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Note: This is me bloviating on a non-Phillies topic. You may close your browser now.
Orioles first baseman Chris Davis hit his 31st home run of the year last night, putting himself in rarefied air through 83 games. The power surge has prompted many to seriously link Davis to former Oriole Brady Anderson, who after hitting between 12-21 home runs in the previous four years smacked 50 home runs in 1996. Others have been more explicit with their suspicions of Davis using performance-enhancing drugs. This happens every time a player unexpectedly puts himself on the map; Jose Bautista experienced the skepticism several years ago. Because players figuring it out simply never happens, right?
From a personal standpoint, I think those who choose to preoccupy them with baseball’s war on performance-enhancing drugs are robbing themselves of enjoyment of the great game of baseball. I can’t imagine devoting hours every day to following a sport that leaves me scowling and shaking my fist.
Objectively, default skepticism of a player’s achievements on the field diminishes the work of every single professional who dons a uniform and minimizes the difficulty of the sport. I imagine most people reading this have, at one point or another, played baseball or softball at some level. Some parts of it, like catching fly balls, are easy. Others, like squatting behind home plate for 150 pitches per game, are very difficult and taxing.
Hitting is one of those difficult tasks. Eric Longenhagen can speak to this much better than I can, but to properly hit a baseball, one must have his upper and lower body working in rhythm and almost everyone who has ever played baseball fails to do this adequately enough to keep up with the competition. I had a former Major Leaguer coach me for several years in Little League and I still couldn’t do it. Furthermore, one must possess the requisite amount of strength to apply power to the baseball. At the professional level, one must also have great knowledge of the game, and dedication to researching the opposition, to be able to predict and identify the pitch being thrown. Finally, the hitter must have the hand-eye coordination to put all of that together into a properly-executed swing. Those who do that consistently well enough to make it to the Majors are in the upper 99.9999th percentile of the human population at hitting baseballs.
Hitting is so difficult that some players have completely given up that aspect of the game in order to provide value in other ways (see: Jack Wilson). To say that the success Chris Davis has enjoyed since September last year, or Jose Bautista since September 2009, is simply due to performance-enhancing drug use is insulting to anyone who has ever attempted to play baseball. If it was just as easy as covertly using drugs, everybody would be doing it. And since Major League Baseball has stringent drug testing policies in place, Davis would have to have some very scientifically-adept friends to have passed every drug test he has taken.
Right now, you could give a real, live Major Leaguer the same chemicals that Barry Bonds ever allegedly injected into his body for performance-enhancing reasons, and they would never come close to his single-season and career home run records. They wouldn’t come close to replicating his eye at the plate, leading to so many unintentional walks and so few swings and misses. They wouldn’t hit lefties as well as righties, as Bonds did. They wouldn’t improve their walk and contact rates, as Davis did. Crediting a player’s newfound success to PED use simplifies the game of baseball so much as to call into question one’s basic understanding of it.