Over on SI.com, Tom Verducci has a lengthy examination about the use of the modern closer. It covers a lot of ground, from a comparison of pitchers like Brian Wilson to the multi-inning relievers of yore, to quotes from Dodgers trainer Stan Conte (who is writing a research paper about repeat customers of Tommy John surgery), to the use of PITCHf/x as an early-warning system for pitcher injuries. It's a good read.
The thing that caught my attention the most, though, was this:
The incidence of injuries went down slightly in one brief period: the back end of the steroid era, when sophisticated, cutting-edge use of illegal performance-enhancers -- not the industrial-strength, gym-rat regimens of the early adopters -- were keeping people on the field and aiding in recovery. But since 2007 -- right after amphetamines joined steroids on the banned list -- the rate of injuries has not improved despite the advances in science, nutrition and training.
Now, I'm not so sure about the causation/correlation link. I spent several minutes making these the other day, so I'll share them again:
The theory makes sense, though. Back when players were using all manner of artificial enhancements, ligaments and tendons were stronger. They healed quicker. They recovered from strain and use quicker. Maybe. It's something that needs to be studied, and not by someone like me or Verducci. What are the healing properties of things like cream and the clear and the slather and the elixir and the testies*?
* I don't know if anyone has ever really used that nickname for "testosterone supplements", but it would be funnier if they did.
The ethical argument against performance-enhancing drugs boils down to this: The drugs have side effects, and a player shouldn't have to choose between those side effects and losing his job. There are other arguments, but that's always been the most compelling one. If the 25th man on a roster needs to choose between a job and shrunken testicles, there's something wrong with the system.
But science keeps chuggin'. And the side effects will become less of a concern. And then baseball will have some decisions to make.
Think it's impossible baseball will allow steroids as a healing agent? They've been cool with it for decades:
(Kirk) Gibson is one of the first players to arrive at the stadium. He is transported from the player's parking lot to the dugout in a cart. He limps into the dugout and toward the trainer's room, where he is given injections of cortisone and xylocaine for the sprained ligament in his right knee.
That's not me trying to be cute -- "lol cortisone is a steroid lol GOTCHA KIRK" -- but I'm just pointing out there are steroids in baseball already. They have side effects and everything. They're used to keep players playing.
The obvious difference is cortisone isn't going to help players hit (or throw) a ball harder. That's the demarcation line right now, and it's a pretty simple one. There isn't a whole of ambiguity: If it makes players do anything but get back on the field, it's probably not okay.
But what if there were a drug without any major side effects that prevented injuries, but it also helped players with their endurance -- helped them stay fresh throughout the 162-game season and bounce back for a day game after a night game? Again, we're talking about a hypothetical drug with the side effects of, say, ibuprofen. We already know ibuprofen's cool for baseball players.
That drug doesn't exist. And that drug might never exist. I'm no … drugologist, or whatever. But the morality and ethics of performance-enhancing drugs would change. If such a drug were to exist, there would be a compelling ethical argument in favor of the mandatory use of said drug. Healthier players are good for the business, good for the fan, and good for the individual who stays healthy.
We're used to injuries being a part of the game, but maybe we shouldn't be. Maybe injuries should be more of an outrage, more of a cause. Medical science thinks they are. And considering teams and players both lose money because of the relative frailty of the human body, they'll probably be quicker to adapt than you think. The answer could be better drugs. Verducci mentions stem cells. Hell, we could be talking about baseball and nanobots in twenty years.
This is all hypothetical and speculative now, but it's a reminder things are going to get weird. Pitchers break down because they're pitchers. We've accepted that. Maybe we'll have to unlearn it -- and everything we thought we believed about performance-enhancing drugs -- one day.