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Steroid Testing and the Death of Moneyball

The commercial for the movie version of Moneyball is airing pretty regularly during baseball games this week. Seeing it reminded me how much I enjoyed the book. So I pulled it off my shelf to take a fresh look.

Moneyball tells the story of how the Oakland A’s were able to compete at a high level with the Yankees and Red Sox, despite a player payroll that was a fraction of theirs. A’s general manager Billy Beane developed strategies of finding traits in players that were undervalued and not wasting outs on the field.

Near the end of the book, Beane describes the impending playoffs as a crapshoot. Of his use of statistics to win games, he remarks, “My [method] doesn’t work in the playoffs.” Which got me to wondering: Why doesn’t Billy Beane’s method work in the regular season anymore, either?

Since that Moneyball season, the Oakland A’s have a record of 744–704. That record gets worse the further you get from the glory years. The last three seasons, including what’s happened so far in 2011, their record is 225–252. In the past five seasons, they have played .500 ball just once. They have made the playoffs only twice since Moneyball was written.

A quick internet search tells me a lot of other people are asking this same question. The hundreds of conjectures can be categorized in three ways:

• Beane isn’t really that good. He got lucky.

• On-base percentage stopped being undervalued.

• A great pitching staff fell apart.

There is merit to all of these, and some convincing arguments can be heard, but in very few places did I see any mention of the following, incontrovertible fact: The Oakland A’s offensive juggernaut was highly dependent on steroids.

In Moneyball, Michael Lewis summarizes the high-OBP strategy: Get guys on base and wait for a three-run home run. He also points out the A’s batting philosophy that all nine spots in the line-up should be home-run threats.

In the seven years prior to the 2002 Moneyball season, during which Beane made his unusual transition from fourth outfielder to head honcho, Baseball-Reference.com lists the following as the MVP of the A’s: Mark McGwire, McGwire, McGwire, Kenny Rogers, Jason Giambi, Giambi, and Giambi.

Now look at this list: 205, 176, 189, 155, 175, 171, 125, 135, 109. That’s the A’s home run total for each season, beginning in 2002. That’s a pretty clear trend. The high-OBP approach stopped working when they couldn’t depend on a three-run home run anymore.

Steroid testing started in 2003, but the first year wasn’t particularly important. MLB and the players’ union had worked out an agreement that the 2003 testing would be a dry run. If more than 5 percent of the 2003 samples showed steroid use, testing would start in earnest in 2004. (By the way, this was all supposed to be anonymous, which didn’t work out so well for A-Rod or David Ortiz after the results were leaked.)

In November of 2003, MLB announced that 5 to 7 percent of the samples showed steroids, so they would be implementing the full test policy. Experts believe that the testing program has been pretty successful and the game is a lot cleaner than it was. The numbers bear this out: Home-run production is down and overall slugging has dropped.

Now look at the cast of characters in Moneyball. It’s like the index to the Mitchell Report: Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Jason and Jeremy Giambi, and Miguel Tejada all make appearances.

Could the A’s front office have been ignorant about this? Widespread steroid use in MLB was at least tacitly condoned; the emphasis on power hitting even rewarded it. And Beane had played for the team in the same clubhouse.

Look, I liked Moneyball. It made me think. I would never have played on websites like Baseball-Reference or Baseball Prospectus without it. But in retrospect, the fact that steroids don’t get mentioned even once is pretty damning. Maybe the attitude was the one expressed by so many in the Mitchell Report: Every team had a problem.

The commercial for the movie adaptation looks good. I’m sure I’ll see it and I’m sure that I’ll enjoy the climactic Scott Hatteberg home run as much in the theater as I did in the book. But now the movie will feel incomplete unless a scene is added where a trainer or player injects Miggy Tejada with Winstrol.


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