Addressing former Red Sox star David Ortiz’s alleged PED use

David Ortiz was accused of using PEDs during his Red Sox career

Boston Red Sox fans were delighted to see David Ortiz was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this past Tuesday, receiving 77% of the vote. However, many baseball fans were disappointed by this outcome as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in their final year of eligibility both failed once again to make it into the hall.

Both Clemens and Bonds clearly had the numbers to make it into the Hall of Fame. Clemens has the most career Cy Youngs of any Major League pitcher and Bonds holds the record for most career home runs at 762. However, both did not make it in due to their alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Many fans see the baseball writers’ decision to vote Ortiz in on the first ballot as hypocritical. The reasoning being that a New York Times article from 2009 accused Ortiz, along with over 100 other MLB players, including his former teammate Many Ramirez, of testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs on a survey test MLB conducted in 2003 prior to when they actually began testing for PEDs in 2004.

On the surface this seems like a pretty sound argument. All three have been accused of doing steroids yet two of the three did not get in at all and the other got in on the first ballot. Seems pretty inconsistent and unfair. However, if you dig deeper, you’ll find that Ortiz’s situation was not the same as Bonds and Clemens.

We know that both Clemens and Bonds did steroids. The BALCO investigation and Mitchel Report have proven that both Bonds and Clemens used performance-enhancing drugs and revealed explicit details of how they did. We know what substances they used, the duration of time they used them, and even who supplied them with these substances. It’s an open and shut case for both.

This is not the case for Ortiz. We do not know that same information in regards to Ortiz’s alleged steroid use. In fact, Ortiz himself was never made aware by Major League Baseball of what he tested positive for in 2003.

Now let’s talk about that test. One the same day that the New York Times article was published accusing Ortiz of appearing on a list of players who tested positive for PEDs, the MLB PA released a statement that the number of players on the “government list” mentioned in the article far exceeded the number of players who tested positive in 2003.

They also revealed in the statement that a positive test result could have been triggered by a legal over the counter supplement. Because of this, when the test was administered in 2003 there were two collections taken from each player, one random announced one and a second one about seven days later where the player tested was advised not to take any supplements in between. We don’t know if Ortiz tested positive on the first collection, second, or both.

At a press conference at Fenway Park prior to Ortiz’s final regular season game in 2016, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred revealed that the 2003 survey test that Ortiz allegedly tested positive on produced ten scientifically questionable results.

“There were legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those were true positives,” said Manfred. “If, in fact, there were test results like that today on a player and we tried to discipline them, there’d be a grievance over it. It would be vetted, tried, resolved. We didn’t do that. Those issues and ambiguities were never resolved because we knew they didn’t matter.”

What Manfred was saying in this press conference was that the purpose of the 2003 survey test was to see whether or not there was a large enough epidemic of steroid use in baseball to warrant testing being implemented the following season in 2004, not to see which individual players were juicing. As a result of this, proper precautions and due diligence was not taken to differentiate between positive test results that were triggered by actual steroid use and positive test results that were triggered by legal over the counter supplements like there was and has been since testing was implemented in 2004.

So if Ortiz didn’t use steroids, how can we explain his rise from a player who was released by the Minnesota Twins following the 2003 season to a first ballot Hall of Famer? Well, first off, we can understand that Ortiz wasn’t that bad of a player with the Twins. In his years with the Twins, Ortiz hit for an impressive .809 OPS. The reality is that Ortiz was released by the Twins because with Doug Mientkiewicz at first base and Justin Mourneau speeding through the farm system there was not a spot for him on the roster.

One area where Ortiz did see a massive improvement after he signed with the Red Sox was in his power. In his six seasons with the Twins, Ortiz hit a total of 58 home runs. In his first two seasons with the Red Sox, Ortiz hit 72. However there’s an explanation for this as well.

Ortiz had significantly more playing time while with the Red Sox. In his six seasons with the Twins, Ortiz had only two seasons where he had over 400 at-bats. In his fourteen seasons with the Red Sox, Ortiz only had one season where he had fewer than 400 ABs. This helps put Ortiz’s power numbers with the Twins into context. While he only averaged 10 home runs per season while with the Twins compared to 34 with the Red Sox, he also only averaged 246 ABs per season with the Twins as compared to 512 with the Red Sox.

According to Baseball Reference, if you take those same numbers and average them over a 162-game season in which Ortiz gets 526 ABs, he would average around 21 home runs per season. Still less than any season he had with the Red Sox, but within striking distance of the 34 he averaged with the Red Sox, especially considering Ortiz’s age at the time he played for the Twins.

The average major league player’s peak years is generally regarded to be between the ages of 27 and 31.  After playing six seasons with the Twins, Ortiz was released at the age of 26. Meaning the Twins foolishly let go of Ortiz just when he was entering his prime. All of this still might seem like a stretch though in explaining Ortiz’s sudden power surge in Boston. However there’s one more thing that might help explain it: the Twins tried to turn Ortiz into something he was not.

In his 2006 book about the Boston Red Sox titled “Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top,” Seth Mnookin unearthed this now famous Ortiz quote about his time with the Twins.

“When I first came to Minnesota, that’s when I was told. ‘Stay inside the ball … hit the ball the other way. I was always a power hitter in the minor leagues. Everything changed when I came to Minnesota. Whenever I took a big swing, [the coaching staff] would say to me, ‘Hey, hey, what are you doing?’ “I said, ‘You want me to hit like a little b****, then I will.’ But I knew I could hit for power. It was just a matter of getting the green light.”

What Ortiz says here checks out as well. Prior to making his Major League debut with the Twins at the end of the 1997 season, Ortiz hit 31 home runs in the minor leagues. It is common knowledge in the scouting community that power is the last tool to develop among young major league hitters. If we are supposed to believe that a simple swing change is what caused Jose Bautista to hit 54 home runs at age 29 in 2010 after hitting 59 career home runs from 2004 to 2009, why can’t we believe the same for Ortiz? Unlike Bautista, Ortiz was entering his prime during his breakout season rather than being smack-dab in the middle of it and had shown flashes of power both in the minor leagues and at the major league level when he was given a chance.

It is entirely possible that Ortiz used steroids during his major league career, but unlike with Clemens and Bonds there is ambiguity. However, regardless of this distinction, Major League Baseball is never going to be able to know with 100% certainty whether a player who never failed a test used steroids during their major league career or not. Meaning that there probably has already and probably will be players elected to the Hall of Fame who have used performance-enhancing drugs. Knowing this, does it really make sense for the Baseball Writers Association of America to deny two of baseball’s greatest players spots in the Hall of Fame because we know that they did? Of course not.

Ortiz, Clemens, and Bonds were three of the best players in Major League Baseball during an era where so many players were using steroids that it was dubbed the steroid era and all three deserved recognition for their dominance during that era by being elected to the Hall of Fame. The fact that all three did not is not a reflection of any of these three men, but of the incompetence of the BBWAA.