A Roy Halladay/Jose Bautista Parallel

I got into a bit of a Twitter debate last week following my routine praising of Jose Bautista. After the Toronto Blue Jays slugger hit two home runs on Saturday, he sat atop the FanGraphs WAR leaderboard at 6.5, just a shade under his full-season total of 6.9 from last year. Now, he is at 6.7, a pace for over 11 WAR, a Bondsian pace. Some of the comments sent to me after I sung Bautista’s praises flat-out accused the right-hander of using illegal substances to get ahead.

As a result of the recent “steroid era”, which may or not be over, Bautista has in many circles been a magnet for accusations of performance-enhancing drug use. The man who slugged 54 home runs last year shrugged off those claims in an interview with Canada’s TSN as well as pointing out that he has been drug tested no less than 15 times. That is not enough for some people, unfortunately — likely the same people who crowed when Major League Baseball instituted the current drug-testing stipulations.

It is unfortunate that many people cannot enjoy Bautista’s rise to superstardom because of their apprehension trailing from the “steroid era”. Like a jilted lover, these baseball fans are reluctant to embrace another power hitter lest they be let down again as they were with Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.

The “evidence” people cite as “proof” of Bautista’s using is nothing short of hilarious. For instance, many accuse him of beginning to use steroids in 2010, even though his power surge actually started in September 2009. Then there are the arguments from incredulity, the claim that there is no possible way a scrub like Bautista could become a premier power hitter without the aid of a PED (one that has gone undetected, has not visibly altered his body, and apparently has been unused by other players).

When rational explanations are given, such as that the move from Pittsburgh to Toronto gave him access to a different set of coaches that tried different things with his mechanics — something Bautista himself said was the underlying cause of his transformation — the skeptics scoff. Coaches are good, but are they 16-to-54 home run-good?

Yes. Why is it hard to accept the notion that a coach could have a huge impact on a player? First, the words from Bautista himself, transcribed from the TSN video.

I did have to make some changes to my hitting approach and the way I went up to the plate. Because I used to get started so late, the only way I could try to be on time, sometimes, was to be quick. So, this was my speed [demonstrates]. So, by the time I try to come around, the ball was already on top of the plate and everything was so late. I had heard it a million times: start slow and early, start slow and early. But to me, that didn’t make a lot of sense until we watched video. We got a mirror, they showed me.

Those skeptics who don’t buy that story should also have trouble believing the story of Roy Halladay. Halladay got off to a rough start in his Blue Jays career for a variety of reasons, but didn’t turn things around until he received guidance from Mel Queen. From SI’s Tom Verducci:

The Blue Jays owed Halladay $3.15 million for the 2001 and ’02 seasons. Privately, the organization wanted to fix him just enough to be able to trade him. The Toronto G.M., Gord Ash, telephoned one of the organization’s pitching instructors, Mel Queen, in the spring of ’01. “You’ve got to fix Halladay,” Ash said.

Queen was the Blue Jays’ pitching coach from 1996 through ’99. He had watched Halladay throw in his first big league camp and called him Iron Mike because his slow, over-the-top delivery looked as measured as those old metal pitching machines.

[...]

Queen brought Halladay to the bullpen for a throwing session, except he began so rudimentarily that he refused to let Halladay use a baseball. Queen lowered Halladay’s release point and speeded up his delivery, all without a ball in the pitcher’s hand.

Halladay threw phantom pitches for 20 minutes. The next day they did the same thing. At the end of that session Queen let him actually throw a ball. The coach showed him two grips for a fastball: one that caused the ball to run away from a righthanded hitter and another that sent it away from a lefthander. “Aim for the middle of the plate,” Queen said.

What happened was amazing. The improvement was immediate.

“It was one day,” Halladay says. “The first day it was good. And the next couple of days it just got more comfortable and more consistent. It just made it so much easier to move the ball.”

