Well, Melky Cabrera is suspended for 50 games following a positive test for testosterone. This news carries several different implications.
First, there the immediate impact on the games. The Giants are currently in a tie for first in the NL West and half a game out of the Wild Card. Now, they’re without one of their top hitters for the rest of the season. That will obviously hurt for the stretch run. Meanwhile, the Dodgers, Cardinals, Pirates, Braves, Diamondbacks, and their fans probably celebrated a bit at news about a competitor getting weaker (but felt awful afterwards, if that makes it any better).
Next, there’s the fact that Cabrera will be a free agent this offseason. We were probably looking at a fairly large, several year deal for him before this. Now? Well, I don’t know. I imagine bidding on him will be a little lower on him then it was before. He may have to settle for a one-year deal to re-establish himself and try again next season. However, there’s always the chance that teams don’t really care and sign him to a large deal anyway. There aren’t really many similar cases that I can think of to figure out a precedent. I imagine teams will shy off somewhat, though, meaning that Melky will probably need a short deal if he wants a maxed-out, long term deal.
And then, there are the larger things people are picking up on. I’ve seen some commenters immediately compare this to the Ryan Braun case, which was a little different. The Braun case was leaked to the public before the appeals. The Cabrera case seems to have already been through the process, meaning the league could release the information. While there was plenty of ambiguity in the Braun hearing, this case seems rather open-and-shut so far, with Melky acknowledging the results and apologizing.
And then, I’ve seen people wondering how MLB allowed a cheater to flourish for so long, especially after he suddenly improved. First of all, players suddenly improve much more often than you choose to admit. This is especially true of players who suddenly get better at the age of 26, like Cabrera did last year. 27 is when players are supposed to be (on average) at their peak, and even if you don’t subscribe to the age 27 effect, 26 is hardly too old for a player to “put it all together”, so to speak.
On top of that, random performance spikes are not at all a symptom of steroids and testosterone, as so many people seem to think. In all honesty, we still can’t be sure of what effect steroids have on ball players.
Does it make them better? If so, then why are there so many players who took steroids without ever getting better? For example, players like Bart Miadich, Josias Manzanillo, Manny Alexander, and Todd Williams all turned up in the Mitchell Report. Barry Bonds even had his worst hitting season since the 1980s in 1999, the year he is widely assumed to have started steroids.
Plenty of players were linked to steroids without being power hitters, too. Again, see the Mitchell Report for proof of that.
For every thing you can think of that “proves” what steroids do, there’s something that goes against it or negates it.
Besides, with Melky, we can actually look at why he was better hitter. Let’s start with his OPS+ (OPS compared to the league average) over the past four seasons:
He’s obviously becoming a better hitter, but what did each part of his batting line (average/OBP/slugging) look like each of those years?
Look especially at his 2009 and 2011 seasons. His OBP is about the same both years. However, his average jumped 31 points, and his slugging jumped up 54 points. Then look at 2011 to 2012. His line saw improvements of .041/.051/.046. He’s actually walking less and striking out more now on a percentage basis than he did back in 2009, and his isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is pretty close to his 2009 rate. Whatever his improvement is, it’s almost entirely from his batting average.
And, wouldn’t you know it, look at his batting average on balls in play in those years:
Basically, 10% of his batted balls that used to turn into outs are now hits. That’s a very large swing. Is it because he’s hitting the ball any harder? Well, let’s look at the percentage of his batted balls that have been line drives, ground balls, and fly balls, respectively:
Well, that’s odd. His 2010 saw a noticeably lower line drive rate, but his rate this year isn’t wildly higher than his 2009 rate.The biggest change though? He’s hitting fewer fly balls and more ground balls.
My first thought was that the testosterone in this case might have helped him lose weight, made him faster, and helped him beat out infield grounders. However, his infield hit rate is actually down from the past two seasons.
All of this is to say: we really have no idea on the effects of steroids on baseball hitters, even if we like to say that we do. Melky Cabrera tested positive and is a better hitter now than he was before, but he’s not hitting the ball much harder than he used to when he wasn’t all that good, his power hasn’t jumped unreasonably, and he’s hitting more ground balls than ever. The balls he’s hitting are just falling in for more hits. Maybe the steroids helped that somehow, but I’m kind of at a loss to figure out how. So maybe hold off on the “Well, obviously he was on steroids” narrative, for now at least, if for no other reason than so we don’t use this as a case of confirmation bias and jump on future hitters who suddenly improve.