Once again, we find ourselves reading about the same story we were reading about a decade ago. A player, up and down on the minor league shuttle, is suddenly doing great things for a new team that's unexpectedly winning their division. He's putting up numbers that he's never put up in the majors before. Somewhere, someone is whispering that he's dirty.
Is it fair? No, those first accusations aren't fair. But that story is about Chris Colabello. That person doing the original whispering probably feels pretty, pretty smart.
There have been two times in my life when I was just sure a player was going to the speakeasy GNC: in 1996, when Mark McGwire was hitting dingers by the dozens, and in 1999, when Barry Bonds bought McGwire's body online during the offseason. That had a lot to do with eyeball detective work and armchair psychology, but it turns out I was right, even if that same kind of half-hearted sleuthing would have been wrong the next 50 times.
So take it a little easy on the people who are quietly whispering about Jake Arrieta. It's a natural correlation to make when a player suddenly gets better, as if steroids work like Popeye spinach and their hands become anvils. We've seen so many players improve and get busted over the last 20 years that our brain has connected those wires. It's not fair, but humans are pretty good about slathering everyone with the same brush to save ourselves time and effort.
It's the people who are so sure about Arrieta who are fools. It's the people who are so certain about players like Arrieta that they're willing to go on national TV and tip-tap around "I'm not sayin'/I'm just sayin'." It's the people who vocalize these suspicions loudly and proudly, as if there's no possible explanation.
Stephen A. Smith vocalized these suspicions about Arrieta loudly and proudly, possibly after an intern handed him flashcards informing him of Arrieta's existence.
Innings pitched the last two years ... 156 and then last year, 229. Before then, for three years before then, Skip, he pitched 75 innings ... 23⅔ innings, he only started three games at that time. And then, of course, you had 51⅔ innings."
It's the people who think they can look at a stat line and determine anything. As soon as they open their mouths, you can immediately assume they have very little understanding about baseball history, how the game is played, what it takes to succeed, and how easy it is to fail. To be fair to Smith, it's not just the professional opinion spigots who make this mistake. Here's former BALCO president and eternally smooth bass player Victor Conte offering opinions about Colabello:
Conte, an expert on performance-enhancing drugs, but not so much baseball, had never even heard of Colabello until the suspension, but had a simple question Sunday evening.
"So tell me,’’ Conte asked, "was there a spike in his performance?’’
"So why are people surprised?’’ Conte asks you. "Come on, how do you think that was possible?
Because ... because that's how baseball works sometimes? From 1966 through 1969, Tommy Harper hit 27 home runs in 1,939 plate appearances. In 1970, he hit 31 homers in 692 plate appearances. He hit 14 the next year, 14 the year after that, 17 in 1973, and then he never got into double digits again.
You know what people would say about Harper today.
Chico Fernandez hit 40 career homers in eight seasons, and 20 of those came in one season. Bert Campaneris nearly doubled his career home run total in 1970, when he hit 22. It would take him five years to hit his next 22. If Jeff Bagwell can be kept out of the Hall of Fame because he had the temerity to hit home runs and be physically fit, imagine what people would have said about those light-hitting shortstops.
Of course, Arrieta isn't in the dinger-hitting business. He's in the dinger-preventing business. He's a pitcher. And the thing about pitchers is that it's exponentially easier to find where-did-this-guy-come-from stories. R.A. Dickey is missing a ligament in his arm, and when he was in his mid-30s, he basically had to send teams his LinkedIn profile to get a job. Then something clicked, he could control his knuckleball far better, and he won a Cy Young.
Randy Johnson sailed through the Hall of Fame on the first ballot because hardly anyone suspected him of steroids, then or now. And yet he was a player who a) showed a freakish leap in performance in his late 20s and b) lasted well into his 40s with incredible endurance and above-average health. Don't those set off the same warning klaxons?
Sandy Koufax had a career record of 36-40, with a 4.10 ERA after six years in the league. He was walking more than five batters for every nine innings he pitched. Then he made the next six All-Star Games, winning three Cy Youngs and an MVP along the way.
Wait, are you saying Koufax should be a suspect, Stephen A. Smith? Is there no other way that Koufax could have gotten better, Victor Conte?
Stephen A. Smith Basically Thinks Sandy Koufax Was On Steroids
That's an alternate headline that I could have used. And let's check in with other sports. Did you see what Kawhi Leonard did this year for the Spurs? He didn't just improve his three-point shooting; he became one of the very best in the league.
Smith: I'm not saying Kawhi is using hand-eye-coordination drugs, cybernetic implants, or a glowing medallion that an old lady gave him when he was traveling through Romania. I'm just saying, Skip, that when you have the resources he does, y
There are no steroids that someone can take to help specifically with three-point shooting. Endurance, strength, and speed, perhaps. And maybe that extra speed would help a player get a touch more open, or maybe the extra endurance would help a player repeat his stroke more consistently. But ... no, it's probably just a combination of hard work, latent talent that was unearthed with expert help, repetition, unworldly muscle memory, hard work, repetition, and neurological tumblers clicking into place. No one questions Leonard's breakout season because there isn't a lazy way to question it.
This also ignores that steroids weren't Popeye spinach for Armando Rios and Bobby Estalella, two of the players who testified at the BALCO trials. They didn't help Yusaku Iriki, Dan Serafini, or Eliezer Alfonzo do anything other than maybe sneak onto a 25-man roster. We didn't get 200 innings from Runelvys Hernandez or Lino Urdaneta.
It's lazy to assume that every baseball improvement is due to steroids. It's lazy, and more accurately, it's ignorant. It's ignorant of baseball history, and of what separates the best AAAA players from the All-Stars, the incremental changes that can lead to exponential gains. Baseball isn't so easy that it can be solved with a magic pill. And if you think so, you probably don't understand a lot of how baseball works.