Do Steroids Give A Shot in the Arm?
Sunday, April 30, 2006
Slightly more than half of the positive drug tests in professional baseball the past two years have come from pitchers, including nine of 10 this season, debunking the theory that pitchers are less likely to use performance-enhancing drugs for fear of getting too muscular. But the results prompt a new debate: Do such substances actually help pitchers' performances?
Whether the source is injectable steroids or over-the-counter products, there is no dispute that steroids help athletes build strength and muscle. Several sports medicine experts, however, said it's unknown whether such drugs can make pitchers markedly better because of the complexity of the arm and shoulder and the strange science involved in throwing a baseball.
"It's an absolutely fascinating question," said Don Catlin, the director of the Los Angeles laboratory that carries out the testing for minor league baseball. "The knee-jerk response is they will help you throw faster. We all know if you throw 93 [miles per hour] today and 98 tomorrow, that will make a big difference in your career. But the information we have doesn't really support that."
Medical experts say that the muscle growth promoted by steroids does not include a corresponding growth in the tendons, ligaments and other connective tissue that effectively hold the arm together when it is catapulted violently during a pitch. A side effect of steroids, in fact, is a weakening of that connective tissue, which can lead to a variety of injuries when artificially strengthened muscles apply too much force.
The side effect is dangerous for a pitcher, who puts more stress on his arm hurling a baseball than a hitter does with the more natural motion involved in swinging a bat. Ohio University physiology professor Fritz Hagerman, a former Cincinnati Reds team doctor, called pitching "an unhealthy, unusual and unnatural act . . . [that] is terrible for the shoulder."
While drug experts largely agree that steroids can enhance any hitter's power and likely fueled the unprecedented home run surge in the 1990s, the only evidence to suggest that steroids have significantly affected pitching during the same time period is the injuries that have occurred.
Pitchers' trips to the disabled list increased by 36.7 percent and their length of stays by 37.1 percent from 1992 to 1999, according to a paper that appeared in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2001 (current San Francisco Giants trainer Stan Conte was the lead author). The increase outpaced the growth in player rosters during that time as baseball expanded from 26 to 30 teams (13.3 percent increase). In testimony before Congress in 2002, Rob Manfred, an MLB executive vice president who oversees the drug testing program, told lawmakers that from 1998 to 2001 there was a 16 percent increase in major leaguers' trips to the disabled list and a 20 percent increase in the length of stays on the list. Those increases were accompanied by a change in the types of injuries that was consistent with steroid use, Manfred said.
"They're doomed to mess up their arms," said former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Mike Marshall, who in 1974 became the first reliever to win the Cy Young Award and who also holds a doctorate in exercise physiology. "They don't last. They're always injured. They have little things nagging them all of the time. . . . I blame it on an inability of pitching coaches to make pitchers better. They all think they have to throw hard to make a team."
Several medical experts said even if the risk of injury weren't so high, pitchers would still run into another problem: The velocity of their pitches likely would not improve substantially. Frank Jobe, the longtime Los Angeles Dodgers team physician credited with the invention of ligament replacement surgery (Tommy John surgery), speculated that steroids could earn a pitcher perhaps an extra 2 mph on his fastball.
"It's a question in everybody's head: Has it helped anybody in terms of performance?" said Robert Donatelli, a physical therapist who has consulted for the Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies and tennis player Andy Roddick. "With pitchers, I don't really see how that would help them in terms of improving velocity. The velocity is mostly dependent upon how far the arm goes back . . . [and] how much time the hand has to develop speed to throw the ball.
"I don't care how strong you are; you can't have a short arc of rotation."
Donatelli said reaching peak velocity in the pitching motion could be compared to a race car's acceleration. If a car can climb from zero to 60 mph in four seconds, it might reach 75 mph in five. The theory is similar for pitching: The farther back a pitcher can take his arm, the more time he has to accelerate the ball before releasing it. Brute strength has little to do with it, Donatelli said, which is why skinny pitchers such as New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera and New York Mets ace Pedro Martinez are able to throw hard.