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The case for Brady Anderson being clean of steroids

It has been 20 years since Baltimore Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs, shattering his previous career high of 21. It's commonly accepted that Anderson was using steroids during that 1996 season. The only problem is that there is zero evidence of him using outside of the home run spike.

Brady Anderson in 1996 probably hitting a home run. Note the uppercut swing and perfectly groomed sideburns.
Brady Anderson in 1996 probably hitting a home run. Note the uppercut swing and perfectly groomed sideburns.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

For reasons I'll never quite understand, we all love a good conspiracy theory. Some think that there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll who shot President John F. Kennedy. Others think the US faked the moon landing on the sound stage of Gentle Ben, some think 9/11 was an inside job, and some think (my favorite) that Stevie Wonder isn't blind. Everybody has one belief that goes against the grain of what commonly accepted knowledge is. Mine is that when Brady Anderson magically hit 50 home runs 20 years ago, he was not on steroids. But before I can start to explain my reasoning and lay out the case that we have no reason to believe the commonly accepted narrative that the Baltimore Orioles outfielder juiced during the 1996 season, we have to look back at the sideburned wonder's career.

Brady Anderson was born in the Washington, DC suburb of Silver Spring, Md. but was a California kid who graduated from high school in Carlsbad, Calif. and attended the University of California-Irvine for his collegiate career. In 1985, the Boston Red Sox made the 6-1 Anderson their 10th-round pick. He showed some pretty good promise in his first few years in the minor leagues. In his first full MiLB season in 1986, Anderson hit .319/.459/.504 for the Winter Haven Red Sox of the Florida State League. He flashed a combination of speed (44 stolen bases), power (19 doubles, 11 triples, and 12 home runs), and patience (107 walks) that would become his trademark.

By the end of the 1987 season, Anderson made the leap all the way to Triple-A Pawtucket but played in only 75 games between Double-A and Triple-A because of a severe ankle sprain suffered in a clubhouse incident on June 5th.[1] It was more of the same for Anderson, who hit a combined .321/.457/.474 against the tougher competition of the upper minor leagues. The next year, a now 24-year-old Anderson made his MLB debut with the Red Sox. He took over the starter's job in center field in late April, but a slump toward the end of May and Ellis Burks' return from the disabled list in June saw Anderson sent back to Pawtucket after 41 games with a .230/.315/.304 line to his name.

On July 29, 1988, Anderson was traded from Boston to the Baltimore Orioles along with Curt Schilling for Mike Boddicker. Boddicker pitched well for Boston through the 1990 season, which was also Schilling's last in Baltimore. The future World Series champion was traded to the Houston Astros along with Pete Harnisch and Anderson's brother-in-law Steve Finley for Glenn Davis. It also was the second out of five times that Schilling was traded in his career and the team acquiring him always got a much better deal than the one giving him up. But I digress, this is not an article about Schilling.

Anderson made his Baltimore Orioles debut on July 30th; for the rest of the 1988 season, he was in and out of the lineup, and he flat out stunk when he played. He hit just .198/.232/.271 with 40 strikeouts against eight walks, although he did hit his first career home run (and only homer of the year) on August 6th against Tom Filer of the Milwaukee Brewers. The 1989 season saw Anderson play a part-time role in the majors with the Orioles, accumulating 317 plate appearances and hitting just .207/.324/.312, though he showed off his speed by going 16-20 in stolen base attempts.

Again in 1990, Anderson began the year as a reserve outfielder and pinch runner for the Orioles but was sidelined for 38 games in June and July with another ankle sprain. After his return from injury and a deadline deal sending outfielder Phil Bradley to the Detroit Tigers, Anderson found himself playing regularly down the stretch for the Orioles. He still couldn't get his bearings about him when it came to hitting at the major-league level, batting .231/.327/.308, but he went 15-17 in stolen base attempts.

When May of 1991 rolled around, Anderson was now a full-time player for the Orioles but was struggling mightily. He missed some time with a hamstring injury in June and was hitting just .191/.311/.275 on August 20th when he was optioned down to Triple-A. He had just two home runs and was 7-11 in stolen bases to that point. Anderson returned to the Orioles on September 1st and for the rest of the season led the team with a .385 batting average, paired with a .448 on-base percentage and a .519 slugging percentage. He stole five bases and was caught just once. After nearly four years of struggling to hit, Anderson put it all together for that month.