While Halladay turned things around by his mid-20’s as opposed to Bautista’s nearly-29 (more a result of [lack of] opportunity rather than skill or biology), the comparison is rather fitting. Bautista’s resurgence is discriminated against because he is a hitter, whereas Halladay’s transformation gets nary a raised eyebrow because he is a pitcher and because his rise to superstardom came before the witch hunts. Pitchers this side of Roger Clemens are rarely thought of in the performance-enhancing drug issue, even though they had similar incentives to use (and did use).

Why can a pitcher turn his entire career around and become the best pitcher in baseball due to good coaching, but a hitter cannot do the same for himself?

Ultimately, if you don’t trust Bautista’s success achieved entirely in an era with strict drug testing, then you should logically be just as, if not more, skeptical of Halladay, whose success preceded the first implementation of drug testing at the Major League level.

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59 comments

  1. LTG

    July 21, 2011 06:04 PM

    Ok, I’ll keep going. First, I don’t really mean to take a side in PEDs should be allowed or shouldn’t be debate. I think it is a difficult question and am happy to stick with the de facto rules for now. I am, however, displeased by the demonization of those who have used PEDs at a time when either a) they were not explicitly banned or b) they were explicitly banned but implicitly part of the game or both. I wonder why the government has made steroid-trafficking illegal and why it wastes time and money enforcing laws that provide no obvious social benefit. The point in bringing up the discussion was to show that the usual arguments for the ban on PEDs are not so solid. That doesn’t mean there is no ground for the ban on PEDs, it only means we have to keep looking. If you look again at my original post I never drew a firm conclusion that PEDs should not be banned. As I said, I’m uncomfortable with that conclusion. I’ve only taken the task of refuting that they should be banned in order to respond to your posts, in the hopes that you would develop more nuanced arguments as a result. I don’t think that has happened, since your last few posts have only restated the same points over again. If you go back and reread my posts you’ll see that I have given responses to these points and even conceded some points along the way. I don’t waste words so you have to read what I write carefully and think about it for more than a few minutes. I define my terms clearly and use them consistently and make my reasons explicit because the average-everyday meanings of words are ambiguous and one can’t be sure one knows what one is thinking without refining one’s vocabulary. Without doing that, one will have difficulty following where the arguments lead, which is all I want to do.

    On Freedom: I don’t make moral arguments from measurements of freedom because we need a conception of freedom in order to do that and it is unlikely that the conception will allow such measurement. But, to engage your use of it, lifting the ban on PEDs and effectively making them compulsory does not limit freedom anymore than banning PEDs does, so long as the measurement of freedom is the quantity of permissible and feasible choices at one’s disposal. The comparison is a wash since each position eliminates one choice while making another possible. If I am wrong about this, please tell me how. Also, the principle that we should set up rules to maximize permissible and feasible choices has terrible consequences, since it entails that the freest society would have no rules at all (unless someone can show that in a society like that the number of feasible choices is drastically limited).

    On the belief that PEDs cause harm: do professional athletes generally believe that PEDs in general or steroids in particular cause long-term health damage? I doubt it, since most doctors and personal trainers would tell them that there is no evidence for it. Further, we can’t ask them for their genuine opinion because PEDs are so demonized that they could only say that PEDs are bad and no one should use them. I would love to see an anonymous survey of athletes asking them all about their opinions on the matter, but I know of none and doubt the athletes would participate. As for the source of the public’s general belief that PEDs, or at least steroids, cause long-term health damage, it stems primarily from an interview with Lyle Alzado and the media hullabaloo that followed. Alzado died of cancer and blamed his use of steroids for his developing cancer. He had no evidence and his own doctors refuted his statements. Nevertheless, the public has continued to believe and pass along that PEDs are bad for you. And this remains part of the rationale for believing that PEDs should be banned. I will admit that, as I said above, banning PEDs for now seems the right thing to do, and moreover, banning anabolic steroids for now is a good thing to do because doctors have not drawn a consensus that they are not harmful in the long term. Of course, there is no reason to think that non-anabolic-steroid PEDs cause long term health problems; so, they are not covered by the health-harm argument anyway.

