Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sink or swim


It's no surprise that the term "witch-hunt" has been bandied about in our cliché-crazy environment when referring to the hysteria surrounding steroids and baseball. I've long thought that the Red Scare was the best available analogy, particularly in light of the "What about the kids?!?" pap that's been trotted out by dozens of supercilious columnists trying to justify their rending of Tommy Bahama shirts and well-worn 501s, but we're not here to discuss the relative merits of hackneyed terminology. We're here to talk about, instead, our weird perception of morality and justice as it pertains to athletes.

As tired and inadequate as the witch references may be in general, the concept of a witch trial is most appropriate when sizing up the situation faced by one Barry Bonds, he of the home run record and 1,000 moments of terror for sports writers. The crime Bonds is being pilloried for today is lying to a grand jury, when the opportunity for "immunity" was presented should he offer any testimony that would be self-incriminating. But, considering that what he said that day was going to become public knowledge, he was really faced with a witch's "water test": If he confessed to a crime everyone had already assumed him guilty of, then he would be finished. If he maintained his innocence — honestly or not — then he would face the punishment nonetheless.

If the body floats, it's a witch. If the body sinks, it's not a witch. Live guilty, or die innocent.

The prosecutor was already armed with evidence that Bonds was a customer of BALCO, and had in the process of his patronage obtained anabolic steroids and a series of other performance-enhancing drugs from BALCO honcho Victor Conte. He was also armed with enough evidence to indict Conte as it was; the use of Bonds, Jason Giambi and a handful of other professional athletes amounted to, at best, piling on, and at worst a dog and pony show for — supposedly — the benefit of those in attendance, and those in attendance only.

That last part is what we're most concerned with, at this moment. Grand juries exist to allow prosecutors to, in theory, test the viability of a case they wish to bring to trial. In reality, grand juries exist to strengthen a prosecutor's case by virtue of an indictment that is granted in a closed proceeding without the benefit of judges, the defendant, or lawyers for the defendant or any witnesses. It is not a stretch to suggest that what often takes place within a grand jury proceeding is nothing short of slander against a prospective defendant, which is why it's increasingly rare for a prosecutor to not earn an indictment as a result of these patently farcical proceedings. Evidence that wouldn't see the light of day after discovery is fair game in a grand jury proceeding, and there's no limit to what a prosecutor can do to witnesses that he or she would otherwise be given a severe reprimand for repeating in an open court.

A prosecutor can also offer immunity to any witness, which in theory — sorry if I keep using this particular caveat as a rhetorical device — obviates the need for any witness to invoke his or her Fifth Amendment right to not be compelled to self-incriminate. Bonds, like the other BALCO clients, was granted immunity in return for honest testimony, which in a lot of people's minds means that Bonds had no excuse to lie about his steroid use.

Bonds is a lot of things — megalomaniac, an asshole, selfish — but he's rarely been accused of being stupid. Nor, I suspect, are the members of his legal council. Anyone with half a brain could see the BALCO grand jury for the circus it was, and thusly had to understand two things about it:

1) It was a pointless exercise of prosecutorial power, and;
2) There was absolutely zero chance that testimony would remain secret.

Bonds, like every other athlete called to testify, had much more to worry about than the criminality of any actions they might admit to on that stand. Rarely are the users of "illegal" drugs like steroids convicted of anything more weighty than a misdemeanor; it's only ever the suppliers that need be concerned of serious jail time, and no one has ever accused Bonds of sharing his stash. But an admission to using steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs was nothing less than professional suicide, and in the case of almost every BALCO client, that meant millions of dollars lost. Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I don't know many people who honor the "truth" — particularly when it's over such a petty crime, in the eyes of the law — enough to sacrifice that kind of money. In addition, Bonds stood close to the precipice of one of the greatest professional accomplishments any athlete could hope to accomplish, which meant he stood to lose both material wealth and athletic immortality. He had every reason to lie that day, seeing as the prosecutor's promise of confidentiality promised to be worthless, a belief borne out by the subsequent leak and publishing of that testimony in newspapers and The Game of Shadows, a book that virtually re-wrote the rules about yellow sports journalism.

