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Combining the juiced ball with the steroid era

It’s steroids, on steroids.

San Francisco Giants v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

We are currently in a different era in baseball, that’s for sure. The juiced ball era is one like we’ve never seen before, probably not since the beginning of the live ball era, and very few (if not none of us) even saw an inning of baseball before 1920.

The juiced ball era’s main characteristics are a ball with considerably less drag and more carry, a propensity for pitcher-related blisters, higher fastball velocity and fewer numbers of fastballs, and more strikeouts. This is also now the era of shifts, and constant adjustments by analytics departments.

The last time there was a seismic shift in baseball was really the steroid era, which rocked the sport in how manufactured it was, and localized to a select number of players who drastically increased their skill level through the use of anabolic steroids. We’ve had steroid scandals in the past, but they feature more untraceable substances like testosterone, whose benefits are more ambiguous and harder to pick up on.

That was also the era that ironically lifted the sport out of the post-strike malaise, and that was a main reason baseball, for the most part, grinned and bared the consequences of hurting its reputation if people showed up at the park.

I thought very recently... what if the juiced ball popped up in 1985 instead of 2015? It’s just a thought experiment because we can’t rewrite history, but would a universal increase in home runs obscure the localized effects of anabolic steroids? Would Barry Bonds hit 100 home runs in 2001?

To do this, I looked at neutralized stats for players from 1985 to 2005, and adjusted their stats to fit 2019 stats. The results are actually a little surprising:

Juiced Ball Plus Steroids

Player HR, 1985-2005 Adjusted HRs % increase
Player HR, 1985-2005 Adjusted HRs % increase
Barry Bonds 708 748 5.649717514
Mark McGwire 583 603 3.430531732
Sammy Sosa 588 600 2.040816327
Rafael Palmeiro 569 574 0.8787346221
Jose Canseco 462 492 6.493506494
Gary Sheffield 449 466 3.786191537

At its most generous, a 2019 run environment would add something like 6.5% to a player’s career run total. This, on its face, doesn’t make particular sense. It makes sense in the way that these hitters are already hitting the snot out of the ball so maybe the effects aren’t as great, but I just don’t buy that explanation. It makes more sense when we consider how neutralized stats are actually calculated:

“For each player/season, we have their stats (Including Runs Created--note that for neutralization the basic RC, without baserunning, GIDP, etc., is used as the player’s baseline offensive level... As part of this conversion, we assume that a player will get singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, HBP, and SB in the same proportion to overall hits as before, so given our adjusted RC, we can then find a new level of hits for the player.”

Therein lies the issue. This is taking a runs scored per game, and then reverse engineering it to guess the number of each offensive event based on those runs created. That’s in fact quite different than what’s happening in the juiced ball era, where the increase in home runs is happening disproportionately to the run environment.

Instead, let’s do the same exercise, but adjust the proportion of home runs relative to 1985-2005 to 2019:

Juiced Ball Plus Steroids v2

Player HR, 1985-2005 Adjusted HRs
Player HR, 1985-2005 Adjusted HRs
Barry Bonds 708 1001.59628
Mark McGwire 583 824.760779
Sammy Sosa 588 831.8341991
Rafael Palmeiro 569 804.9552028
Jose Canseco 462 653.5840135
Gary Sheffield 449 635.1931214

Now this looks more juiced. There are caveats here, as well. While the Play Index neutralized stats look at overall run environment, this is just adjusting 1985-2005 HR-rate and adjusting it to 2019, which doesn’t take into account year-by-year changes, and also how this could affect every player differently. That being said, it takes us into the eye-popping territory we’d come to expect from the juiced ball.

In this scenario, at least three players could have smashed Babe Ruth’s home run record, and they’d do it comfortably before wrapping up their careers. Bonds could have hit well over 1000 dingers, and left room for more at the tail-end of his career as well.

This doesn’t account for all of the other changes in 2019, such as launch angle, faster fastballs, and analytics. But it does get to the heart of the idea, that our already-ridiculous era combined with steroids likely would have been too much to handle, even for those who don’t mind the ball flying out of the park.