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Baseball's Steroid Era: What If Steroids Aren't To Blame?

Starting in the late 1990s, and continuing until about 2006, MLB players hit a lot of home runs. Like, a never-before-seen amount of home runs. At first, as fans, we thought this was great -- who doesn't like a tater?? But then, as more and more dingers flew out of parks at record levels, we began to get suspicious (despite the fact that long-standing opinion had been that more muscles and bulking-up did NOT help hit home runs). There must have been some reason for this influx ... something that we could easily see, something tangible that was obviously producing increased power -- oh, steroids! Get rid of all those records, boys! And put asterisks on everything!

Only problem with that, of course, is that there's not actually any proof that steroids lead to more home runs. And that's the main idea behind Eric Walker's (very) extensive work, "Steroids, Other 'Drugs', and Baseball," and the question being asked by Joe Posnanski: what if we are wrong again about steroids?

[Walker] points out that steroids "very heavily favor" building your upper body while home run power mostly comes from lower body strength. He suggests that if Barry Bonds added 20 pounds of pure muscle to his whole body, probably no more than 5 or 7 of those pounds would be lower body, and by his math equation the added power would likely be no more than 2 to 4 feet of length. He points out that while the players may have looked bigger and stronger - and no doubt WERE bigger and stronger - it certainly was not the cause of the home run records.

As Posnanski points out, we're all just assuming that steroids have caused this latest increase in home run totals, seemingly ignoring other possible factors, like changes to the baseball itself, rule alterations and "even minute changes in ballpark dimensions [which] can create massive shifts as well." And indeed, this is hardly the first time that baseball has seen a power surge.

The greatest home run spike in baseball history happened from 1918 to 1921 - total homers jumped from 235 to 447 to 630 to 937. Why? There are various theories (outlawing of the spitball, a more regular rotation of baseballs, various scorekeeping changes*) but the overriding feeling is that Major League Baseball spiked the ball (so much so that it was regularly called "The Jackrabbit Ball," and the era before is still called "Dead Ball"). 

But it wasn't just 1920.

  • 1976 to 1977 saw a jump from 2,235 home runs to 3,644, with 19 different players hitting 30 or more homers (MLB switched from a Rawlings baseball to one made by Spalding before the '77 season)
  • In 1987, the HR total increased by 645 from the previous season, with 28 players recording 30-plus home reason years (long-standing theory is the ball was juiced)
  • And baseball's biggest home run jump -- no, not the late 90s -- was between 1993 and 1994: before the strike ended the season, players were on pace for around 4,700 homers, which would have easily surpasses '93's total of 4030. By many projections, 1994 was set to rewrite the record books:

Matt Williams was just about on pace that year to break Roger Maris' home run record when the strike struck, and Ken Griffey Jr. had a shot at the record, and Tony Gwynn was a real threat to hit .400 (just to show it wasn't all power that year). Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas were both having absurd Jimmie Foxx kinds of years AND (people do forget this), Barry Bonds had 37 home runs in 112 games. He was on pace to hit 53 or so home runs. And this was the SKINNY Bonds (he might, with a stolen base rush, have had a shot at a 50-50 season). Seventeen different players (including a 25-year-old kid named Sammy Sosa) had at least a shot at 40 home runs ... the most ever in a season had been eight.

It's unlikely, maybe even foolish to think, that all of a sudden, everyone in baseball started taking steroids for the 1994 season. The more likely scenario is that something happened to the baseball. Again.

Which isn't to say that Bud Selig and company are orchestrating the game like some sort of masterminds, making slight changes to the baseballs to push sexy power numbers and drive interest in the sport. But. If ever there were a time that MLB did decide it needed a boost in popularity, and saw an easy way to do just that with a few more home runs ... wouldn't it be in those seasons that followed a very damaging strike?

Hitting a home run has never been as simple as being strong. We know this, but seemingly, choose to ignore it. So what happens when we eventually accept that the dirty Steroid Era wasn't really influenced by using steroids?

Hopefully we're using pencil for all those asterisks.