Grand Slams

Grand Slams: The Absence of PEDs

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grandslams_2013Hello gents!  I’d say “ladies and gents” but I’m somewhat hesitant to believe I live in a world where girls read baseball columns on MetalSucks.  That’d be too good to be true, so yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m safe.

We’re now at the quarter mark of the MLB season and there are so many storylines and bits of drama draped over baseball right now that I could write 30 pages of articles.  But one thing has preoccupied my mind when I think about the 2014 season so far.

While some writers might focus on the rejuvenation of Pujols and the surprise starts by Mark Buehrle and Aaron Harang, my mind has mostly been focused on the alarming rate of injuries experienced by MLB players.  As anyone who follows baseball closely (or plays fantasy baseball) knows, injuries have ravished the talent pool of Major League Baseball and made it infuriating to predict player performance or even player availability.

I predicted just such a trend in my preseason column, and unfortunately it looks like I was right.  We watched helplessly as the ominous Disabled List gobbled up the likes of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Jay Bruce, Mark Trumbo, Adam Eaton, Chris Davis, Jason Kipnis, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Jurickson Profar, Josh Hamilton, Kole Calhoun, Brandon Belt, Matt Weiters, and Adrian Beltre.  And that’s just the well-known hitters.  The pitching front is even worse, as there are simply too many names to list.  According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, Jose Fernandez will (almost certainly) be the 34th player in organized baseball to undergo Tommy John this year.

In other words, a pitcher has gone down an average of once every 2.5 days since the first TJ patient was announced this year on February 18.  That’s insane.  And that’s not to mention all the other injuries plaguing pitchers this year:  rotator cuff injuries, forearm injuries, back injuries, oblique injuries, etc.

The fact that this dramatic rise in injuries coincides with a crackdown on PED usage is surely no coincidence.  Now that hard and fast rules are in place regarding the usage of performance enhancing drugs, players can’t seem to stay on the field.  We like to think of PEDs mostly as steroids, and we even call that 20 year span the “Steroid Era.”

Yet, with little information made available because everyone is so hush-hush about it, I wonder how much was steroids and how much might’ve been non-muscle-building drugs that helped players recover faster.  The MLB schedule is grueling, with 162 games (10 times more than NFL and twice as many as NBA) over 6 months.  Playing a 3 hour game every day for 6 months (or 7 months if you go to the World Series) takes a toll on your health.  After a couple months, I imagine most bodies need something to help them recover quickly and prevent injury or else the odds are stacked heavily against them.  Take away those substances, and we get what we have now:  half of MLB superstars riding the pine on DL stints.  And that’s bad for baseball.

The general public pays money to see star players.  It’s why the 1994 player strike worked:  those players with name recognition are the ones people pay to see.  They won’t pay good money to see Hamsterhead McGillicutty or Douglas Bubbletrousers patrol the outfield.  Maybe Bud Selig isn’t the one to blame for the Steroid Era.  How much pressure do you think was on him from team owners, making sure their players could use PEDs so they could stay on the field and deliver a product worth paying for?  The commissioner is, after all, the employee of the team owners, elected and paid by the billionaire fatcats who own the teams.

For every McGwire, Sosa or Bonds, how many players were using substances to simply stay on the field?  Does anyone think these pitchers accused of PED usage were trying to muscle up like Bonds?  Anyone who does clearly doesn’t understand the mechanics of pitching too well:  muscly arms don’t aid in a fluid motion or help a pitcher at all.

So what does this mean?  That’s ultimately up to each person to determine what they think it means.  In my opinion, while the ban of PEDs is good for Major League Baseball, we are dealing with the negative consequences directly tied to the absence of PED usage.  I’m not saying all injuries would’ve been prevented had PEDs still gone untested.  Tommy John surgery predates the crackdown on substance testing among players.  Some have suggested that the rash of TJ surgeries is due to over-pitching in the teen years.  Others say it’s due to a higher average fastball velocity than ever before.  I’m aware of all of those theories, and perhaps each is a contributing cause.

Time should reveal more answers, but the specifics will probably never be known.  Some people will argue and say players before the Steroid Era didn’t have problems staying healthy and I think they fail to consider the changes and expectations of the game.  The bar gets raised every year and the pressure to perform (and ultimately to turn a profit) increases.  Guys are throwing harder than before, players are running faster than before, baseballs are hit harder than before.  These are all factors in the change of the game and the differences facing today’s players versus players of the past.

But I think it’s no coincidence that we’ve seen an explosion of injuries this year and (to a lesser extent) the last couple years.  I think it’ll continue to happen.  And until some solution is discovered, I think MLB will suffer from having the faces of the league underperform or suffer significant injuries on a regular basis.  For fans like me and perhaps you, that’s not horrible because we love to see prospects come up and show what they’re made of.  But for the regular public, the excitement around MLB will continue to sink until there are sufficient recognizable faces and names that can play consistently.

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