Besides my brief post upon hearing the news that David Ortiz was on the list of 104 major league players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, I haven’t written much. That’s because, rather than hearing clearer information since the first report, the issue has grown murkier with each passing day.
The day after the news broke, Ortiz issued a statement which said, in part:
One, I have already contacted the Players Association to confirm if this report is true. I have just been told that the report is true. Based on the way I have lived my life, I am surprised to learn I tested positive. Two, I will find out what I tested positive for. And, three, based on whatever I learn, I will share this information with my club and the public. You know me – I will not hide and I will not make excuses.
Yesterday, the new head of the players’ union released a statement prior to the scheduled news conference with Ortiz. Michael Weiner said, in part (emphasis mine):
The sealing orders, which were appropriately issued by the various courts to maintain the collectively-bargained confidentiality of the testing, prevent the [Major League Baseball Players'] Association from supplying a player with specifics regarding his 2003 test results, or from discussing those specifics publicly. The practical effect of the sealing orders, if that confidentiality is to be maintained, is to further preclude the Players Association from confirming or denying whether a player’s name appears on any list which purportedly discloses the 2003 test results. The result is that any union member alleged to have tested positive in 2003 because his name supposedly appears on some list — most recently David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez — finds himself in an extremely unfair position; his reputation has been threatened by a violation of the court’s orders, but respect for those orders now leaves him without access to the information that might permit him to restore his good name.
[ . . . ]
First, the number of players on the so-called “government list” meaningfully exceeds the number of players agreed by the bargaining parties to have tested positive in 2003. Accordingly, the presence of a player’s name on any such list does not necessarily mean that the player used a prohibited substance or that the player tested positive under our collectively bargained program.
Second, substantial scientific questions exist as to the interpretation of some of the 2003 test results. The more definitive methods that are utilized by the lab that administers the current Drug Agreement were not utilized by the lab responsible for the anonymous testing program in 2003. The collective bargaining parties did not pursue definitive answers regarding these inconclusive results, since those answers were unnecessary to the administration of the 2003 program.
Third, in 2003, legally available nutritional supplements could trigger an initial “positive” test under our program. To account for this, each “test” conducted in 2003 actually consisted of a pair of collections: the first was unannounced and random, the second was approximately 7 days later, with the player advised to cease taking supplements during the interim. Under the 2003 program, a test could be initially reported as “positive”, but not treated as such by the bargaining parties on account of the second test.
What this all means in terms of Ortiz’ initial statement is that Ortiz did not (and, according to Weiner, cannot) find out exactly what it was for which he reportedly tested positive in 2003. It also means that, at least according to Weiner, the presence of any player on the sealed list doesn’t necessarily mean that that player used a substance that was prohibited at the time.
The problem is that until we know what he did test positive for, we won’t know what he didn’t test positive for—a fact that gives cover to people who see this as proof that Ortiz used “steroids” without actually understanding that there are many categories of performance-enhancing drugs, anabolic steroids being only one. But that’s the big one in most people’s minds, and the other two big PED stories this year—Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez— apprently did involve a steroid.
When Rodriguez was revealed to have been on the list, he admitted using “a banned substance” but never said which one (nor did he deny it was an anabolic steroid he used). But Sports Illustrated reported that he had tested positive for “two anabolic steroids,” something Rodriguez has not protested. More recently, when Manny Ramirez tested positive for using performance-enhancing drugs this year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the positive test was for both an abnormally elevated ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, and also human chorionic gonadotropin, “a female fertility drug that male steroid users sometimes take to stimulate their body’s natural testosterone production, which usually is retarded by steroid use.”
As far as I’ve seen, the anonymous source who has been leaking the 2003 list has not claimed that any of those substances were what landed Ortiz on the list. And the New York Daily News reported today that, according to one person who did prison time in the BALCO case, “[I]t’s feasible that David Ortiz’s inclusion on baseball’s Scarlet Letter list may have been caused by a steroid-spiked supplement that was legal in 2003.”
If that is true—and again, we won’t know unless and until the details of the testing are made public—then Ortiz may not have known what he was using and wasn’t careful enough to find out.
My conclusion now is that I am more willing than I was initially to give Ortiz the benefit of the doubt, provided he can eventually back up his claims.
As for other people’s conclusions, they run the gamut. All the Red Sox fans I talked to in the hours and days following the leak of Ortiz’ name took the report at face value and believed it. Most of them didn’t want to believe it, but ultimately they felt that if they believed the anonymous source when the player was A-Rod, then consistency required that they believe the source when the player was Big Papi.
Then there have been the reactions from the people who do want to believe it. On WEEI’s Mustard and Johnson show today, I heard two Yankees fans who called in with their “I told you so” attitudes on full display. One of the callers, known as Frank from Gloucester, based his belief on nothing more than what I have presented here. Another, whose name escapes me, offered as further purported proof the difference in Ortiz’ performance with the Minnesota Twins and his performance after joining the Red Sox in 2003. It’s the Twins comparison I’d like to delve into.
Ortiz played parts of three seasons for Minnesota before having his first full-time year in 2000. From that season to the present, he has hit home runs in double-digits every year. But when you’re talking about home run hitters, what really counts is how many at-bats you go between home runs. Let’s look at Ortiz’ season-by-season ratio of home runs per at-bat for the seasons in which he had at least 100 at-bats. Keep in mind that the lower ratio is is better.
||AB per HR
One possible explanation I’ve heard about Ortiz’ breakout as a power hitter involves the way Minnesota used him. The Twins’ hitting philosophy, presumably espoused by their hitting coach, focused more on getting hitters to hit for average and hit to the opposite field, rather than relying on power. The Red Sox, by contrast, were more interested in getting hitters whose talents filled a particular offensive need, and Theo Epstein recognized Ortiz as a potentially prolific power hitter. Once Ortiz had a team and a hitting coach who were willing to let him swing for home runs, he flourished. But hitting philosophy is a difficult thing to quantify.
The other explanation is that Ortiz broke out once he got a chance to play regularly. How much he played can be measured by games or by at-bats. Since we looked at at-bats per home run above, let’s look at those two numbers graphically.
At-bats, by season
At-bats per home run, by season
Do you see what I see? Not only was 2003, the year in which he reportedly tested positive for something, not his most productive year (although it is in the top four), but his ratio of at-bats per home run correlates closely to his at-bats in a season. In other words, the numbers show conclusively that the more regularly he has played, the better his home run totals have been. It is for that reason that teams send new call-ups from the minor leagues back down when they’re not needed: it’s easier to develop a player’s skills when he plays every day than it is when he is sitting on the bench.
As I said before, none of this proves Ortiz didn’t use steroids or some other banned substance. But it does debunk the meme that Ortiz’ home run numbers could only be due to steroid use.