Do Steroids Lead To More Home Runs?

Bill Nye, President Obama, and Neil deGrasse Tyson pose for a selfie at the White HouseNye and Obama, seen here with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the Cosmos Guy Periodically, people get het up when someone suggests that climate change might be, in some sense, related to changes in extreme weather patterns. Lately, the targets of this outrage were Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Barack Obama, the President Guy.

For all the reasons Chris Mooney discusses in his summary of the science, Nye and the President are right, and their critics are wrong. But I want to talk about baseball.

A few years back, San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds was revealed to have spent decades pumping himself full of what ESPN’s Patrick Hruby describes as “a Mexican farmacia’s worth of performance-enhancing drugs.” He also shattered hitting records, knocking more balls out of the park than any other player in baseball history.

There were some people who felt that the sudden spike in home runs might be connected to Bonds’s use of steroids and related illegal medicines. Critics objected that no individual home run could be attributed solely to the effects of steroids. The debate raged on, with self-proclaimed skeptics demanding that any attempt to associate an individual event with the injection of performance-enhancing compounds must undergo decades of peer review before it could be discussed. Or maybe I’m misremembering, and everyone agreed that you could plausibly link Bonds’s performance on the field to his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

In 2006, Hruby set out to evaluate the complex question of how many of the homers Barry Bonds hit can be credited to the steroids. His methodology is not so far from what climate scientists can do to evaluate the role of climate change in extreme weather events.

He explains:

we sought to quantify the performance-enhancing effects of steroids in four hitting-related categories: strength, stamina, longevity and confidence. To do so, we spoke to a swing guru, a major league scout, training and biomechanics specialists, and an expert on the physics of baseball. We looked over hit charts and home run distances, tabulating every Bonds blast from ’99 to now. We even got help from a nuclear scientist (albeit a nuclear scientist who really likes baseball). We then did the math.

By looking at his official stats and photographs, they could estimate how much muscle mass steroids added to Bonds’s body, and with the help of sports physiologists, they could estimate how much more speed that added muscle would impart to a ball. They examined tapes, and measured how much faster his bat moved because of that added muscle. They concluded that steroids added an average of 9 feet to a flyball, “the difference between the warning track out and reaching the outfield seats.” Relative to the distance to the outfield fence, that’s a mere 2% extra. But of the 301 homers Bonds hit between the time he started steroids and the time of their analysis, 66 fell within those 9 extra feet, and thus probably wouldn’t have been home runs but for the steroids.

Steroids also gave Bonds greater stamina through the season, letting him keep swinging for the stands later in the season and for more seasons. Those factors all combine to add additional average distance to the ball, which Hruby and his team calculated.

By looking at the record of every ball Bonds hit from the time when he started using steroids until his abuse was exposed, they could figure out which might not have been homers but for that added strength, speed, stamina, longevity, and confidence at the plate. A ball that he hit out of the park would probably have been a home run no matter what, but something that hit the first row of outfield seats probably wouldn’t have been. The upshot:

Six hundred sixteen home runs. Our best guess. A long way from 715 [when he retired, he was up to an official 762, making the adjusted final count 663], but still an incredible number. Such is the shame in having to wonder: Without steroids, Bonds was a damn good player. With steroids, he’s a good player damned.

For whatever reason, when the subject switches to the global climate and additions to the global atmosphere (which we can monitor far more carefully than Bonds’s bloodstream), people are more hesitant to believe the obvious truth. We don’t know exactly what extreme weather we’d be seeing today but for the added carbon pollution, but we know that the record temperatures and the drought and heat waves and flooding we endure all come with an asterisk as big as any next to the records Bonds set.