The Curious Case of Raul Ibanez: Steroid Speculation Perhaps Unfair, but Great Start in 2009 Raising Eyebrows

Update: On Wednesday morning, Raul Ibanez responded harshly to the post below in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow the link to read a detailed description of Ibanez’s response and our response to Raul Ibanez and the general debate about steroid speculation in baseball.

Heading into this year’s fantasy baseball drafts, there was one name I was targeting more than any other as a mid-round steal: Raul Ibanez. I was not alone in this assessment either. Ibanez had been flying totally under the radar in Seattle, where he had quietly become one of the most consistent #2/#3 fantasy OFs in baseball. Look at his numbers from the last three years he was in the Great Northwest playing in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field:

  • 2006: 33 HR, 123 RBI, 103 R, .289 BA, .869 OPS
  • 2007: 21 HR, 105 RBI, 80 R, .291 BA, .831 OPS
  • 2008: 23 HR, 110 RBI, 85 R, .293 BA, .837 OPS

That is just solid and consistent production all the way around.

With Ibanez moving to the much more hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park by way of his signing with the Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason, most fantasy prognosticators had Ibanez penciled in as the type of grizzled veteran who could see a slight bump in his already good numbers by playing half of his games in a ballpark more conducive to offensive production and all of his games in a better lineup.

I knew heading into my draft that if I came out of it with Ibanez as my 3rd OF, drafted somewhere in rounds 8-10, that I would be feeling pretty good about my team.

In the league I pay the most attention to, my first five picks were OF Carlos Beltran, 3B Evan Longoria, SP Roy Halladay, OF Jason Bay, and 1B Adrian Gonzlez. Obviously each of those guys has had a great start to the season and are primary reasons why my team has been in first place all year…until I got waxed this week and fell to second, 2.0 games behind the league leader.

But my best pick in terms of value was nailing my pre-draft target and getting Raul Ibanez in the 9th round. As all baseball fans, fantasy or otherwise, know by now, Raul Ibanez has been off to a torrid start in 2009. Just look at the numbers:

  • 2009 (55 games): 19 HR, 54 RBI, 46 R, .329 BA, 1.062 OPS

In fact, the 37-year old Ibanez has been so good that it has led to the inevitable speculation that his improvement may be attributable to factors other than his new lineup, playing in a better ballpark for hitters, or additional maturation as a hitter. In this day and age of suspicion at any significant jump in numbers, even over small sample sizes, it is what it is – and such speculation is to be expected.

In fact, this morning I woke up to the following message board post in the league in which I own Ibanez. (FYI, my team name is Hitting Crean-Up, hence the reference to “crean”):

sorry, crean, but i must call bullshit on raul ibanez. you’re an objective man so i am sure you’ll love it while it lasts, but do not intend on it lasting forever. of course crazier things have been sustainable.

where have we seen this before? a recent 37th birthday is celebrated with a career year in home runs??? prior to this year ibanez has a career high of 33 home runs in one season and no other season of his 14 played with greater than 24 home runs!!! during his previous career year ibanez hit a HR roughly every 19 at bats and this year his pace is roughly every 11.

i thought they were testing???

My initial reaction was to get defensive and reply by saying that Ibanez’s numbers in 2009 were based on what I assumed were significant differences in ballpark factors between Citizens Bank Park and Safeco Field. Ibanez, I surmised, a left-handed hitter, was simply taking advantage of the lefty-friendly dimensions of Citizen’s Bank Park that had helped to make Ryan Howard such a beast.

However, I resisted the urge to fire back a gut-reaction retort and decided to do a little investigation. I figured that before responding I should put together my case that there were perfectly logical reasons to explain Ibanez’s breakout that would help counter any steroid speculation.

First, I looked at the dimensions of both Citizens Bank Park and Safeco Field, courtesy of BaseballFanatics.net. Here they are:

Ballpark Dimension Comparison

ParkLeftLeft-CenterCenterRight-CenterRight
Citizens Bank Park329355401357330
Safeco Field331375405365326

As you can see, Citizens Bank Park has shorter dimensions to every part of the park expect down the right field line, where it is four feet longer than Safeco. Clearly, these dimensions are part of the reason why Citizens’ Bank Park is considered such a great hitters’ park.

