical of New York Times sportswriters for the sake of comedy.

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posted by Ken Tremendous  # 5:35 PM
Comments:
Thoughtful stuff from David:

The problem I have with the study showing Bonds' gazillion standard deviations away from the mean stems from the arbitrariness of the data selected: steroids aside, it is ridiculous to assume that a 37-year-old playing in the 1930s has the same relative age as a 37-year-old playing today, or even 10-20 years ago. Babe Ruth once knocked himself unconscious in Spring Training by running into a palm tree; he nor any other player in his time preserved his body like a PED-free player today can and does. Not to mention that the article uses raw numbers from these vastly different eras, a glaring error that you've criticized multiple times in HOF articles. If you would post this it might motivate one your more analytically inclined readers (i.e. anyone that reads FJM) to run the same study with age and/or normalization factored into the equation.

Anyone want to take him up on it?
 
Aaron makes a good point, E. E. Cummings-style:

in the 2003 edition of his baseball abstract, bill james points out that hank aaron had the "illusion of consistency" late in his career because he moved from a pitchers park to one suited for hitters, right at the time (non-steroidal) home run hitters usually decline in power.

bonds moved parks as well at about that age, except it was from one pitchers park to another one that was arguably even worse for (non-steroidal) home run hitters. so that probably makes his 73 home runs even more unlikely.

 
An important clarification comes via Brian:

Ken, I'm concerned that your most recent post, while generally thorough and well-reasoned, suffers at one point from the kind of insufficient specificity that tends to plague discussions of PED use nowadays. More specifically, you talk about "steroids" generally and then refer to cortisone -- "a steroid" -- as archetypal evidence that "steroids" can aid day-to-day recovery. As you probably know in the back of your mind, but failed to elucidate here, catabolic steroids and anabolic steroids are, in biological terms, opposites with respect to building muscle. Cortisone is an effective anti-inflammatory but also a corticosteroid; stanazolol (e.g.), is an effective anabolic but you wouldn't want to inject it into a tendon to reduce swelling. This is not to say that there isn't a plausible argument that anabolics and/or HGH and/or insulin and/or equipoise (all of which have probably entered Mr. Bonds' ham-hock gluteals at one point or another) contribute to day-to-day recovery; this is merely to point out that relying on cortisone's classification as a "steroid" does not prove, even a little bit, the day-to-day recovery attributes of anabolic steroids.

Here was my response to him:

I was aware of the difference and did not mean to imply that anyone would inject, like, Winstrol as an anti-inflammatory. (It does read that way, and the mistake is mine.) What I meant to say was that steroids generally -- in different ways -- can be used to accelerate health, whether as "calm down!" or "speed up!" The only point I was trying to make was that Walker accounts for, and seems to disprove, a lot of arguments people have about PED use, and the smaller, day-to-day health benefits of steroids of all kinds seemed not to be accounted for.
 
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