Anderson was able to keep the momentum going into the 1992 season, which was his first All-Star campaign. He garnered MVP votes after hitting .271/.373/.449 with 21 home runs and 53 stolen bases in 69 attempts. He had 28 doubles and 10 triples, walked at a 13.1 percent clip, and grounded into just 2 double plays in 110 chances. He became the first player in American League history to have 20 home runs, 50 steals, and 75 RBIs in a season and only the seventh player in MLB history to accomplish the feat. He reached base safely in 138 of the 158 games he started and accumulated 5.3 fWAR.

The 1993 through 1995 seasons were all pretty close in terms of production for Anderson. He hit .262/.364/.430 with an average of 14 home runs per season across those three seasons, with only a bout of chicken pox in 1993 and the 1994 player strike limiting his games. He stole 81 bases and was caught 20 times, including a streak that began in 1994 and extended into 1995 of 35 consecutive stolen bases without being caught, which stood as an AL record for a few months until Tim Raines surpassed it late in the 1995 season. Anderson had 30-double seasons in 1993 and 1995.

Heading into 1996, Orioles manager Davey Johnson spoke highly of Anderson's power and speed combo, though he, like many others, criticized Anderson for his uppercut swing. He had the following to say to Buster Olney, then of The Baltimore Sun, during spring training of Anderson's career year:

"I don't want him to swing any easier. I want him to drive the ball, but not lift the ball... I've seen him drive the ball the other way, which won't happen if you're trying to lift. I think he's in agreement his swing gets a little too big at times."

Of course, Anderson hit 50 home runs for a very good Orioles team in that fabled 1996 season. He also had 37 doubles and five triples, was 21-for-29 in stolen base attempts, hit .297/.396/.637, and led the AL by being hit by a pitch 22 times. Anderson is the only player to be a member of the 20-50 and 50-20 clubs.

When the calendar turned to 1997, things were not so rosy for Anderson. He suffered a broken rib in spring training and played through it for the first few months of the season, re-aggravating it at the end of April. At the All-Star Break he was hitting .300/.421/.444 but had just seven home runs, 16 doubles and four triples. He was in terrible pain every time he swung and missed and wasn't swinging as hard as in the past. After the break, he was feeling better and rediscovered his power stroke to the tune of a .274/.361/.498 clip, smacking 11 homers, 23 doubles and three triples. He finished 1997 with 170 hits, just two fewer than in 1996, and was hit by a pitch 19 times to lead the league.

Early in 1998, Anderson was bit by the injury bug again, landing on the disabled list with what was called neck soreness. It was actually a sprained right sternoclavicular joint strain (the joint where your clavicle meets your sternum at the base of your neck) and a muscle strain in his right neck and trapezius (upper back/lower neck area). For Anderson, who held his hands low and then had to bring his hands up and back into the hitting position, this was a fairly important group of muscles and joints to his swing.

While he had a miserable season, he was much better after returning from the injury. From May 12th through the end of the season, he hit a much more Anderson-like .262/.377/.466 with 17 home runs and 28 doubles. It is still a far cry from a 50-home run pace, but for a 34 year old who dealt with two other lower body injuries during the season, it was a respectable finish.

Anderson had a relatively healthy 1999 and hit .282/.404/.477 with 24 home runs as a 35 year old and once again led baseball by getting hit by 24 pitches. He stole 36 bases out of 42 attempts and had 28 doubles and five triples. But his flirtation with being healthy was over, as in 2000, Anderson missed time with a variety of six different medical issues, including missing 18 days in spring training with a nerve injury after icing for too long. When he was on the field, Anderson produced a .257/.375/.421 batting line with 19 home runs, 26 doubles, and 16 steals in 25 attempts. In 2001, age and another rash of injuries finally caught up with the 37-year-old Anderson as he hit just .202/.311/.300.

After a 34-game stint as a Cleveland Indian in 2002, Anderson was done in baseball.

Table 1. Brady Anderson career numbers, via Baseball-Reference.