However, I have to say that I was surprised when I looked at the Park Factor rankings on ESPN.com. I expected Citizens Bank Park to be among the top 5 best hitters’ parks in baseball, just based on reputation. That is not the case, at least according to the park factors metrics used by ESPN (which are explained if you click the links below).

Below is a park factor comparison (for runs and HRs) between Citizens Bank Park and Safeco Field. 1.000 is average; higher than 1.000 means the park favors hitters, lower than 1.000 means the park favors pitchers.


Park Factor Comparison

ParkRunsHROverall Rank
2009   
Citizens Bank Park0.9811.02315
Safeco Field0.8400.87627
    
2008   
Citizens Bank Park1.0291.02215
Safeco Field0.9320.90024
    
2007   
Citizens Bank Park1.0341.41813
Safeco Field0.9481.00219
    
2006   
Citizens Bank Park1.0631.2018
Safeco Field0.8810.88827

Conclusions? For me, I was surprised that Citizens Bank Park did not rate higher. Clearly it is a better hitters’ park than Safeco Field, but the differences in the HR factor do not account for the significant jump in Ibanez’s HR totals now that he has made the switch.

From 2006-2008, Raul Ibanez’s ratio for AB/HR was 23.8, including his career year in 2006 when he hit 33 HRs. In his home games this season, Ibanez has hit 8 HR in 93 AB, which is a HR every 11.6 ABs. Based on the four-year averages of the HR factors of Citizens Bank Park (1.165) and Safeco (0.9225), we would expect Ibanez’s HR rate at home to increase 21%. It has improved much more than 21% however, more than doubling so far in 2009.

But Ibanez is not just taking advantage of his home ballpark.

In his road games this season, Ibanez has hit 11 HR in 126 ABs, which is good for a HR every 11.45 ABs. So his HR rate is actually slightly better on the road, which I did not expect since my gut-reaction thinking was that Ibanez was simply enjoying the more hitter-friendly home cooking at Citzens Bank Park.

So in actuality, and in opposition of my initial hypothesis, through the relatively small sample size of 55 games it is impossible to say that Ibanez’s prodigious jump in HR/AB has been solely a factor of his new ballpark.

What else could explain Ibanez’s bump in power? Considering that 11 of his 19 HRs have come on the road, perhaps we should explore the ballparks where those home runs have been hit. And to do that, I visited a site that will be fascinating for other stat geeks like me: HitTrackerOnline.com. I sorted the Phillies’ 2009 HRs by name to do a closer analysis of Ibanez’s HRs this season.

Here are the ballparks where Raul Ibanez has hit HRs this season, with their current 2009 HR factor in parentheses.

  • Citizens Bank Park: 8 (1.021)
  • Nationals Park: 4 (.808)
  • Yankee Stadium: 2 (1.563)
  • Great American Ballpark: 2 (1.182)
  • PETCO Park: 2 (0.736)
  • Coors Field: 1 (0.943)

As you can see, Raul Ibanez has enjoyed success at three of the most notorious hitters’ parks in baseball: the new Yankee Stadium, Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, and Coors Field (though the overall HR numbers at Coors are down this year). Nationals Park and PETCO Park have always been known as more pitcher-friendly, and considering that 6 of Ibanez’s HRs have come at these parks, it seems to balance out the effect of his 5 HRs at NY, CIN, and CO.

But let’s again take a closer look. These are the pitchers that Ibanez has hit HRs off of at Nationals Park and PETCO Park, with their season ERA in parenthesis:

  • Daniel Cabrera (5.85 ERA)
  • Scott Olsen – twice (7.24 ERA)
  • Saul Rivera (8.49 ERA)
  • Josh Geer (5.60 ERA)
  • Joe Thatcher (4.50 ERA)

So Raul Ibanez has feasted on terrible pitching, even in parks that are tougher to hit home runs in. What does this mean? I’m not really sure. Most hitters obviously will perform better against bad pitching than they do against good pitching. But over the small sample size we’ve seen through 55 games, perhaps Ibanez has seen more than his normal share of bad pitching and has taken advantage of it. I don’t have time to dig into this any more this morning, so I’ll just leave that hanging there as a potential explanation for a portion of Ibanez’s HR and OPS explosion.

