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Raul Ibanez and the Juice: Another Look at the Numbers

With the Phillies playing the Dodgers and the Mets over the past seven games and the Red Sox on deck, you'd think that all the talk this week would be about baseball on the field.  But, that hasn't been the case, as Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Gonzalez has stirred up quite a controversy (and yes, this is all Gonzalez's fault) about Raul Ibanez and steroids.

In case you've missed it (which would be shocking), earlier this week Gonzalez published a column taking a relatively obscure blogger to task for speculating that Ibanez's great start to the season was fueled by steroids.  Ibanez then responded vehemently denying any allegations.  The national media soon picked this up, and somehow the original blogger wound up appearing on ESPN's Outside the Lines yesterday talking about the whole issue.  No doubt had Gonzalez never published anything, the original post would have faded into obscurity like much of the blogosphere (including my posts -- I have no illusions of grandeur here).  But Gonzalez wanted to stir the pot, and here we are.

The basic argument in the original post was that Ibanez's early season surge this year is unprecedented based on his career numbers and is not explained by the park difference from Seattle to Philadelphia.  That may be true.  But what the original post didn't analyze was whether Ibanez has ever had a 58 game streak like he has so far this year.  And the answer to that simple inquiry is that he absolutely has, over a few different stretches in his career.

So far this year, in 58 games, Ibanez has incredible numbers.  He has a .322/.377/.674 triple slash line, good for a 1.051 OPS.  He leads the majors in RBI, with 58, and runs, with 49.  He is 1 off the lead in home runs, with 21 (behind Adrian Gonzalez).  His isolated slugging percentage is a whopping .352, which also leads the majors.  Pretty amazing for a 37 year old!

But here's the key piece of information:  Ibanez has done this before over 58 game stretches in his career.  In fact, there are five other periods of his career that have shown similar dominance:  July/August 2001, July/August 2002, June/July 2006, August/September 2007 combined with very early April 2008, and late July/August/September 2008.  Here's a chart showing the best 58 game stretches in those time periods compared to the current streak he's on:


Aug 20, 2001 0.342 0.441 0.631 1.072 11 41 33 0.289
Aug 21, 2002 0.314 0.371 0.668 1.039 18 64 38 0.354
Jul 23, 2006 0.262 0.339 0.569 0.907 18 60 41 0.307
Apr 6, 2008 0.354 0.418 0.632 1.051 16 45 38 0.278
Sep 14, 2008 0.365 0.423 0.627 1.050 13 54 42 0.262
Jun 11, 2009 0.322 0.377 0.674 1.051 21 58 49 0.352


As you can see, what Ibanez is doing now is hardly unprecedented for him. Yes, this is his best 58-game home run streak and slugging percentage, but it's not his best 58-game OPS (that was the 1.072 he put up through August 20, 2001) or his best 58-game ISO (that was the .354 he put up through August 21, 2002). His best RBI total isn't even on this chart, as it's through August 22, 2002, with 67 RBI.

Now I want to make one thing entirely clear.  I really don't care much about steroid use in baseball.  I really never have.  I enjoy watching whatever product gets put on the field.  I know the athletes do all sorts of things to get themselves ready that us mere mortals could never do:  much of it completely legal but still completely out of reach to the average person, some of it completely illegal, others of it in some gray area.  I just can't bring myself to care.  For all I know, every player in baseball, including Raul Ibanez, is doing something fishy.  Or it's only the small number who have been caught.  Or somewhere in between.  I'll never know and just can't bring myself to care.

So is Raul Ibanez juicing?  Like I said, I don't care and I don't and won't ever know.  But, what he's doing now is not unprecedented in his long and productive career.  There is just no spike in performance that is so unusual for him that we have to conclude that he is taking steroids.  That I do know.