MLB’s Power Surge: Home Runs Trend Higher After a PED Suspension

In 2005, Major League Baseball began suspending its players for using performance-enhancing drugs.  Most of the athletes who were caught initially were relatively unheard of among casual baseball fans.  The players who were well-known and got caught, such as Rafael Palmeiro and Matt Lawton, typically were at the tail end of their careers and disappeared from the game shortly thereafter.

In recent years, however, well-known players with a few years still left in the tank have been getting suspended.  And the odd thing is these hitters generally have improved their home run rates upon returning to action.  In all, there have been 11 All-Star position players who have been suspended from baseball for PEDs since 2007.  Two of them have yet to play again (Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada) and three others had declining power numbers upon their return to the game (Manny Ramirez, Carlos Ruiz and Everth Cabrera).  Five of the remaining six (Mike Cameron, Marlon Byrd, Melky Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Nelson Cruz), however, all saw a jump in their home run rates from the season in which they were suspended to the following year.  The other, Ryan Braun, saw relatively no change in AB per HR upon his return.

At the end of 2007, outfielder Mike Cameron tested positive for PEDs and was suspended for the start of the following season.  When he returned, he hit a home run every 17.8 at bats, the best rate of his career.  He was 35 years old at the time.

AB Per HR, Before and After PED Suspension

2007 2008 Change Career
Mike Cameron 27.2 17.8 52.8% 25.2

During the 2012 season, outfielder Marlon Byrd was suspended for PEDs.  When he returned the next year, he hit more home runs than he had hit in any other season of his career.  That year, he hit a homer every 22.2 at bats, which was more than twice as often as his career average to that point.  Like Cameron, Byrd also was 35.

AB Per HR, Before and After PED Suspension

2012 2013 Change Career
Marlon Byrd 143.0 22.2 544.1% 46.8

In 2013, Commissioner Bud Selig suspended 14 players for having been linked to Biogenesis, a health clinic located in Florida that had allegedly distributed performance-enhancing drugs to professional athletes.  Three other players who were also involved in the scandal had previously served a suspension for the offense.

Two general beliefs related to PED use in baseball are that a.) steroids help players hit more home runs and b.) a player caught using steroids would probably see his home run rate decrease upon his return from suspension.  After all, if steroids do in fact increase a player’s likelihood of hitting a home run, then the looming threat of a subsequent (and thus, longer) suspension should be a significant deterrent for players who are tempted to use PEDs.  And yet, when the Biogenesis players returned to action this year, nearly all of their home run rates increased.

Nine position players who were tied to Biogenesis during last year’s investigation have played at least 10 games at the same level of baseball in both 2013 and 2014.  When compared with their statistics from last year, six of the nine batters have hit home runs at an equal or higher rate after returning from their suspensions.

AB per HR, Before and After PED Suspension

Position Players Linked to Biogenesis, 10+ Games Played in 2013 and 2014 at the Same Level

2013 2014 Change Career
Yasmani Grandal 88.0 25.1 250.6% 31.1
Melky Cabrera 114.7 35.5 223.1% 53.4
Jesus Montero (AAA) 73.0 22.8 220.2%
Jhonny Peralta 37.2 26.7 39.3% 32.8
Jordany Valdespin 33.3 32.7 1.8% 27.0
Nelson Cruz 15.3 15.3 0.0% 18.4
Ryan Braun 25.0 27.9 -10.4% 17.5
Everth Cabrera 95.3 119.0 -19.9% 152.9
Francisco Cervelli 17.3 73 -74.3% 67.8

* Career numbers are prior to the players’ return from suspension.  Montero’s career AB/HR rate is omitted, as it is meaningless to compare different levels of baseball.

Of the three players with a substantial decline in home run rate this season, Everth Cabrera and Francisco Cervelli have combined to hit only 22 homers in 731 career games.  The third, Ryan Braun, is, for all intents and purposes, the only player on the list above who has been “caught” using PEDs twice.

Three other position players suspended for their involvement with Biogenesis either have not played a game this season (Alex Rodriguez, Fernando Martinez) or have played at a different level (Cesar Puello) than last year.

While park factor certainly has an impact on a player’s ability to hit home runs, only two players from the list above called a different stadium home in 2014 than they had in 2013.  In both cases (Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz), the player in question actually moved to a field with a lower park factor (i.e., harder to hit home runs, as ranked by Fangraphs in 2013).  Peralta moved from Detroit (tied for ninth-easiest) to St. Louis (20th); Cruz went from Texas (second-easiest) to Baltimore (tied-ninth).  Even Byrd went from Boston (third-easiest) to the Mets and Pittsburgh (both among the 10 toughest stadiums in which to hit) during his age-35 power surge.

Another issue to consider is whether home runs in general were more prevalent this year than in 2013.  However, teams hit on average over 10% more home runs in 2013 than in 2014 (155 to 140, respectively).

Age often plays a role in a power hitter’s surge or decline.  Among the hitters on the Biogenesis list who went deep at least as often this year as in 2013, some are in or entering their primes (Cabrera, 30; Grandal, 25; Montero, 24), which may help to explain their increased power.  As noted above, however, this was not the case with Cameron and Byrd, who were both 35 when they returned from their suspensions.  Peralta (32) and Cruz (34) also are on the back side of what should be their peak years and, as mentioned earlier, were playing in tougher parks for hitters this year.

All in all, there seems to be little evidence that suspending MLB batters for PED use has any effect on the frequency with which they hit home runs.  In fact, many of them return and hit even more homers.  It is often said that the drug makers are always a step ahead of the testers.  This perhaps helps to explain why the majority of Biogenesis players were “caught” because of a leak; only a handful of them had actually tested positive in an MLB-administered drug test.  Ultimately, no matter how hard baseball tries to do so, it may prove to be impossible to completely keep PEDs – or at the very least, skeptical fans – out of baseball.

(photo by Dirk Hansen)

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