And even though Ibanez’s aggregate numbers in 2009 are incredible, there are signs that he is starting to slow down a bit. So far in June, through 32 ABs Ibanez has 2 HRs. This rate of 16 ABs per HR is a little bit closer to his career average, and to the improvement we might have expected based on the differential in HR factor between his new home park and his old home park. While it’s a terribly small sample size to draw too many conclusions from, but it is one more piece of data we can look at.

I also wondered whether Raul Ibanez was historically a fast starter, and perhaps that was helping to contribute to his fast start. Look at Ibanez’s career splits, however, and you see that this is not the case. Ibanez’s career pre-All Star break HR rate is 1 every 23.9 ABs. His career post-All Star break HR rate is 1 every 26.0 ABs. So he has slightly more power during the first half of the season, but the difference is not significant enough to explain his torrid start in 2009. Besides, his BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS are all slightly better during the second half of the season.

Now that we have gone ’round and ’round with all of these stats — my attempt to be an “objective man” in response to the message board comment from this morning — what can we conclude?

First off, we can conclude that I made one hell of a draft pick. Whatever the explanation for Ibanez’s great start, I’m just glad it’s happening on my roster and not on somebody else’s.

Secondly, we have to acknowledge the obvious caveat that 55 games is not a full season and is still a relatively small sample size. Ibanez could very easily slow down and finish with 30-35 HRs (which is actually my expectation for what will happen), which would still be an above average season based on his career stats, but certainly not as eye-popping and outside the mean as the pace he is on right now. The truth is that even I, the most ardent Ibanez supporter heading into 2009, do not expect him to maintain his current 600 AB pace and hit 52 home runs.

Thirdly, it’s time for me to begrudgingly acknowledge the elephant in the room: any aging hitter who puts up numbers this much better than his career averages is going to immediately generate suspicion that the numbers are not natural, that perhaps he is under the influence of some sort of performance enhancer. And since I was not able to draw any absolute parallels between his prodigously improved HR rate and his new ballpark’s hitter-friendliness, it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that “other” performance enhancers could be part of the equation.

Sorry Raul Ibanez and Major League Baseball, that’s just the era that we are in — testing or no testing.

Personally, I am withholding judgment until we see a full seasons’ worth of stats. Many players put together terrific runs of 150-250 ABs in the midst of otherwise normal or just slightly above average (based on their career numbers) seasons. Ibanez’s terrific 219 AB run since Opening Day is just magnified right now because it came at the start of the season.

Maybe he was energized by joining the defending World Series champs.

Maybe he is seeing better pitchers by joining a lineup that includes Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino.

Maybe he is in the midst of a run of good luck in which he’s seeing good pitches to hit at above-average hitters parks and finding himself facing terrible pitchers even at the tougher hitters parks he’s played in.

Maybe Raul Ibanez is simply a “freak”, and has been a late bloomer with a career track that refuses to follow the norm, as explained in this Bleacher Report post.

Maybe the 37-year old Ibanez trained differently this offseason with the pressure of joining the Phillies’ great lineup and is in the best shape he’s ever been in.

And maybe that training included…

Well, you know where that one was going, but I’d prefer to leave it as unstated speculation. However, if Ibanez ends up hitting 45-50 homers this year, you can bet that I won’t be the only one raising the question. And judging by my buddy’s message board post this morning, and questions like this in public forums, people already are.

For the record, Ibanez has denied ever using steroids. Back in 2007 when former Mariners OF Shane Monahan said that the clubhouse culture in Seattle led him to use steroids, Ibanez and Jamie Moyer came out and publicly lambasted Monahan while denying that steroids had ever been a presence in the Mariners clubhouse. Of course, as well all know, explicit denials of steroid use don’t really mean a whole hell of a lot these days.

