Anthony Rizzo was being interviewed today when news of Starling Marte’s 80 game suspension for testing positive for PEDs was announced by Major League Baseball. He told Big League Stu the following:
Is he right? Are there flaws in the system? Are players still getting away with using PEDs?
The answer is: Probably. It’s a system made by imperfect people to catch other imperfect people. I have to imagine it’s not perfect. But, frustratingly, we can’t know for sure how flawed it is. By their very definition, we can’t know how many players (if any) are getting away with using. They don’t test positive, so they aren’t caught, so we never learn that they use or used.
But I think we need to understand one simple truth: Major League Baseball will never be rid of performance enhancing substances. There will always be users. PEDs are part of the game. That doesn’t mean we should accept them or give up trying to find cheaters. But it does mean we need to give up the goal of drumming every single user out of the sport. It simply will never happen, and as long as we use that measure as our only yardstick, the game will always fall short.
I think it’s fair to assume that, with the increases in testing, testing sensitivity, and penalties for a positive test, PED use in the Majors is probably down over where it was at its peak in the early 2000s. It’s probably also down from where it was in 2013 when a dozen players were implicated in the Biogenesis scandal and suspended, leading to even more testing and higher penalties.
Since then, as our very own Chris Cotillo points out, the number of players who have been caught has been relatively low. Cameron Maybin was the only big leaguer to test positive in 2014. Five players were popped in 2015, with Jenrry Mejia testing positive twice. In 2016, nine players tested positive, including Mejia (again), Dee Gordon, Chris Colabello, Raul Mondesi, and Marlon Byrd. Mondesi was apparently able to demonstrate that he had taken the substance accidentally and received a lighter suspension, but everyone else was on the sidelines for at least 80 games.
Now, even if more players aren’t using than before, the fact that increasingly sensitive testing yields more positive results suggests that there are more undetected players out there using who have yet to be caught, and that they may be as testing continues to improve. We suspect, with good reason, these as yet unidentified players are still trying to find ways to cheat.
And we also know that the very serious penalties in place do not stop everyone from using. Even the possibility of a full season or a lifetime ban didn’t stop Marlon Byrd or Jenrry Mejia, respectively. But isn’t that always the way? No penalty is stiff enough to totally stop crime, just as no suspension is going to be long enough to get PEDs out of the game.
This is obviously a problem.
So what is the solution? Is there a solution? Do we need a solution?
Personally, in reverse order, I think the answers to those three questions above are “no,” “no,” and “See previous answers.”
At this point, we have to get silly to increase the penalties. Jake Diekman wants to force everyone to earn the league minimum for the rest of their careers. That’s patently absurd given that it would create an incentive for teams to bust their own players and make those players a sought after commodity. It would also not do anything to discourage many players from using, because A) the minimum salary is still over $500,000 a year and B) there are rewards to being a Big Leaguer that go beyond a player’s salary.
We could have a one- or two-strike policy, but that seems overly draconian and won’t do anything to stop the Marlon Byrds and Jenrry Mejias. It also severely penalizes guys like Raul Mondesi Jr, who made an honest mistake, rather than a dishonest one, and threatens to destroy their entire careers.
The truth is that there will always be cheaters. The good news is that we’re catching more of them now than ever before, and the penalties we have are strict enough to make some difference. Starling Marte is out until after the All Star Break, and his absence may kill the Pirates’ postseason chances. And, even if they do make the postseason, he won’t be allowed to play in it. That, in and of itself, ought to be plenty of deterrent.
There simply is no perfect solution that wipes out PEDs. There will always be “flaws in the system,” especially if the only measure by which you judge that system is whether the game is “clean.” But things are better than they were. And, as testing sensitivity increases, they’ll continue to improve. And, frankly, I think that’s good enough.