    On psychological harm: here’s something on which we agree. If there is a consensus belief among athletes that PEDs cause long-term health problems but that using them is tempting for the sake of gaining and edge and using PEDs would consequently cause psychological damage, then PEDs should be banned. But as soon as the belief is no longer a consensus, as soon as it becomes controversial, then it is not clear that the ban is justified. At some point it is the responsibility for those that have false beliefs to revise them (false by hypothesis here) and not force their beliefs on others.

    On objectivity: “Like I said, your supposed objectivity has a subjective leap of logic built-in, you just don’t want to acknowledge it and continue to call my views subjective in order to deflect my categorization of your arguments.” I have no clue to what leap of logic you are referring. Care to explain? Where exactly in my argument do I make this fatal error? Perhaps you could give a definition of subjective as you are using it as I did for my use above. Then you could use that definition in an argument showing that my claim that moral judgments are susceptible of being true or false in an objective sense requires a subjective leap of logic. (By the way, if a leap of logic is something like drawing a conclusion from premises then it is of course subjective in the sense that I do it. I conclude q from p and if p then q. Nevertheless, it is not a subjective “truth” that q follows from p and if p then q. It is objective if anything is. But you must mean that the very logical rule I am using to draw a conclusion is merely subjective. So what rule is this and in what way is it subjective?)

    On the proper authority: I never claimed that I myself am the authority. The authorities are reason and evidence. I follow where they lead, and I expect others to do so as well, at least in matters of forming correct beliefs.

    “Absent concrete, real, objective proof of actual fallacy, you don’t even have the authority to rebut someone else’s perception…” Can you give an example of concrete, real, objective proof that is able to refute a fallacious perception? Does even physical science offer such proof? If I perceive objects as falling at different rates relative to their weights could Gallileo show me concrete, real, objective proof that they don’t?

  2. Phillie697

    July 21, 2011 10:14 PM

    Oh, if you’re talking about the villian-ization of the people who have taken PED, well you should know that I don’t believe Bonds or Clemens or McGuire or Sossa should be kept out of the Hall of Fame (I think Palmeiro should, but that’s based on merits not PED). That said, do I think they did something wrong? Does it even matter what *I* think? We don’t even need to ask that question because they THEMSELVES think they were doing something wrong. But that’s another discussion altogether. So don’t make the assumption that just because I’m against the legalization of PED to mean that I want to hold the players who had used them responsible (you seem to like to make a lot of assumptions, at least insinuates many).

    The reasons for making PED illegal is actually quite simple, and I for one didn’t think it needs to be spelled out so completely, hence why my original post did not address the salient details and only addressed what made up MY mind for me. Like you yourself said, 1) we don’t know enough about PED to know whether it has any long term harmful effects; 2) we do, however, know that it most definitely enhances performance; 3) hence, if it is legalized, EVERY professional will be compelled to use it. So far, nothing subjective about that logic, no? So ask yourself, what if we legalize it, and you are wrong? What if there IS a long-term harmful effect we find out 10 years later? Who answers to these athletes who will be f’ed by our supposed superior “moral” argument today that “oh, you can’t prove that there is a long-term harmful effect”? You, who sits here typing up a few words questioning the wisdom of such things? You can’t force a group (i.e. the players) that collectively doesn’t even want PED legalized themselves (you say you don’t think they believe it’s harmful, but if so, how come I have not heard the MLBPA coming out guns blazing demanding PED to be legalized?). And since this is an all-or-nothing decision because it directly affect competitive balance, I say to the Cansecos of the world, sorry, wanna play in MLB? Play by the rules, buddy. We got plenty of arbitrary rules defining what is cheating and what is not, and this one of them so suck it up.

    I won’t go into detail about the remaining points of your post because I don’t care to get into philosophical discussions which you seem to want to go into. If you can’t accept that you made logical leaps, then I would ask you to spell out your chain of thought as I have to go from “I don’t think PED causes long-term harmful effects” to “I think PED should be legalized.” Because, quite frankly, I don’t see it. So please, dazzle me with this reason and evidence you speak of. I mean you seem to implicitly refute what I thought you meant, that it shouldn’t be banned unless we can PROVE that it’s harmful. If you are refuting that, then I really have no freaking clue how you make the jump. And if you’re NOW saying you’re not arguing on the side of legalizing PED, then why are we having this discussion? It’s easy to argue against ANYTHING when you don’t take a position, because there is no such thing as a perfect decision.