So, why did anyone expect him to tell the truth on the stand? Where's the benefit? Furthermore, how is the "greater good" served by his telling the truth in this situation? Even if you believe Conte deserved to be locked up for his crimes, whatever Bonds said that day really didn't change things one way or the other. The player's "crime" didn't harm society; it harmed a game that had looked the other way for at least a decade as juiced ballplayers brought fans back into the seats and dollars back into the pockets of team owners (and, yes, the players themselves). The "crime" was against hopelessly naive fans who clung onto silly notions of athletic purity. And, if you really want to go left-field on this situation, Bonds' crime was against his "legacy," or "natural talent," or "respect for the game," ideas that shouldn't be uttered with a straight face. In truth, Bonds' only "crime" when it came to performance-enhancing drugs was that he shopped with the wrong distributor, or perhaps made his use a little to conspicuous. Perhaps that's a sign of poor forethought, but more than likely it's bad luck. Luck, and the fact that he was so unabashedly better than everyone else — even those juicing just as much — that the scope of every self-righteous, fame-hungry writer or federal prosecutor was aimed directly as his expanding head.

The real "crime" Bonds is being punished for — with this perjury indictment serving as proxy — is being unwilling to offer a lame, emasculating and humiliating "apology" like Giambi (who only apologized after the testimony leaked; had it actually remained secret, he would still maintain his innocence) so the rest of us could feel superior for a day before moving on. Because this proud, arrogant athlete didn't prostrate himself, he is everything that's wrong with the game and should be fitted with shackles. Worse yet, now, and only now, that there's an federal indictment — as opposed to just reams of evidence, two books loudly proclaiming his guilt and a general consensus among everyone that he used PEDs — he's suddenly untouchable, and will not be signed by a team this offseason even though he's still one of the 20 best offensive players in the league and without question the best remaining offensive player on the market. How fucking capricious and hypocritical is that, baseball?

If Bonds goes to jail — he almost certainly won't, by the way, because it's virtually impossible to prove perjury in this particular situation — he should be defiant on his perp walk. The only shame that should be felt is by those who think that what's taking place right now is anything except a travesty and embarrassment. Athletes who have killed people, or been party to a murder — hello there, Ray Lewis and Leonard Little! — received nowhere close to the self-congratulatory bile that's filled sports pages the last three years every time the subject is Barry Bonds. One wonders if the fan reaction to Pac-Man Jones the next time he steps on a field of play will compare to anything Bonds received last season on the road.

I'm not saying that what Bonds did was right — taking steroids or lying to the grand jury — nor should anyone "defending" Bonds have to say as much. But I'm not going to pretend that either infraction is anywhere close to deserving of the punishment he's already received, not to mention the punishment he possibly could receive down the road. Nor am I going to give the hyper-moralists a pass, particularly when almost every one of them have done things in their life to further their careers or contribute to their personal wealth — embellishing resumes, backstabbing co-workers, dodging taxes — that are no better or worse than what Bonds did. There are real criminals in sports that are much more deserving of our hatred, but most of them are lucky(?) enough to not be so good that the mixture of misdeed on their part and jealousy on everyone else's part proves potent enough to fire up a crooked trial.

I finish with a question: Do you really feel better now that Bonds has been ruined?

17 comments:

M.M. said...

TWENTY??? Did you just pull that number out of thin air? STILL in the top twenty...Not even close

Diesel said...

Barry Bonds, 2007:

EqA: .353 (ML Rank: No. 1)
VORP: 55.2 (ML Rank: No. 19)

No thin air here. In Pocatello, maybe.

Respond to my e-mail already!

M.M. said...

340 at bats? 300-350 at bats it was a replacement player. He quietly took half the season off.

Diesel said...