1988 24 TOT 94 364 69 13 4 1 21 10 6 23 75 0.212 0.272 0.286 0.558 57 4
1988 24 BOS 41 172 34 5 3 12 4 2 15 35 0.230 0.315 0.304 0.620 72 4
1988 24 BAL 53 192 35 8 1 1 9 6 4 8 40 0.198 0.232 0.271 0.504 43
1989 25 BAL 94 317 55 12 2 4 16 16 4 43 45 0.207 0.324 0.312 0.636 84 3
1990 26 BAL 89 279 54 5 2 3 24 15 2 31 46 0.231 0.327 0.308 0.635 82 5
1991 27 BAL 113 313 59 12 3 2 27 12 5 38 44 0.230 0.338 0.324 0.662 88 5
1992 28 BAL 159 749 169 28 10 21 80 53 16 98 98 0.271 0.373 0.449 0.823 130 9
1993 29 BAL 142 664 147 36 8 13 66 24 12 82 99 0.263 0.363 0.425 0.788 108 10
1994 30 BAL 111 525 119 25 5 12 48 31 1 57 75 0.263 0.356 0.419 0.776 96 10
1995 31 BAL 143 657 145 33 10 16 64 26 7 87 111 0.262 0.371 0.444 0.815 110 10
1996 32 BAL 149 687 172 37 5 50 110 21 8 76 106 0.297 0.396 0.637 1.034 156 22
1997 33 BAL 151 696 170 39 7 18 73 18 12 84 105 0.288 0.393 0.469 0.863 128 19
1998 34 BAL 133 574 113 28 3 18 51 21 7 75 78 0.236 0.356 0.420 0.776 103 15
1999 35 BAL 150 692 159 28 5 24 81 36 7 96 105 0.282 0.404 0.477 0.881 129 24
2000 36 BAL 141 618 130 26 19 50 16 9 92 103 0.257 0.375 0.421 0.796 106 8
2001 37 BAL 131 501 87 12 3 8 45 12 4 60 77 0.202 0.311 0.300 0.611 66 8
2002 38 CLE 34 101 13 4 1 5 4 18 23 0.163 0.327 0.250 0.577 59 2
15 Yrs 1834 7737 1661 338 67 210 761 315 100 960 1190 0.256 0.362 0.425 0.787 109 154

So the theory goes that Brady Anderson was on steroids during the 1996 season, then for some reason — maybe guilt — he quit juicing and magically returned to normal. In our minds that theory makes sense because he was a guy in the height of the steroid era hitting a bunch of home runs out of nowhere and never did it again. On the surface, it seems logical, but the argument is built on a tenuous foundation.

First and foremost, the 1996 Baltimore Orioles offense was loaded. The average lineup consisted of three future Hall of Famers (Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., and Roberto Alomar), three All-Stars (Bobby Bonilla, B.J. Surhoff, and Rafael Palmeiro), a very underrated Chris Hoiles, and Anderson, who usually batted leadoff or second. While lineup protection both exists and doesn't exist, as Eric Garcia McKinley explored in May, it is not outlandish to deduct that at least early in the season, Anderson was seeing some better pitches.

Additionally, the home run spike in 1996 was not just limited to Brady Anderson. Across the AL home runs were more frequent in 1996 than at any other time in the 1990s. In '96, AL batters hit a home run on average every 28.84 at bats. In 1995 a homer was hit once every 36.45 at bats, and in 1997 once every 35.59 at bats. These are all totals from the prime of the steroid era, so there must be some other factors in play, including good old-fashioned statistical anomaly. Clusters are normal and bound to happen in statistics, whether you're talking about flipping heads or hitting a home run. The 1996 season saw a cluster of home runs across the AL, and Anderson was the most extreme example.

Anderson has denied PED use, but naturally most players who actually used steroids have never copped to it, so Anderson's denial should not come as a surprise. But Anderson was also not listed in the Mitchell Report, the most comprehensive investigation into PEDs ever conducted. If it was so obvious that Anderson was juicing, how did the Mitchell Report not turn up any evidence that he did? Pointing to just his huge drop in home runs from 1996 through the rest of his career as evidence of steroid use conveniently ignores Anderson's Mr. Bill-like injury history — from him playing with a fractured rib for most of 1997 to 21 other various ailments and injuries suffered from 1997-2001 which, combined with aging into his late 30s, saw Anderson out of baseball by the end of 2002.

