This is an article I wrote in August 2007 about the baseball steroids scandal. It seems relevant again in light of the refusal of the Base Ball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to vote any of the sluggers of the Steroid Era into the Hall of Fame:
Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post seems to be deeply conflicted about Barry Bonds and his steroid-tainted home run record. In a column yesterday, he suggested that no one can guess how much the drugs affected his performance. In fact, an educated guess can be made. Here is my letter to Mr. Wilbon:
Dear Mr. Wilbon: I think I can provide an answer, or at least a logical guess, to your questions about the impact of steroids on Barry Bonds’ home run performance. I am not an expert, and the “sabremetrics” people who study these things closely would no doubt have more precise estimates, but mine are based on the very interesting chart published Thursday on page E12 of the Post, so they must be right.
Look at it this way: Hank Aaron was a very consistent performer, hitting between 24 and 47 home runs in nearly every year of his career. If you average his entire career, you get 33 home runs per year (755 divided by 23 years). If you drop his rookie year and the last three years of his career, when he was obviously declining, you get a very impressive average of 37 home runs per year.
Bonds was also very consistent in his peak years. If you drop his rookie year and average the years from 1987 through 1999, you get 33 home runs per year. Why stop at 1999? Because most people think he started with the drugs in 2000, when his home run production suddenly surged to 49, as a prelude to the incredible total of 73 in 2001.
In other words, in “normal” years, Bonds was about four runs per year behind Aaron. If you assume that his drug years were 2000-2004, when he hit more home runs than all but one of his non-drug years, he hit 258 home runs in those years, an average of 52 per year, 19 more than his average for his peak period. Therefore, the drugs were worth at least 95 home runs (19 times five).
Therefore, had it not been for steroids, Barry Bonds would still be chasing Hank Aaron’s record and would be standing right now at around 715 or 720 home runs — more than Babe Ruth but less than Aaron. Since his HR production is slumping with age, as did Aaron’s, he would need two or even three more seasons to surpass Aaron. Maybe he could have done it, maybe not. We will never know.
That’s the tragedy of Barry Bonds. He is — or was — a truly great player who would have walked right into the Hall of Fame in a few years, whether or not he broke the home run record — if he hadn’t chosen to cheat. Instead, he is a controversial and divisive figure whose record obviously deserves an asterisk. What a shame.
Richard L. Lobb