Do Steroids Give A Shot in the Arm?
Benefits for Pitchers Are Questionable

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

It is not known exactly how many of baseball's positive tests have been for steroids. Major League Baseball does not reveal the substances for which players test positive and Manfred declined to provide generic statistical information about results after considering the request for a week, saying he and his staff were too busy to compile it. Minor league and major league players are randomly tested for about four dozen different steroids along with stimulants and recreational drugs.

In the two seasons that MLB has publicly announced drug-test results, 12 major league players and 95 minor leaguers have tested positive. Six of the major leaguers and 48 of the minor leaguers -- slightly more than half of the overall total -- have been pitchers, according to an analysis of the results by The Post.

That includes Mets minor leaguer Yusaku Iriki, who was suspended for 50 games Friday and is the first player on a major league 40-man roster penalized under baseball's new steroid rules. Iriki had spent his entire career in Japan before signing with the Mets in January. He was playing for Class AAA Norfolk.

Manfred said positive tests from the inception of minor league drug testing in 2001 have shown that steroids are more popular among pitchers than commonly believed, a fact he attributed to the expectation that such drugs can help pitchers better endure the grind of the long season.

"It was a mistake for people to assume it was hitters and not pitchers from the beginning," Manfred said. "The speculation is that in addition to bulk, there is a recovery period issue with respect to steroids that will allow you to pitch more frequently."

But is that true? Steroids have not been shown to aid in the recovery of the connective tissue that is heavily taxed during pitching. They merely allow the muscles to recover more quickly, presumably providing pitchers only a partial benefit.

Another theory is that because leg strength gives pitchers more power, and steroids help build that strength, then it must be a benefit for pitchers to take them. But in order for that theory to hold true, pitchers would have to take steroids and work on strengthening only their lower bodies, and they would still be subject to the side effects that weaken connective tissue.

"One of the things steroids do is build mass," said Larry Starr, a baseball trainer for 30 years for the Reds and Florida Marlins who has been credited for the rise in strength training in baseball during his years in Cincinnati in the 1970s. "The second thing they do is help you recover quicker. The third thing they do is give you a feeling and ability to go back into the weight room and lift more. The question is, are those criteria important to making a pitcher better?

"You might have some selling points on it . . . but the problem with increased mass and increased strength using artificial means puts extreme test on the connective tissue and ligaments."

Jeff Bruksch, a former Stanford star who tested positive while pitching for a Class A affiliate of the Reds last year, said young players feel pressure to bulk up when they see the size of those with whom they are competing for jobs. Though fearful of testing positive or just uncomfortable with the idea of using injectable steroids, Bruksch said, many are willing to try dietary supplements that claim to build strength and that are available online or at nutrition stores, trusting that if they are freely available they won't produce positive tests.

"Players have obviously gotten bigger in baseball," said Bruksch, who blamed his positive test (he declined to reveal the substance) on an over-the-counter product he purchased at a nutrition store. "There's a constant competition to stay with everyone else. . . . A lot of guys come from college or high school and they haven't really worked out. Once you get in the mix with guys that are a lot bigger than you . . . there's definitely pressure to get bigger and throw harder."

Added Bruksch: "I'd feel like I'm cheating myself if I never lifted weights and tried to get stronger and bigger. If I relied on what I just naturally had, I don't think I ever would have played professional baseball."

Another pitcher who tested positive last year said he, too, unwittingly ingested a banned substance in a dietary supplement he obtained online. San Diego Padres reliever Clay Hensley, who declined to name the substance, said it was recommended to him by friends.

"I've always worked out hard," he said. "I've always lifted hard. . . . It's real important, strength training. I don't think there's one player I've played with that doesn't work out."

Manfred noted that legislation enacted at the beginning of last year that made many dietary supplements illegal makes players' claims that they ingested banned substances in over-the-counter products less credible. However, many dietary supplements containing steroids are still readily available, according to many sources and analyses of several supplements obtained by The Post last fall.

In the 1970s, team officials treated pitchers' arms like fragile musical instruments that could break if overstressed. One former trainer recalled pitchers being prohibited from playing golf or doing push-ups. Now, all players are expected to take advantage of multimillion dollar, state-of-the-art weight training facilities that have become standard in every clubhouse.

"In the '70s, they didn't want pitchers touching weights," said Dick Martin, a trainer for 28 seasons through 2001 with the Minnesota Twins. "In the '80s, they let us rehab them [with weights] and rehab hard. In the '90s, they let us lift."

Strengthening the arm -- with medical guidance -- is now considered essential for staving off injuries, and many young pitchers get acquainted with weight rooms almost as soon as they get involved in organized baseball. Meantime, with the prevalence of radar guns, which became popular in the early 1980s, pitchers learn even before high school that there is no bend in a curveball or deception in a change-up that communicates as effectively and forcefully as a fastball clocked above 90 mph.

It's not difficult to understand, Marshall said, how steroids have infiltrated the world of pitching.

When "the radar gun came in, everyone decided we need to get only those pitchers that can throw really, really, really hard," Marshall said. "If they can't throw 90 miles per hour, they've got to find a way to get as much velocity as they can, everything else be damned. . . . I understand the lure of it."

Marshall, however, said he believes the lure is a sham.

"The good news is, when pitchers use steroids, they hurt themselves and are not successful," Marshall said. "There is no question you can throw harder but . . . you are going to hurt yourself."

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