  3. LTG

    July 22, 2011 08:54 AM

    The demonization point was not to imply that you are one of the villagers with pitchforks, rather it becomes relevant as an explanation for why players cannot fight against the ban on PEDs. Since the general public despises the use of PEDs in sports, any player who would stand up against the ban would suffer stigma. Also, if the ban on PEDs comes down to something like “we just don’t want them in our sports,” as I suspect it does, then demonization is especially unreasonable.

    PEDs and anabolic steroids are not the same, as I have noted many times though this discussion. There is no reason to believe that PEDs in general cause long-term health damage. The substance that caused JC Romero to be suspended would never cause health damage given normal uses for training. So, the ban on PEDs in general cannot be sustained on the basis of the harm principle even now. Some other basis for the ban would have to be found, e.g., its artificial enhancement rather than natural or we just don’t want them. A temporary ban on anabolic steroids until more decisive studies have been published makes sense, but only because there were some papers published in the 80’s and early 90’s that argued steroids cause long-term health damage. I’ve seen doctors interviewed who contradict those findings, but it would be good to have conclusive findings. I wonder, for example, whether using anabolic steroids raises one’s risk for cancer more than eating red meat does. I also wonder at what amount anabolic steroid use becomes dangerous. So, a conclusion I would make is that the ban on PEDs in general cannot be based on a harm principle. If that is the only basis for banning PEDs, then PEDs in general should not be banned, although perhaps anabolic steroids in particular should be. That is as precise and clear as I can be. Notice the if-clauses; they place limitations on the conclusions I’m drawing. At no point have I drawn the positive conclusion that PEDs should no longer be banned, rather only that I have not yet found a rational basis for the ban. From the latter the former doesn’t follow. (Remember we got into the objective/subjective debate because you doubted that the proper thing to do in this discussion is to look for a rational basis. But if we can’t find a rational basis then we won’t have a justification for it, since mere desires are not a justification for anything by themselves.)

    The players themselves might not want PEDs unbanned (legalized isn’t right here since many PEDs are legal, over-the-counter substances) for reasons other than potential harm. For instance, some might believe they are artificial means for enhancement and sports should only allow natural means. I wouldn’t presume to know their precise reasons, but I’d love to see a survey. (I doubt MLB would allow it.) Further, whatever the players’ opinions, those could change with education or a simple migration of opinions over time, and if they did, then that limited basis for the ban would not exist any longer, no?

    It is unfortunate that you will not engage the philosophical points since you accuse me of making philosophical mistakes but refuse to elaborate on how I am mistaken. It would be excellent for me to learn about these mistakes so that I do not make them in the future.

  4. Phillie697

    July 22, 2011 09:48 AM

    I suppose I look at the ban a little differently than you do. Your reasoning is that if there is no reason to ban it, why do we ban it? And my point is, if the player don’t want it, and there are no compelling reasons to un-ban it, why go against the people whose opinions should matter the most in this case?

    I agree we don’t precisely know the reasons behind the players not wanting to make PEDs legal for use in MLB, but that’s actually the original reasons why I brought up Plessy in the first place. At the time that decision was handed down, separate but equal was the conventional wisdom of its time. 58 years later, with Brown, that perception changed, and with it, our laws. And that’s really the crux of my argument. If anyone REALLY want to see PED made legal in MLB, change the perception of the public and the players, and with it, so will the rules change. Until then, I see it as no different than any other rule we adopt for competition purposes, like not using corked bats or no spit balls (surely no one can make any significant arguments about their health risks), the Cansecos be damned. And if you violate the rules based on your own personal opinion, then you deserve to be called a cheater and punished; that is the very spirit of competition, and you just violated it. Plus, of course, I’m not convinced that PED don’t have long-term health risks, and in light of that, I don’t really want to advocate a practice that could potentially put tens of thousands of people in harm’s way, due to the compulsory nature of such a practice. Maybe I’ll change my mind in 10 years when data about long and sustained use of PED become more available. It’s a risk-averse approach, that’s all.

