Economists and engineers have one thing in common--they know everything; just ask any economist or engineer and he will heartily confirm that, never mind a few faulty projections, collapsing bridges or exploding space shuttles. Generally, economists and engineers are far too busy to comment on sports but now some economists have ventured over into the playground and decided to set the rest of us straight about what really is happening in the world of fun and games. For instance, apparently we were too dumb to realize it but Barry Bonds has not really gotten any bigger, performance-enhancing drugs do not actually work and Bonds' late career performance should not raise any suspicions. Yes, that was a mouthful and no, I am not making it up--someone actually wrote all of that.
The first claim is based on a statement by Mark Silva, who is erroneously referred to by Wages of Wins as a "doctor" (Silva is actually an orthotist). Silva designs and builds the custom-made arm guard that Bonds famously wears over his elbow. Silva says that he uses calipers to measure Bonds' arms and that "there’s been no significant change in the size of his arms" in the 15 years that Silva has measured the slugger. That is interesting, to say the least, since Bonds' listed weight has increased 53 pounds during that time, from 185 to 238, and some people believe that Bonds is in fact even heavier than 238. I'm no medical doctor--but then neither is Silva or the Wages of Wins author--but I will go out on a limb and say that it is physiologically impossible to gain 53 pounds without your arms increasing in size; this is even more true if the person in question is an elite athlete who quite obviously gained much of this new mass in his upper body. Maybe "significant" means one thing to Silva and something else to the rest of us. Maybe the arm guard is adjustable, maybe there is some other explanation but I'm not buying the idea that Bonds' arms are the same size that they were 15 years ago--but this kind of thinking fits in perfectly with the very credo that Wages of Wins espouses in all of its analysis: don't believe your eyes, because your eyes lie; only go by the numbers (though in this case Wages of Wins chooses to ignore the fairly obvious conclusion that one would draw about the arms of someone who has gained over 50 pounds). Their writers will earnestly say that they can crunch a few numbers and achieve a better understanding of sports than general managers and coaches who make their living in the field. I'm all for using statistical analysis as a tool to better understand sports (and anything else)--but nothing is better than the trained eye and nothing hurts the cause of statistical analysis more than the attitude of some of its adherents that they know everything there is to know about everything.
It's only one step from Mr. Silva's remarks to this quote, made by a Wages of Wins reader and cited in the aforementioned Wages of Wins article: "...please don’t show me a picture of the 1986 Bonds compared to today. We all looked at leaner than when we were 21. Bonds began bulking up well before he faced any steroid suspicions. Most players do." The wording of the quote is a bit garbled but as I understand it the writer is asserting that people tend to look leaner at 21 than they do when they get older. I'm not sure how scientific that is, how we would go about proving that or what exactly it has to do with Bonds and his usage of performance-enhancing drugs. The writer then cites Silva's arm measurements of Bonds and concludes, "Even if his head and feet have grown, who cares! Anyone who has bothered to look at the scientific literature knows that HGH has no performance-enhancing effects. This is the consensus opinion of the exercise physiology profession."
So there you have it--Bonds has not actually gotten bigger, except for possibly his head and feet, and performance-enhancing drugs don't work, so what's the big deal? But wait--there's more. This author also wants us to believe that, save for Bonds' 73 home run explosion in 2001, his "aging curve is actually worse than Aaron’s in many ways (as far as the ability to hit home runs is concerned)." This statement is demonstrably untrue. Bonds has hit a total of 73 home runs (and counting) after the age of 40, a major league record; Aaron had 42 home runs after the age of 40. Bonds also has far more most home runs after the age of 35 than any other member of the 500 Home Run Club, with his 312 (and counting) placing him well ahead of Aaron's 245. Bonds has hit more than 40% of his career home runs after the age of 35. The next closest member of the 500 Home Run Club in that category is Rafael Palmeiro (37%), who wagged his finger at Congress while denying that he cheated only to be disgraced when it was revealed that he tested positive for steroids.
