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Dare We Suspect That Carlos Gomez’ Performance is Enhanced?

(Photo: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

It’s obvious that Carlos Gomez’ performance in the early part of 2013 is enhanced compared to previous seasons.  These days, remarkable production can lead to speculation that a player might not be enhancing appropriately.  Last week, The Brewer Nation included a post partially titled “In Defense of Carlos Gomez,” which recounted a talk radio discussion where one host said Gomez’ improved stats “raise an eyebrow.”

The Brewer Nation’s defense of Gomez speaks for itself, but it also provides the opportunity to review what we think we know about PEDs.  Roger Clemens was acquitted of perjury charges last year, but it’s widely assumed that his dominating career was made possible by PEDs.  When Melky Cabrera was suspended for using PEDs last year, he was the top hitter in the NL.  Almost baseball fans outside of Milwaukee believe Ryan Braun owes his MVP in 2011 to PEDs.  It’s conventional wisdom that PEDs result in improved production.

The connection between PEDs and actual enhanced performance is murkier.  PEDs can take many forms, but I believe what comes to mind for most folks are anabolic steroids, i.e., synthetic testosterone (certainly in the cases of Braun, Cabrera, and Clemens).  What do we know anabolic steroids can do?  They do have legitimate medical uses, such as helping those afflicted with chronic wasting diseases or AIDS build muscle and recover their appetites.

Presumably athletes already have healthy appetites, so one imagines they would be more interested in the prospect of building muscle, reducing body fat, and recovering more quickly from injury – all of which we know with reasonable confidence that steroids can do.  Those are advantages that may improve performance in some ways, but steroids alone cannot explain outstanding production.

As far as I know, steroids have never been shown to help players pick up the spin on a slider.  Steroids can’t keep a batter from being fooled on a changeup.  They won’t help a ground ball find a hole in the infield, or keep a line drive fair.  They won’t help a pitcher throw a ball in the strike zone.  They might help a player leg out more infield hits, but at least in Gomez’ case, speed has never been an issue.  For many of the things that make a good baseball player, steroids don’t help at all.

To be sure, plenty of players past and present have taken steroids and other PEDs.  A couple years ago, the infamous Mitchell Report listed the names of players who thought PEDs were worth a try.  If you go through the names, there are several productive players, but there are just as many that had unspectacular careers – including the likes of former Brewers Derrick Turnbow, Gregg Zaun, and Fernando Vina.  PEDs don’t turn all hitters into sluggers, or stop all pitchers from issuing costly walks.  Even when players thought PEDs would improve their performance, the results were inconsistent at best.

As far as helping players recover from injury, there are lots of things athletes do that fans and officials don’t seem to mind.  Cortisone is widely used in baseball and no one bats an eye.  Tommy John surgery prolongs the careers of pitchers who otherwise would have to retire, but no one thinks they are doing anything unfair – even when some pitchers come back stronger than before.

When we suspect a player of artificial performance enhancement, we should keep a couple things in mind.  First, PEDs provide less of an edge than is commonly assumed.  Second, a lot of PED rules are arbitrary.  If a player like Gomez is having an unprecedented year, it’s more likely due to old fashioned hard work than some unnatural advantage.

Besides, if Gomez cools off and ends up hitting closer to his career average of .254, any talk of PEDs will seem pretty silly.