I recently had an idea for an editorial cartoon. A syringe with the word “Steroids’’ written on it would be on end, its dripping needle pointed up at a 45-degree slant. Underneath it would be the phrase “Baseball’s Launch Angle.’’
Now, if only I could draw.
If you’ve been reading my columns for any length of time, you know that I’m cynical about human nature when it comes to money. Whenever a group of people has an opportunity to make a lot of it, some of those people will devise ways to get to that money before their fellow human beings do. Some of those ways will be underhanded. And when the relatively poorer fellow human beings suspect that the people now owning mansions are cheating, they’ll set out to get theirs.
That’s a dark view of the world, I know. I also know how baseball rolled during the Steroid Era — darkly.
Balls are flying out of major-league stadiums at a record rate. As of Friday, the home-run rate was 1.33 per team per game. If the rate stays that way the rest of the season, it would be the highest in the game’s 143-year history. The record (1.26) was set in 2017, followed by 2000 (1.17), 2016 (1.16) and 2018 (1.15).
Do you see a trend, time-wise?
There are four ways to look at the homer surge in the game. Let’s put them in question form:
A) Do you trust the people who make the balls?
B) Do you trust the people who hit the balls?
C) Do you believe the people who say the newer emphasis on launch angle is the reason for all the home runs?
D) As you cheer those home runs, do you even care why there are so many of them?
It’s possible to say “no’’ to all four questions, but if you’re a person who follows the money and raises an eyebrow when it comes to human nature, the first two questions might speak to you more.
It behooves Major League Baseball to have players hitting as many home runs as possible. There are few things in sports that take a crowd’s breath away more than a well-struck ball. Fans come to games to see home runs. Therefore, the argument goes, it makes sense that MLB would doctor the balls to make them go farther. More home runs might mean more money for baseball, which is experiencing reduced attendance and TV ratings.
Fans like this explanation. They like the idea of MLB being the bad guy. They preferred the idea of owners and former commissioner Bud Selig being complicit in the Steroid Era rather than the idea of a bunch of greedy baseball players jabbing syringes in their backsides. Fans want their heroes, the players, to be heroic.
But why do we trust players? If you believe the use of performance-enhancing drugs is down in baseball because MLB has toughened its drug-testing policy, you’re being naïve.
Athletes are always ahead of the testing. Always. If the Olympics have taught us anything, it’s that. It’s why the International Olympic Committee holds on to athletes’ drug tests. Years later, the IOC retests blood and urine samples with improved techniques, and athletes who had escaped detection at the time of their tests suddenly have nowhere to hide. To think there aren’t baseball players using undetectable performance-enhancing drugs is silly. The only question is, how many players are?
In recent years, managers and coaches have placed an emphasis on hitters’ launch angles. Swinging up is the rage. The higher the launch angle, the more likely the ball will be hit in the air rather than on the ground. That means more hits, more homers and more runs driven in.
Whenever people submit that launch angle is the reason for the home-run surge, I get a nagging feeling that we’re all being had again. In 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were flexing their biceps and going deep in a kind of movable home-run feast, people started to wonder if the balls were juiced. Uh, no. Not the baseballs.
It’s possible that launch angle is responsible for the massive rise in home runs these days. It’s also possible that MLB has tightened the balls to increase the number of homers. But if history tells us anything, it’s more than possible that players are still juicing. It’s probable.
That leads back to one of our questions: As a baseball is making a beautiful white arc across a blue summer sky, do you care if the player responsible for it is using PEDs?
If history is any guide, I would guess that the answer, in general, is no. For a Cubs fan, it would be, “I only care if the player is Ryan Braun.’’