The idea that Anderson used steroids also conveniently ignores the facts of how steroids work. Anderson was a noted workout freak, and longtime teammate Cal Ripken Jr. remarked how he was ahead of the curve in terms of his nutrition and health regiments. This was well-known at least within the organization, as the cover of the 1996 Baltimore Orioles media guide depicts a cartoon version of Anderson lifting weights. A first-time steroid user can expect gains of anywhere from 25-30 pounds in a 3-month cycle of usage. Even with the available information we have from Anderson's reputation as a health nut that type of weight gain would not be shocking.

Combing through the Orioles media guides from 1989 to 2001, not only is no such weight gain seen, but he only gains 16 pounds in the span of his entire career. Anderson starts off as being listed as 186 pounds in 1989, and hovered between 185 and 195 until 1998 when he was listed as 202 pounds, where he stayed for the rest of his career. From 1995 to 1996, Anderson's listed weight decreased from 195 to 190. Let's break that down. If Anderson used steroids for even just a few months, you could have expected his weight to balloon up to the 210-215 range in a single offseason, but of course that didn't happen. For comparison, Barry Bonds went from 190 in 1996 to 206 in 1997, and from 210 in 2000 to 228 in 2001.

I know the Orioles are bad, strict, or especially meticulous with physicals, but if those numbers are true and Anderson took steroids, then he is the worst at taking steroids that has ever lived. It is possible to take steroids and lose weight, but outside of preparing for a bodybuilding competition there is no reason ever to do that. You certainly wouldn't do it if you were trying to hit more home runs. Unless you are obese and have never worked out in your life, you are not going to be able to put on muscle and lose weight at the same time, so if he did start using then, there would be virtually no effect on his power.

The only thing suspect in Anderson's record is the increase from 1997 to 1998 where he went from 190 to 202 pounds. There's nothing about that that screams steroids — in my amateur bodybuilding pursuits I've gained more weight than that in a shorter time than a baseball offseason without artificial help — but even so, if the steroid usage took place only after the 1995 season and before 1997, why was it until 1998 that his reported weight went up? Could it be that all of his injuries in 1997 limited his workouts and as a result of decreased physical activity and a steady calorie intake level, a 36-year-old man's metabolism slowed leading to weight gain? It certainly could. Even if you want to accuse the Orioles of falsifying his weight in 1996 and 1997, you're looking at a gain of a whopping seven pounds from 1995 to 1998, or 2.3 pounds per year. Let's say that he actually grew from 195 in 1995 to 202 in 1996. That is still very easy to do naturally in the span of one offseason, and if he actually was using anabolic steroids and gained only seven pounds he was really terrible at using.

Anabolic steroids work by activating receptor molecules in muscle cells which help stimulate protein production, and therefore size and strength gains after working out. A 2013 study in the Journal of Physiology mentions that even a brief exposure to anabolic steroids can have positive performance-enhancing effects for up to a decade after use. So if Anderson really only use steroids in the 1996 season, the performance-enhancing effects of that usage would've been felt well into the early 2000s. If he quit cold turkey after 1996, the subsequent seasons would still be affected by his usage. That's how a guy like Alex Rodriguez can hypothetically stop taking steroids in say, 2012, and come back and have a great year in 2015 — the muscle mass and strength gains stay.

It is impossible for me to prove definitively that Brady Anderson didn't use steroids, but I'd be willing to bet the farm that the narrative of Anderson using steroids for only one season in 1996 is complete and utter bupkis. The only "evidence" that Anderson did use steroids is that home run total, but the argument fails to hold water when real evidence comes into play. Anderson was a fine ballplayer who had one spectacular power season at age 32 and quietly faded away thanks to injuries and father time. Maybe I'm wrong and he did use steroids, but if he did, he used them long before the 1996 season. Or maybe, just maybe, he was clean.

[1] 1998 Baltimore Orioles Media Guide, page 42


Joe Vasile is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Broadcasting and Media Relations assistant for the Salem Red Sox, the Advanced-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeVasilePBP.