Let me start by saying that I haven't been a fan of baseball since the Pirates actually won more than 5 games a season. My favorite player was Bobby Bonilla, and I was as devastated as if he had left me personally when he went to the Mets in 1992. I wasn't the only one: during the first game he played in Pittsburgh as a member of the NY Mets, he was struck on the head with a golf ball (it hit his batting helmet) and booed mercilessly. But after the strike of '94, I never quite felt the same way about any of the MLB players, and I was never a fan of baseball again.
Barry Bonds was never a player that I felt strongly about one way or the other. I knew he was a talented guy, but when he went to the Giants, it was no big deal to me. But ever since then, Bonds has not been well liked in my state. As mentioned earlier, loyal Pittsburgh Pirate fans hated both Bonilla and Bonds for leaving. And in recent years, it appears that a good portion of the rest of the country has joined us in that feeling - at least regarding Barry Bonds.
Bonds, who at the time of this posting has just tied Hank Aaron's home run record, is a polarizing figure that evokes strong feelings in people well beyond just the MLB and its fans. The Barry Bonds story has become less about the records he breaks and more about the means by which he was able to break those records. It has been all but confirmed that Bonds has taken some kind of "performance enhancing drug" (PED) during his career. His fans and even some members of the media claim that Bonds has a unique ability to hit home runs because he knows "how to hit the ball" no matter what his strength. His detractors claim that Bonds only achieved this goal because of the PEDs.
This got me wondering: would so-called PEDs actually help someone hit more home runs or does the ability to hit a home run come more from the physics of how the ball is hit? In order to answer this question, we need to look at three things.
What are performance enhancing drugs and how do they work?
Creatine is a supplement popular among athletes (even my husband uses it). Creatine occurs naturally in the muscles - it gets its name from the Greek word for flesh, kreas. It increases muscle mass by increasing the creatine levels in muscles and speeding up the metabolism of skeletal muscle. Taken in large quantities, however, it may cause kidney, liver, or heart problems.
Ephedra was formerly widely available as a dietary supplement and was touted to improve athletic performance. The FDA banned all sales of the supplement following reports that linked its use to 40 deaths and more than 800 side effects. In fact, ephedra is believed to have played a role in the heat stroke death of Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer during training camp in 2001. Studies have suggested that ephedra does not effect strength, endurance, reaction time, anaerobic capacity, or recovery time after prolonged exercise.
Some synthetic hormones can be used as PEDs. Human growth hormone does exactly what you expect it would do: it stimulates growth and cell regeneration. It, like creatine, is produced naturally in the body. It is produced by the pituitary gland in the brain. Athletes use human growth hormone to increase muscle mass. Synthetic testosterone was at the center of the Tour de France / Floyd Landis scandal.
Steroid precursors are substances that are converted to anabolic steroids within the body. Androstenedione is a steroid precursor that you may know as "andro" due to the publicity it received when it was revealed that Mark McGwire was taking the supplement during his record breaking home run streak.
Anabolic steroids are the most widely known PEDs. They are hormones that are related to testosterone that are used to increase muscle mass and strength.
Erythropoietin is a glycoprotein hormone that promotes the production of red blood cells in the marrow. It is primarily used as a PED in endurance sports such as bicycling, marathon, and triathlon racing.
What is the science of how a player hits a home run?
For our discussion, we don't need to know all the details about each element, such as bat weight, ball speed and angle, etc. We only need to know about the human element of the event of hitting a home run as this is the element that can be changed by PEDs. In other words, would a stronger, faster hit alone make a difference and produce more home run hits? For the answer, I looked to David Coburn, writing for Popular Mechanics:
Boosting two factors — the mass of the bat and the speed of the swing — can raise batted ball speed (BBS), which adds distance to a hit. But swing speed can affect BBS more dramatically.Would these PEDs actually "enhance" the player's ability to hit a home run?
Research has shown that doubling the weight of a 20-ounce wood bat can raise a BBS of 68.5 mph to 80.4 mph — a 17.3 percent increase. But Daniel Russell, a professor at Kettering University in Michigan, found that doubling the swing speed of a 30-ounce bat can raise a BBS of 62 mph to 83.8 mph — a 35.1 percent increase.
In terms of turning a hit into a homer: Against a 94 mph fastball, every 1 mph increase in swing speed extends distance about 8 ft.
Given that we have learned that PEDs increase muscle mass and strength, it's pretty safe to say that the answer to this question is a resounding yes. These substances aren't banned by almost all major sporting leagues for nothing! Based on the physics of a hit, if no other element of a hit is changed other than the speed of the swing of the bat, the ball will go farther. Therefore only logical conclusion that can be made is that PEDs can and do change the frequency of the occurrence of home run hits.
Now that Bonds has tied and will ultimately break Hank Aaron's record, it will be interesting to see how his "achievements" are looked at 20 years from now...