Thursday, February 21, 2008

Schilling, Clemens, and steroids

I'm hardly the first to say that we're only beginning to understand what the steroids era has done to player evaluation in baseball. One of the most underappreciated elements of the steroids controversy, it seems to me, is that the impact of steroids seems to have been greatest at the same time that new methods of statistical evaluation were gaining influence. I keep remembering moments that have taken on new meaning in retrospect: an argument with a friend, for instance, about whether Paul LoDuca could hit Major League pitching. The stats said no; the news out of spring training said yes. The statistical models were wrong. My friend won the argument, but now we know that LoDuca had juiced himself out of the statistical models. Again and again, I was bewildered by the ability of players such as LoDuca to avoid the fates marked out for them by comparable predecessors.

Similarly, when I saw Curt Schilling's much-publicized reaction to the Mitchell Report naming Roger Clemens, I remembered another moment. When Dan Duquette made his notorious remark that Clemens was in the "twilight of his career" and opted not to re-sign Clemens for the Red Sox after the 1996 season, I was living in Philadelphia and participating regularly in an email group of hundreds of Phillies fans. The Clemens situation arose for discussion on the group. I supported Duquette's position: Clemens' struggles and age indicated that he wasn't worth the money he was asking.

Taking the other side and defending Clemens was the group's most famous member: Curt Schilling, then a Phillie, who thus became the most notable person who has condescended to argue with me. Roger had plenty left in that tank, said Curt, citing Clemens's famously maniacal training regimen. It wasn't hard to see what Schilling had at stake in the debate, as a power pitcher thinking of his own value and future.

Obviously, Dan Duquette would have done much better by himself and the Red Sox if he had agreed with Schilling and not with me. And Schiling's identification with and support of Clemens at the time helps explain his investment in the findings of the Mitchell report now. Schilling had invested a lot of faith in Clemens in 1996.

So how will steroids continue to make us rethink our knowledge of the past? Yes, the issue clouds the statistical achievements of Clemens, Bonds, LoDuca, and the rest. But consider how deep the implications of this story are: Duquette's decision was a major reason for his downfall in Boston and a key test case pitting statheads like Duquette and me against the legions of anti-statheads who held almost undisputed sway in those pre-Moneyball days. If Clemens responded to the Duquette "twilight" comment by getting juiced, as has been alleged, and thus changed the shape of his career, was Duquette's tenure as GM of the Red Sox another casualty of the steroid era? And how fundamentally was the process of talent evaluation altered as a result?