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Bill James: were Puckett and Gaetti juicers?

Bill James is a legend among baseball analysts, an iconoclast unafraid to submit all ideas (including his own) to rigorous tests. He's also not afraid to skewer a sacred cow or two, which is good.


In his new book, The Bill James Gold Mine 2008, he slyly suggests that a few local heroes may have been powered by more than Wheaties.

While writing about atypical seasons, James notes that Kirby Puckett went from hitting zero home runs over 128 games in 1984 and four homers over a full season in 1985 to 31 the ensuing year. This was at the same time teammate Gary Gaetti was experiencing a power spike of his own.

You can read the full item and a critical take at the blog Bugs and Cranks. James writes this:

Two of the greatest home run under-producers of all time were teammates: Kirby Puckett and Gary Gaetti in 1984. Puckett hit no home runs (-16), Gaetti hit only 5 (-19). Suggesting the possibility that the Twins’ two World Championships may have been aided by their team being among the first to discover…well, I’d better not go there. Nor will I point out that Gaetti was bald and had acne and Puckett died young.

Holy irresponsible speculation, Batman!

I'd break down all of the reason this isn't necessarily a logical conclusion to draw even if you buy the premises. But I'd rather point out a broader fact of this whole steroids issue.

Tarring players with the "steroids" brush without real evidence is silly and dangerous, as I wrote extensively three years ago, when this whole flap started with Jose Canseco. Parts of that article looks a touch naive in retrospect, given that Canseco turned out to have the goods on certain players. I firmly stand behind its larger points, though: that this kind of speculation is dangerous and opens innocent players up to smears based on nothing more than "well, he did have zits."

Let me state the obvious: of course there are steroid users in baseball. No one doubts that. But it is unwise and unfair to let that truism kick critical analysis out the window.

James knows this, of course, and is just trying to be provocative. And it's a great thing to have smart people that are willing to take on taboo topics. But in this case, raising an issue this emotional about a player who can no longer defend himself -- being dead and all -- is in poor taste.

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