It will be a wonderful day when we can see a great start by a veteran like Ibanez and not immediately jump to speculating about whether steroids or PEDs are involved. We certainly are not at that point yet, however.

And whether we ever get there remains to be seen.

But whatever the reason for Raul Ibanez’s oustanding run this far in 2009, I hope to see it continue. Regardless of why it’s happening, it’s happening. And like I said before, better that it happens on my roster than somebody else’s.

Update 6/9: At Philly.com this morning, John Gonzalez takes me to task a bit for firing what he deems as a “cheap shot” at Raul Ibanez. Here is an excerpt from his article, and the link if you want to read it all.

The MSF post, written by the previously undiscovered poet “JRod,” noted that Ibanez has bashed the majority of his 19 homers at hitter-friendly parks like the new Yankee Stadium, Great American Ball Park in Cincy, and Citizens Bank Park. It also conceded that Ibanez has taken advantage of some really terrible pitchers – guys like Daniel Cabrera, Scott Olsen and Saul Rivera, all of whom have badly bloated ERAs.

Then JRod dismissed all the evidence of opportunism, pivoted like a second baseman turning a double play, and fired his conclusion into the mitts of conspiracy theorists and amateur drug testers everywhere: “Any aging hitter who puts up numbers this much better than his career averages is going to immediately generate suspicion that the numbers are not natural, that perhaps he is under the influence of some sort of performance enhancer. . . . Maybe the 37-year-old Ibanez trained differently this off-season with the pressure of joining the Phillies’ great lineup and is in the best shape he’s ever been in. And maybe that training included. . . . Well, you know where that one was going, but I’d prefer to leave it as unstated speculation.”

Yeah, except when you put the words “under the influence” in close proximity to “performance enhancer,” that’s not really “unstated speculation.” That’s pretty much an updated version of the old “Hey, pal, have you stopped beating your wife yet?” trick.

In response, I don’t believe that I “dismissed all the evidence of opportunism.” I actually set out to disprove the speculation that Raul Ibanez’s great start was somehow PED-induced. And my conclusion was that it was impossble to conclude that from a simple examination of ballpark factors and lineup improvement, and that the reality of Major League Baseball today is that the unfortunate logical progression takes us all to the place we don’t want to go: thinking that an aging hitter putting up career-high numbers across the board might be chemically enhanced.

Fair for Raul Ibanez? Absolutely not. Just look at the title of my post. But fair for Major League Baseball overall based on its past? Absolutely.

In fairness to John, I think his primary point was more about the rapid speed with which a story like mine, fraught with speculation, can take off in today’s day and age. And he’s right, even though so far only 300 people had even read the post, which started out as just a response to my buddy in a fantasy league.

I wrote John a quick email after reading his post, thanking him for the recognition and explaining my perspective a bit more. Here is the end of that email, as I think it is the best way to sum up this post before I move onto something else for today:

I set out trying to disprove that there was reason to speculate, but the past 15 or so years has made it hard to do so. I always defended Manny Ramirez and he made me and a lot of other people look like a fool; and honestly, that re-opened the floodgates to me erring on the side guilty until proven innocent, as opposed to the other way around — as it should be.

The truth is that I sincerely hope that Raul Ibanez and every other major leaguer is clean. And there is no way I could look him in the eye and tell him I think he’s on steroids — nor was that my conclusion. But I think it’s also true that Raul Ibanez would have a hard time looking baseball fans in the eye and saying they have no right to speculate. Through no fault of his own, but through that of his peers past and present, steroid speculation is now as much a part of baseball as the MLB Network.

Sad is definitely the most apt word to describe it.

About the Author

Jerod Morris

I love words. I write for Copyblogger and founded MSF, The Assembly Call, & Primility. I practice yoga, eat well, & strive for balance. I love life. Namaste. Say hi on Twitter, Facebook, & G+.