Monday, February 23, 2009

Baseball's other unnatural advantages

We've gone through years of peaks and valleys in this whole festival of affected and overly sanctimonious outrage around performance enhancers, with the awkwardly scripted admissions from A-Rod providing the latest jumping off point for the sports talkerazzi.

The outrage seems to stem from a belief that these enhancers give the current generation of players a leg up on their current competition, and moreover, skew the sacrosanct history of the game as it is written in the numbers they produce. If we were ever to turn a blind eye to this sort of behaviour, the argument goes, we'd be left with record books that diminish most of what has come before, and a game that is radically different from what we have come to love. With apologies to Fukuyama, it would be the End of History. And we'd all be poorer for it, or so they say.

But with all this talk of the unnatural advantages that modern anabolics and growth hormones provide to the nefarious and disreputable, we've been left to wonder about the place in baseball's dialectic that is occupied by one of the most ubiquitous and increasingly perfunctory procedures: ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, or Tommy John Surgery.

While we drive ourselves nuts in trying to push back against medical science in some areas of baseball, Tommy John surgery is tacitly accepted as part of the game. Once a career-saving procedure and a last resort for pitchers, going for a "TJ" is so commonplace at this point that players seem to be going for this surgery as a preventative measure. Give up next year, the thinking seems to be, and get back five years on the other side with a brand new arm.

Nobody really thinks much about the competitive advantages that TJ surgery provides, and most view it in the same context as having a knee scoped or a labrum tear repaired. These surgeries and procedures are generally acceptable, it seems, because they are the pound of cure applied after someone has suffered an injury. That's the way we like our medicine.

The question is: Does this surgery, or even the knowledge that it is readily available, affect the competitive balance of the game? Do pitchers throw harder or throw pitches that they may have avoided in the past (e.g. sliders and splitters) because of the safety net that TJ procedures provide?

How conservative will a young pitcher be with his arm when he knows that, at worst, he can have his ligaments yanked out and replaced with stronger ligaments from his leg? And moreover, if there is any truth to the notion that pitchers eventually throw harder after having their UCL replaced, does this not constitute an unfair advantage?

Will Carrol and Thomas Gordon noted in a Baseball Prospectus piece in 2004 that some speculate that the "dead arm" that ended Sandy Koufax's career was in fact a wonky UCL that could have been fixed with this surgery. This raises for us a question: If we are going to insist on giving the utmost respect to the historical performances of hitters throughout the past century, shouldn't we be considering the number of injured arms throughout those eras?

To underscore the ubiquity of the procedure, that same BP article notes that Dr. Tim Kremchek performs 120 TJ's per year, roughly the equivalent of 10 big league pitching staffs. And he's just one surgeon.

If we find it morally problematic to reward Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds because they enjoyed an unfair advantage over the harball heroes that we see in gauzy sepia tones, then shouldn't we take into account the injured arms that threw only a couple of pitches to avoid pain, and that threw them slow and straight over the plate to Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle or Henry Aaron?

If we're going to heckle an easy target like Alex Rodriguez with catcalls of "A-Roid" and "A-Fraud", what sort of treatment should be given to Shaun Marcum when he returns? Because from our point of view, Marcum's Tommy John surgery seems to fall more in the category of being an ounce of prevention.

9 comments:

dave said...

My first thought when I saw where you were going on this was to Koufax.

Interesting piece and I agree that it takes the thump out of the argument for a fair playing field in which to judge all players of all eras (and there are others; the baseballs Ruth played with vs. those of the dead ball era is another such example).

However, I think where the outrage towards the players who roided up still stands is in the fact that it's illegal, no? So really it turns into players doing the "moral" thing are at a disadvantage. At least in the short term.

But hey, that's all of life, isn't it?

Tao of Stieb said...

Point taken on the illegality.

People did get their dander up about guys who were getting "legit" prescriptions for HGH, though. Ankiel's case comes to mind.

dave said...

No you're right. The legal side of it is the fallback argument.

People are more concerned with comparing era's, as I was once upon a time, but you realize there are too many factors to REALLY do so.

I think we should look at what a player was able to do within the era they played and be impressed by how much they were able to stand ahead of their competition. Sure Mantle and Koufax might not have been able to do now what they did then but fuck were they dominate. They were full body lengths above of their peers.

dave said...

No you're right. The legal side of it is the fallback argument.

People are more concerned with comparing era's, as I was once upon a time, but you realize there are too many factors to REALLY do so.

I think we should look at what a player was able to do within the era they played and be impressed by how much they were able to stand ahead of their competition. Sure Mantle and Koufax might not have been able to do now what they did then but fuck were they dominate. They were full body lengths above of their peers.

obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

Don't forget, but there were no players of color back in the day either. Maybe the players who achieved so much during that era might not have (probably wouldn't have) achieved what they did had people of color been fully allowed to play in the majors during those years before Jackie Robinson shook things up. So that puts an asterisk on anything at least before Jackie took the field, and probably until all teams were integrated to a large extent in the 1960's.

And I totally agree about TJS, particularly when a dead cadaver's is used.

And technically, those drugs were not forbidden in the rules of baseball to use, they were illegal in society. Should we throw out Babe Ruth's numbers during Prohibition when it was illegal to drink any alcohol, he was almost certainly imbibing? And as noted, people's civil rights were being taken away, and the players did nothing to help these other players and thus are culpable too, so should we just strike off the records and start counting from when Jackie Robinson started?

And in a similar vein, amphetamines have allowed players to play at their peak levels when they should be tired and whiffing at similar pitches or throwing softballs into the heart of the plate. That adds to players' counting stats as well as prop up their overall rate stats. Willie Mays has been accused of being a user, players who battled in World War II and the Korean War most probably used too, as the Armed Forces used to pass them out like candy. And as much as Bonds is accused of having a great surge in his late 30's, Hank Aaron also experienced a surge as well, unlike anyone except for Ted Williams up to his time, so was that all kosher? Plus, reportedly the Braves moved in their fences when he started chasing Ruth in seriousness, and conveniently moved them back out just after Aaron caught the Babe, is that fair play for the record books too?

And speaking of the Babe, he got to play in Yankee Stadium, home of one of the closest RF fences there is to home plate, making homers easier to hit and thus "unearned" relative to batters hitting in normal parks. Is that fair?

Anonymous said...

Wow - this is a great post. I never really thought of Tommy John surgery from that perspective. And some intelligent conversation generated too. Well done Tao!

Johnny G said...

Wow, really excellent points made here.

Excellent post and excellent reading.

Bolton said...

Great piece. Its sad to think that our era of baseball is tainted and that the great players of our age are always going to have the steroid bubble hanging over them. When in all reality these players are hitting off of juiced pitchers and pitchers are pitching to juiced batters. I believe that in every sport players are always looking for an edge. This is competition and this means doing whatever it takes to beat your opponent. Surgeries today allow players to come back much faster and stronger in some cases. Steroids, supplements, medications also aid players in ways that were never though possible.
Always enjoy reading your blog,

The Ack said...

This post, while fantastic, thoughtful, and novel, is really the tip of the iceberg, though, isn't it?

I've come to the conclusion that while "records" and titles like "Home Run King" are all well and good, it's impossible to objectively compare players from different eras.

Steroids, medical advancements, racial segregation, ballpark dimensions, equipment, genetics, rule changes, contracts, outside pressures.....