    I don’t want to engage in philosophical discussions because quite frankly, there really isn’t any “right” or “wrong,” just what is accepted and what is adopted. Philosophically, most of the principles we live with are quite arbitrary, and we’d spend days and nights discussing if they are right or wrong and not get anywhere. Of course, I do believe there is such a thing as absolute right or wrong, but I would never ever dare to suggest that *I* would know what that is. You might do well to focus more on people’s perceptions than driving yourself crazy to try to find the answer.

  5. LTG

    July 23, 2011 01:45 PM

    (Warning: This post will not be about baseball.)

    I disagree with your description of the Plessy case. Separate but Equal was a rationale for maintaining racist practices without any precedent in conventional wisdom or the legal tradition of the United States. Even if it were the conventional wisdom, the example would only serve to show why we shouldn’t defer to conventional wisdom, since deference in this case means perpetuating blatantly unjust practices that have had drastically detrimental effects on the society and politics of the United States. I actually think you are better off not referring to Plessy, since it is possible that deference to conventional wisdom is permissible in some cases and our question here is potentially one of those cases.

    The average person’s philosophical opinions are not trustworthy and the common perception that philosophy makes no progress is false. There are only a small number of coherent, viable views on any philosophical question, none of which are held by anyone who is not in the business. On the other hand, there are a large number of views that people talk about that are incoherent and can be shown to be incoherent by making arguments and demonstrating the absurd consequences that follow from those views (e.g., subjectivism in any form and cultural relativism in its popular form). I guess you’ll have to trust me on this testimony, but you could also start reading works in philosophy and find out for yourself.

    There is no way in hell that I’m going to form my opinions simply on the basis of other people’s perceptions. I care about doing what is right not just what people think is right. So, I care about people’s perceptions to the extent that they provide the source of correct views and good arguments for those views. This then allows me to form opinions through reflective criticism. I admit that a certain amount of deference is necessary for this process to work; one can only reflect and revise opinions that have been problematized somehow.

    Finally, I don’t claim to know many things. I claim to have lots of arguments and to try to follow them and make new ones as I attempt to come to know something. Perhaps the only thing that I claim to know is that it is better to seek knowledge in this manner than to have opinions but be unwilling to test them (and revise if compelled) because the process seems to be never-ending or because I would appear to lack humility. No one will be graced with wisdom without wrenching it from oblivion.

  6. Phillie697

    July 23, 2011 02:10 PM

    You assume I trust you to be one of those people who is versed in coherent philosophical discussions :)

  7. Phillie697

    July 23, 2011 02:12 PM

    Also, discussing what is right or wrong philosophically is a completely different discussion than what should be the policy we as a society should adopt. I think that is where your disconnect is. What’s right isn’t always what should be adopted.

  8. LTG

    July 23, 2011 04:40 PM

    “What’s right isn’t always what should be adopted.”

    It depends on what you mean by what is right. Visions of utopia provide basic principles up to which we ought to live, but they can’t be implemented immediately. If what is right are the utopic principles only, then, sure, what is right isn’t always what should be adopted. Contrary to this, however, where the utopic principles can’t be implemented it is not right for them to be implemented. If we treat the basic principles as regulatory rather than obligatory, then we can seek to approximate them and discover ways to move towards them. The ways of moving towards them are the right thing to do in the concrete circumstances and they are the same as what should be adopted. These are difficult calculations, no doubt, because they incorporate all kinds of possible harms that change can cause (physical, psychological, political, environmental, etc.) and that are difficult to predict or measure. Nevertheless, in order to do the right thing knowingly, this is the work that it takes, both to have the utopic principles correct and to calculate what their regulatory demands call for in the concrete situation. Of course, we could just get lucky and blunder into the right thing to do…

  9. Johnny Smith

    September 09, 2011 10:39 AM

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