Despite Drug Tests, Pitch Velocity Is Up
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Three years ago, when baseball’s players and owners agreed on a new testing program near the height of the great drug hysteria, the smart money was on steroid testing being the least important part of the deal. The November 2005 accord, after all, didn’t just lay out a series of new penalties for players dumb enough to get caught using bodybuilding drugs, but also put some force behind the sport’s amphetamines ban, which was until then mainly theoretical.
This struck many — by which I mean me — as a bad idea. Ballplayers have to travel a lot and have perfectly good reasons to take amphetamines, just like long haul truckers and emergency room surgeons do. I wasn’t alone: Common conjecture had it that without vital pills, ballgames would degenerate into sluggish contests held between sallow, bleary clods prone to passing out right there on the field. Lurid tales of locker room coffeepots spiked with massive quantities of who knows what, and of the use of old-school players such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, circulated in the press. During the last few years, the speed ban has been blamed for everything from lousy road records to the poor performance of various old players to the general decline in offense.
By now, three things are certain. One is that players have either stopped using or, more likely, are good at not getting caught, as baseball has suspended only two major leaguers for stimulant use in the last three years. The second is that since the ban, an apparent plague of attention deficit disorders has washed over the sport, requiring really stunning numbers of players to obtain therapeutic use exemptions for speed-like drugs such as Ritalin. (One hundred and seven players had such exemptions in 2007, up from 30 in 2006.) And the third is that in a society where you can buy an energy drink called Cocaine, no man really needs to sit around popping Benzedrine.
What we don’t know is whether the ban has, in a broad sense, had any real impact on the field. The effect of drugs on performance is notoriously hard to isolate, and no doubt there actually are players who aren’t as good as they once were because they’ve been forced to play naked, just as there are doubtless some marginal players who, deprived of their beloved greenies, have gone from marginal to unemployed. How anyone gets from there to attributing any specific change in the game to the supposed absence of pep pills, though, is a mystery.
Take, for instance, the fastball. One purported benefit of amphetamines is helping wired-up relief pitchers come into games with all guns blazing, throwing their filthiest stuff, and then helping them get ready to do it again the next day. If the new drug policy were having the kind of widespread impact it’s been thought to have had, we’d expect to see average velocities declining across the game. They aren’t. The Fangraphs Web site has data on average pitch speed, licensed from Baseball Info Solutions, going back to 2005. In that year, 89 relievers throwing a minimum of 40 innings averaged 91 mph or better with their fastball. Sixteen of them topped 94; eight topped 95.
In 2006, the first year of the new drug regime, those numbers went up, across the board: 102 relievers averaged 91 mph or better, 25 topped 94, and 14 topped 95. Last year they were stable, but above 2005 levels, with 97 relievers averaging 91 mph or better, 26 bettering 94, and eight topping 95. This year, among relievers with at least 30 innings, we’re seeing the highest velocities yet, granting that these may decline as pitchers wear out down the stretch: 110 relievers are averaging 91 mph or better, 33 are topping 93, and a dozen are averaging 95 or better.
(Incidentally, according to this data, the hardest-throwing reliever in baseball the last two years has been Florida’s Matt Lindstrom, whom the Mets traded along with Henry Owens for a sack of doughnut holes in 2006. Mets fans should feel free to rage over this the next time the bullpen blows a sure lead.)
Fastball velocities, of course, prove absolutely nothing one way or the other about the drug ban; for all we know, drugs were holding pitchers back all those years, keeping them from throwing their best stuff. But this is exactly the point. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the new drug regime has drastically affected the game, but there’s also plenty of evidence suggesting that it hasn’t, not least the fact that players are clearly still quaffing all sorts of dubious chemicals, legal and not. Until there are some rigorous clinical studies into the effects of various drugs on baseball performance under real-world conditions, anyone who claims to know what effect various drug policies are having on the game is blowing smoke.