First of all, Bonds had 477 plate appearances last season; using AB for a player who walks that much is misleading. Furthermore, VORP is a counting stat, not an average stat. So, missed time counted against him, and he was still worth more runs over the course of the season than, for example, Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, and Ryan Howard.

Pepe said...

Not to start a stat war, but are you sure missed time counts against a player in VORP? I really didn't know, but I had a very hard time believing Bonds could be so high if it did. So I did a little searching, and this BP article seems to suggest that's not the case:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=4187

Here's the relevant paragraph (I bolded the sentence):

"VORP is a cumulative stat, not a rate stat, so the length of time question doesn't really apply. Similarly, if a player hits 100 home runs, he hit *100 home runs* whether it took him 2 seasons or 20. VORP encompasses how much playing time the player in question got, and is a number of runs contributed over replacement level *given that amount of playing time.* There is a rate stat version of VORP--"VORPr" (VORP-rate), that might be more what you are looking for. It expresses a player's rate of production in runs per game above replacement level. e.g. a player with a .500 VORPr contributes half-a-run above replacement level per game (which is outstanding, BTW). VORPr (and VORP) can be less than zero, meaning that a player was below replacement level over that stretch of plate appearances."

Like I said, not trying to be a dick, but it sounds like it's not taking into account games missed. I still don't really know of any stat that does that accurately, although I'm sure one exists.

M.M. said...

You are right, he sat a third of the season.

I'm more sympathetic towards Vick than Bonds.

Diesel said...

@ Pepe
VORP is a straight counting stat, not unlike RsBI or HR. It's not that you're penalized for time lost so much as you can only earn VORP when you play. Rate stats like EqA — in which Bonds was the clear MLB leader this past season — look at value per AB. VORP is cumulative, and you'll see that's the case in the abstract you've quoted.

That's why Bonds is the MLB leader in EqA, but only 19th in VORP. Had he played an entire season, he would have been the leader in VORP, most likely.

Pepe said...

Yeah, I know VORP is cumulative. The paragraph I quoted says that in the first line. But, as you said, that doesn't mean it penalizes for missed time. It applies only to the amount of ABs the player gets. In other words, MM's point about Barry being less valuable because he only had 400 PAs is valid.

Or, in still other words, it's not true that he was worth more runs over the course of the season than Grady Sizemore. He was worth more runs over the course of 477 PAs than Sizemore would have been worth over the same span. But Sizemore had 729 PAs, which is why he's obviously more valuable in almost every other cumulative statistical category.

Pete Toms said...

I am aware of "metrics" ( I hate that term, not only in baseball ) like VORP & EqA but don't delve into them.

Doesn't a simple OPS of 1045 reveal that Bonds remains an elite offensive player? Didn't he also accomplish that in a pitchers park?

Bonds at DH would be a big upgrade at the position for a lot of AL teams, but how likely is that to occur?

Diesel said...

@ Pepe
For those following, here's the link to the 2007 VORP table:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/statistics/sortable/index.php?cid=204031

VORP isn't on some kind of curve, or per-PA basis (as your abstract pointed out, VORPr measures production per PA, and it can be found on this table as well). It's just like HR in that it's per-season, without consideration to playing time. In other words, Grady Sizemore needed a third-more PAs to be almost as productive as Bonds. Conversely, if Bonds had the same number of plate appearances as Sizemore, it's safe to say he would have been pretty damn close to leading the majors in VORP.

You'll notice three other examples in Ryan Braun (No. 19) and Ryan Howard (No. 22) of guys, like Bonds, who missed playing time but still ended up being top offensive performers. So, Barry Bonds was more valuable, in terms of raw offensive production over the season, than Grady Sizemore (not by much, though).

There's a big caveat here, though. Bonds' value is almost completely tied into offense now, since he's a horrible defensive OF. Sizemore, on the other hand, is an excellent defensive CF, so his overall value is higher, as shown in WARP3 (Sizemore: 8.8, Bonds 7.0). At the end of the day, is Sizemore more valuable than Bonds? Of course. But that's because Sizemore is capable of playing daily and providing great defense at a premium position (it doesn't hurt that he's in his prime, either).

