Barry Bonds's 73 home runs in the 2001 season are the most hit in any single season. Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis has 37 home runs heading into the All-Star break, prompting discussion of his chances of breaking the all-time record.
For some, though—including Davis himself—the Orioles slugger is being measured not against Bonds's 73 home runs, but rather the 61 hit by Roger Maris in 1961. Bonds's total, along with that of 61+ sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, is being disregarded amid hand-wringing over the sport's problems with performance-enhancing drugs.
But proponents of the Maris argument actually hurt the integrity of the sport by giving the role of PEDs in baseball far more credit than it deserves or has ever been given before. Davis' 37 home runs have him on pace to hit more than Maris, but fewer than Bonds—the first time this has happened since Bonds broke the record, and the first time the Maris vs. Bonds debate actually matters.
To be sure, MLB has a high-profile history of doping—enough that President George W. Bush explicitly called it out in his 2004 State of the Union address. Almost a decade later, the sport still has its share of PED problems; it is reportedly set to suspend several players after the All-Star break for their alleged involvement with a Miami clinic providing drugs. Stranger still, the suspensions circumvent MLB's own rules governing PED testing and punishment. That said, there are positive tests each year that demonstrate that doping still exists in baseball, though to a lesser extent than when PED use was at its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s.
What there is not proof of is of PED usage turning players into home-run hitters. When Congress released the Mitchell Report—the result of its nearly two-year investigation into doping in baseball—the list of players involved with PEDs was hardly a Murderers' Row of famous sluggers. For every Barry Bonds (762 career home runs) or Jason Giambi (435) listed, there were several players like Nook Logan (2) and Gary Bennett (22).
Additionally, it's important to note that even in the era of widespread doping, it wasn't just the users who started earning more home runs—league-wide, everybody started hitting more home runs. MLB has experienced a significant jump in the average number of home runs per game in the last few decades. As the graph below demonstrates, there was an enormous leap—nearly doubling the average from approximately one to approximately two in the early 1990s. Mark McGwire's 70 home runs in 1998 were hit in a season averaging 2.08 home runs/game. Bonds hit his 73 in a year where the average was 2.25. And as PED use has decreased among MLB players, the average number of home runs per game has maintained its high level: To date, Davis is hitting his home runs in a league with 1.99 home runs per game. If the increase in the early 1990s were solely attributable to PEDs, that number would have cratered back to its original in recent years—after more stringent testing was integrated into baseball. Instead, the power production in 2013 is far more similar to 2001 than it is to 1991. Clearly, there are variables in play beyond merely doping.
There is very little variation in the graph above after the 1994 jump. Between Bonds and Davis, there is a quarter of a home run per game's difference, which is far from the leap between the early and mid-'90s.
Quite simply, if one looks only at home runs per game, the league does not look that different between 2001 and 2013. Individual performances look similar to their 2001 levels, too: In 2001, 12 players hit more than 40 home runs, and in 2013, nine players are on pace to meet or surpass the 40-home-run mark. Both in the aggregate as well as at the individual level, there is little evidence that home runs are appreciably less frequent in 2013 than they were when McGwire or Bonds broke the record, even as PED usage has apparently decreased.
How can this be, then, if Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa all surpassed Maris's record due to PEDs? Presumably because the act of hitting a baseball is an incredibly complex action whose success cannot be directly attributed to PEDs.
Do they help? It's likely that they do, if for no other reason than their helping baseball players to remain on the field at full strength over the 162-game grind of the regular season. If there were a clear correlation to home runs, however, the chart above would demonstrate far more pronounced differences, and there would be far more big-name talent listed in the Mitchell Report.
This is not to defend Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, or any player that uses PEDs. Having grown up in St. Louis, I look upon my own McGwire newspaper reprints with mixed feelings. And MLB had its share of debacles during the Congressional investigation (e.g., McGwire refusing to talk about the past in 2007, Roger Clemens perjuring himself in 2008), so presumably it is eager to avoid further embarrassment.
Yet MLB records are full of individuals whose actions are rather embarrassing. One can simultaneously hold a record while also not always being a paragon of virtue: Pete Rose, banned from the Hall of Fame for gambling on baseball, nevertheless holds the record for career hits. Ty Cobb has the highest batting average in MLB history despite being a racist.
Even on-field indiscretions and cheating haven't nullified other record holders' place in history. The man Bonds passed for the career home run record, Hank Aaron, admitted to using amphetamines. Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry made a career out of altering the baseball with illegal substances from spit to Vaseline, and admits as much in his autobiography.
Baseball is a different game in 2013. Home runs are relatively easier to hit than they were 30 years ago. Why? There are several reasons. Players are bigger and stronger than they used to be. Bats are better crafted than they once were. Scouting techniques and video documentation have evolved to allow instant reviews of an opposing pitcher. Training techniques have evolved to allow players to stay on the field. And yes, pharmaceuticals—legal or otherwise—exist that almost certainly make some improvement in performance.
Discounting Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, however, denies the systemic changes above that have nothing to do with PEDs and attributes home runs solely to drug use. Ironically, this may actually have the opposite effect that MLB intends: By accentuating the link between doping and on-field success, MLB may well incentivize players to attempt to use drugs. Chris Davis does, in fact, have a home-run record in sight, but the number he aims for needs to be 73. For the good of the game, it needs to respect its records even if it does not respect its record-holders.