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While most of the headlines since Jose Canseco’s revelations in Juiced have been reserved for steroids, amphetamines have long been influential in baseball, if a little less glamorous in the media. Part of this, as ESPN’s Mark Kreidler said when the ban was first discussed, is because “amphetamines are so old school that many observers just assumed they’d never be addressed.” When we have seen a player’s power disappear in the last few seasons there is always a rumor of steroids or HGH, but what about amphetamines?
The baseball season runs from April through October and lasts at least 162 games for every player in the majors. This isn’t even including spring training or the World Baseball Classic, which extend workouts and competitive game conditions further into the year. Using amphetamines was long seen as a way for players to keep up their energy. Despite being classified as a controlled substance that cannot be used without a prescription since 1970, amphetamines were not treated like “real drugs” in the sports world.
But what are the long-term consequences of amphetamines no longer available in the clubhouse? Without the energy they provided there may be an offensive decline that Red Bull alone cannot counteract.
During the young 2010 season, offensive output per game is at levels not seen since 1992. Hits per game have been on the decline since 2006, the first season with a ban on amphetamines. However, there was a tremendous jump in hits per game between 2005 and 2006. Also, there was a similar drop in production after the 1999 season where there were 9.33 hits allowed per game and in 2004 there were just 9.07 hits allowed per game, so there may be a cyclical element in play as well. Even accounting for this we can see that the last season with fewer than 8.74 hits allowed per game was 1992 when there were 8.68 hits per game. Even if we are in a cycle of reduced offense, the floor is lower than it has been in recent cycles.
*Data taken from Baseball-Reference.com. All stats are per game.
Without hard numbers on steroid and amphetamine use, we can only speculate what effect testing and bans have had on offensive output. Maybe with modern training and workout techniques and more players staying in shape year-round, the amphetamine ban took a few years to really become noticeable. Maybe Red Bull was enough of a boost for most players for a while. Maybe we are only seeing a cyclical drop in offense. Maybe the results of pitch counts being enforced and efforts made to keep pitchers fresh are having an impact on the other side of the game.
We can’t filter out these factors, but the trend from the steroid era forward indicates a depressed offensive environment. Until 1993, there was only one year where home runs allowed per game was greater than one: 1987.
For all the worries about the Red Sox offense heading into this season, they have been hitting at a .275/.351/.467/.818 clip while missing Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury for most of the year. The team has averaged 9.37 hits, 5.45 runs, and 1.37 home runs per game through the first 57 games, well ahead of MLB averages. This doesn’t mean that the team will continue to perform this well offensively, but these numbers should provide relief for fans worried that “run prevention” is code for “rebuilding year.” After all, Jason Bay has hit just three home runs this season.
While it’s still early in the season and offense usually picks up as the temperature rises, the overall trend is still out there: offense is on the decline. Possibly heading to a new “normal” environment, but we won’t know for sure for another few years.