@ Pete
OPS is fine (OPS+ is better), but it's a flawed statistic that doesn't tell you much on its own. Slugging percentage is over-valued in the measurement, since it's almost always a higher number than OBP. And, in the case of a guy like Bonds, it doesn't give you an idea of what he ended up being worth over the course of the entire season, whereas with counting stats like VORP and WARP3, you get an idea of what he was worth for the season, in terms of runs and wins, to his team.

There are about three teams in the major leagues that wouldn't improve dramatically by having Bonds as a DH. And more than a handful of teams would see a dramatic improvement with him as a LF, even with all the missed time.

Diesel said...

By the way, I'm blown away that this has become the point of contention in my post.

Diesel said...

@ Pepe
After having an outside person read the BP abstract you cited, I understand now why there's confusion (I really didn't understand why it existed at first). It's horribly, horribly worded, and leads one to believe that VORP is a relative stat as opposed to simply a cumulative one. What the author is trying to say — and how I read it initially — is that, like HR, is simply a measure of what's happened, and time (or plate appearances) isn't a variable. Essentially, when a player doesn't play, he cannot accumulate or lose VORP.

I'm really not trying to beat a dead horse here, and I hope I'm explaining it well enough.

Pepe B. Secessionist said...

I don't think the problem is with the wording. I know it's awkwardly written, because I know how to read. One more time: I UNDERSTAND THAT IT'S A CUMULATIVE STAT. I GET IT.

I think the problem is that you're giving VORP way too much weight (again). It's not the be all and end all measurement of a player's run production over the course of a season. That would be, you know, runs scored and runs batted in.

To wit: Barry Bonds was not worth more runs this season than Grady Sizemore. If you'll allow me a few arcane stats:

Runs: Bonds 75, Sizemore 118
HR: Bonds 28, Sizemore 24
RBI: Bonds 66, Sizemore 101

That's all you need. Bonds wasn't more productive. I don't care what VORP says. It's ludicrous to say that Bonds was somehow worth more runs over the course of the season when Sizemore scored 43 more runs and drove in 35 more (not to mention defense).

Bonds was great when he played, and was obviously better on a per-at-bat ratio. And *IF* he had played a full season, he would have been a head and shoulders more valuable than Sizemore. But he didn't play a full season, and VORP doesn't change that. So he wasn't. He just wasn't.

He wasn't worth more runs than Grady Sizemore. That's taking the VORPing too far. That's all I'm saying.

Pepe B. Secessionist said...

Although I do agree that this is all getting pretty far away from your original points. And I'm surprised MM's Vick/Bonds firebrand hasn't gotten more attention. I'd respond to it myself, but I think I've said my piece about both parties.

Anonymous said...

hawks just dominated the rams again. guess you were wrong for the 100th time, pepe.

larry b said...

I like you guys a lot. But you've absolutely swung and missed (baseball analogy! I'm so clever) on this one. You're so far from close to a fair assessment of grand juries that I can't even begin to address it. And your analysis of Bonds' motives to either tell the truth or lie amounts to nothing less than an awkward apology for the way he broke the rules for years. Ugh. I can't even finish this comment, which was supposed to be longer and angrier.

Diesel said...

Larry, larry ... breathe, fella.

If you know something about grand juries that I don't, please inform. I've long been an opponent of the system (not just because of the Bonds case) but if there's something you know that I don't — perhaps you're a lawyer? — then I'd like to know it. Seriously.

As for years of "rules breaking," as far as I know baseball had no rules about steroids (or greenies, or HGH, or anything, really). I'm not suggesting that Bonds and the rest didn't know what they were doing was "cheating," but I am suggesting that baseball was more than willing to allow these "cheaters" to do business. An awkward apology? I don't think so. But a strident rebuke of anyone who thinks that Bonds playing the fall guy for an entire sport's issue somehow represents justice? I'd say that's what I'm offering.