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Economists Disagree Over How Influential Jose Canseco Was In Spreading Steroids, Start Getting Personal

Illustration for article titled Economists Disagree Over How Influential Jose Canseco Was In Spreading Steroids, Start Getting Personal

With advance apologies for giving any more press to Jose Canseco, you might want to check out a little contretemps happening over at Econ Journal Watch about Canseco's role as the Johnny Appleseed of baseball steroids. There's been a debate for a few years now about Canseco's claims to have spread the gospel of 'roids on the seven different major league teams he played for. In the late aughts two labor economists crunched the numbers and found that Canseco's benefits to his teammates, both sluggers and pitchers, was statistically significant—suggesting that he brought enough PEDs with him to actually enhance others' performance. You may not be able to make your teammates better by going to practice, but you can add a couple of home runs and a handful of RBIs to their annual total by showing them how to juice.


The study by Eric Gould and Todd Kaplan appears to demonstrate how one employee can demonstrably tilt a company's culture toward cheating. (Slate wrote it up, back in the day.) Canseco appears to be an empirical example of the "contagion effect" of a crooked co-worker in an industry in which performance pressure is high. It's a short leap to considering what happens when everyone goes rogue at an investment bank or mortgage lender.

But then along came J.C. Bradbury, the author of The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed. First in this Sabernomics blog post, he ripped the Gould-Kaplan analysis as fundamentally in error. He didn't like the time span of their player sample (1970 to 2003; Canseco played from '85 to '01). He didn't like how the players were classified. He didn't like the control variables. When he ran his own analysis, he had reason to view Gould and Kaplan's results as "fragile" and offering "spurious correlation."


Bradbury's analysis matured from a blog post to a full article, published last month; you can read it here. He recreates their analysis with what he sees as better parameters and determines that the so-called Canseco effect was nonexistent. His buzzkilling conclusion:

... [B]eing Jose Canseco's teammate did not provide any marginal performance advantage over players who were never teammates with Canseco. Thus, Canseco's role in spreading steroid use in baseball is likely exaggerated. In fact, the lack of results should not be surprising even in a world of rampant steroid use. The knowledge of how to use steroids is understood widely throughout sports among athletes, trainers, coaches, and doctors.

And there we would rest had Gould and Kaplan not fired back at Bradbury with a response to the response. They disagree with his statistical analysis, saying he's oddly restrictive in the data he wanted to consider. And then they intimate that the real reason Bradbury quibbles with their methods is that he doesn't like their conclusions:

Bradbury has a very public history of denying the efficacy of steroids and human growth hormone. He has claimed repeatedly that steroids had nothing to do with the longstanding home run records being smashed by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds in 1998 and 2001 at the ages of 35 and 36 respectively. In his 2008 book The Baseball Economist, Bradbury stated unequivocally that league expansion, not steroid use, explains why power hitting has increased over the years: "In fact, their great achievements in home run hitting are exactly what we would expect given the current distribution of talent in the league. The statistics don't convict them" (Bradbury 2008, 94). …

Without having done any econometric analysis of the effects of steroids versus league expansion, Bradbury denies that steroids had any effect on home runs in baseball. This is a rather extreme position—one that is clearly at odds with our results, which came out a few years later. … Apparently, Bradbury doesn't even like that we raised the subject.


It's one thing to be wrong; it's another to be both wrong and full of shit. If Gould and Kaplan were to go any further they might as well call Bradbury Canseco-esque.

Did Jose Canseco Really Improve the Performance of His Teammates by Spreading Steroids? A Critique of Gould and Kaplan [Econ Journal Watch]
The Peer Effect of Jose Canseco: A Reply to J.C. Bradbury [Econ Journal Watch]

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