Let's take a deep breath for a moment; sometimes it is hard to know how to respond to something that is so obviously incorrect from beginning to end. One thing I know going in is that there is no way to convince this writer that he is wrong because he "knows" without question that he is 100% correct. So the issue is how to discuss these subjects intelligently so that other people are not led astray by his confident certainty. Let's start with some facts about Bonds' size. Bonds was listed at 6-1, 185 in 1986 when he was a 21 year old rookie. He was listed at those exact same numbers until 1991, when his weight changed to 190. In 1992 his weight went back to 185. From 1993-96 his weight was listed at 190. So from ages 21-31 Bonds gained exactly five pounds. In 1997, Bonds was listed at 6-2, 206. I don't know how he grew an inch but that is a story for another day. He remained at 206 in 1998 and in 1999-2000 his weight increased to 210. In 2001, his weight jumped to 228, where it remained until this season, when he is now listed at 238. It should be noted that, if anything, the post 1999 numbers likely understate Bonds' size. In any case, Bonds stayed essentially the same size for more than a decade and then transformed himself fairly quickly from a lean, fast player to a huge, power-hitting machine. This change is not at all similar to how people's bodies gradually evolve from age 21 to 40+; Bonds' body actually stayed about the same size for more than half of his career.
Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the authors of Game of Shadows, based their account of Bonds' use of steroids "on more than a thousand pages of documents and interviews with more than 200 people, many of whom we spoke to repeatedly. In our reporting on the BALCO story for the San Francisco Chronicle, we obtained transcripts of the secret grand jury testimony of Barry Bonds and seven other prominent professional athletes." One is free to disregard all of this information, just like one was free to not believe the Dowd Report that linked Pete Rose to gambling--but make no mistake that you are then choosing to disregard a lot of evidence. Their research indicates that Bonds began using steroids prior to the 1999 season. These drugs not only helped to transform his body but they helped to transform all of his numbers, not just his home run totals. Four of Bonds' five best offensive seasons came after 1999--in other words, after the age of 35. Fainaru-Wada and Williams go on to note that baseball researcher Lee Sinins, using the "runs created" formula devised by Bill James, has listed the best offensive seasons in baseball history. Bonds has compiled three of these seasons, more than any player other than Babe Ruth--and all of them came well after his body changed noticeably and dramatically. Bonds was 36, 37 and 39 during those seasons; no other player on Sinins' list was older than 33. Another baseball researcher, Sean Forman of baseball-reference.com, says that from 2000-2004 Bonds had the greatest stretch of five consecutive years that any player has had in major league baseball history. Again, keep in mind that Bonds was 35 at the start of that run. Both Sinins and Forman are looking at overall offensive performance. Bonds' added strength and bat speed not only translated into more home runs but raised his complete hitting game, altering how pitchers could pitch to him and enabling him to do things that no one else in baseball history has done.
Clearly, Bonds is a special athlete. He was a great player long before 1999, but cheating has enabled him to vault from being a great player to being a transcendent player and has irrevocably tampered with baseball's record book, not only in home runs but also in slugging percentage, walks and many other categories--unless, of course, you choose to believe that he has not gotten bigger or that his increase in size is not the result of using performance-enhancing drugs.
If you still believe that Bonds has not gotten bigger, then you are an excellent candidate for the Flat Earth Society or one of those groups that believes that the moon landings were staged. For the rest of us who realize that Bonds has in fact gotten much bigger, the question is how much of that growth is attributable to performance-enhancing drugs. It is absurd to say that such drugs don't work; if that is true, then why are athletes in almost every conceivable sport using them? Do economists know more about physiology than elite athletes and the doctors/chemists who are working for them? Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are just that--performance-enhancers; they enable users to work out longer and harder, with shorter recovery times. It should be obvious that this represents a tremendous advantage. Anyone who makes it to the major leagues is already an elite athlete. An elite athlete who uses artificial means to enable himself to train longer and harder will end up having advantages in strength and explosiveness, which directly translate into power and bat speed. Steroids will not help the average person to hit home runs but an elite athlete who already is gifted with great hand-eye coordination receives a great boost by using such substances. That is why so many athletes are cheating. Major league baseball has finally put a steroids testing program in place, albeit one that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) considers to be weak, but there is no reliable test for Human Growth Hormone (HGH). In other words, just like the cheaters were ahead of the game in the 1990s and early 2000s it is likely that they are still ahead of the game now.