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MLB, MLBPA announce stronger testing, harsher penalties for PEDs

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In the wake of the Biogenesis scandal and Alex Rodriguez’s subsequent 162-game suspension, Major League Baseball and many of its players have called for tougher drug testing and harsher suspensions for violations of baseball’s drug policy.

They just got it.

Major League Baseball and the MLBPA have announced that they have reached agreement on changes to the drug testing program which enhance testing procedures and increase penalties for taking PEDs.

The enhanced testing procedures

  • The number of in-season random urine collections will more than double beginning in the 2014 season, from 1,400 total tests to to 3,200;
  • Blood collections for hGH detection will increase to 400 random collections per year, in addition to the 1,200 mandatory collections conducted during Spring Training;
  • Carbon Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry tests will be randomly performed on at least one specimen from every player. Basically, this is an enhanced analysis of blood samples which are considered more effective in detecting hGH in blood and are tests endorsed by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The enhanced punishment

  • A first-time violation of the Joint Drug Program will now result in an unpaid 80-game suspension, increased from 50 games.  A player’s second violation will result in an unpaid 162-game suspension, increased from 100 games.  A third violation will result in a permanent suspension from Baseball.
  • A suspension of 162 games will result in 183 days worth of pay docking, to account for the fact that players are paid baed on a 183-day schedule as opposed to being paid per game. This was implemented in reaction to Alex Rodriguez still receiving some pay this year despite a 162-game ban.
  • Every Player whose suspension for a performance-enhancing substance is upheld will be subject to six additional unannounced urine collections, and three additional unannounced blood collections, during every subsequent year of his entire career.

MORE: To read the full summary of the MLB-MLBPA joint drug program modifications, click here

There are also some advantages to players under the new system. Specifically, if a player tests positive, he can argue to an arbitrator that his use of PEDs was not intended to enhance performance. This changes things from the “zero tolerance” policy which previously existed and under which someone faced first-time discipline even if their PED use was accidental.

Additionally, the league and the union are creating a safe harbor of sorts: they have established a program in which players will have year-round access to supplements that will not cause a positive test result. This should reduce confusion on banned over-the-counter substances and reduce the use of the “I got this from GNC and thought it was OK” defense many have raised in the past.

Many anti-doping experts already viewed Major League Baseball as having the toughest drug testing regime in all of U.S. team sports. This only increases baseball’s lead in this regard.

It does, however, present some reasons for concern. As we at HBT argued this morning, the playoff ban for those players who tested positive and have already served their entire suspensions seems somewhat draconian and will result in harsher penalties for players on winning teams than those on losing teams. It also punishes innocent players on playoff teams in ways the previous system did not before. Moreover, merely adding games to first and second offenses may make everyone feel like the system is tougher, but it must not be assumed that the same basic incentive to cheat — if a player can get away with it, it could mean millions of dollars — will always persist. We execute murderers yet murder still occurs.

At the same time, the strengthening of the drug testing procedures and the implementation of the supplement supplies is most welcome. If the players in the Biogenesis investigation had been caught via testing, no one would have thought of that episode in baseball as a particularly black mark and a year’s worth of bad publicity and litigation would not have been necessary. The best way to cut down on PED use in baseball is to catch the guys who cheat, not to try to make up for testing failures with harsh rhetoric and tactics after the holes in the drug testing system are exposed.

Either way, this is a significant increase in the strength of the drug testing program and will likely be met with overwhelming praise by players, fans, the media and the clubs.

Indians sign reliever Tommy Hunter to $2 million deal

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Tommy Hunter throws to the Miami Marlins during the seventh inning of a baseball game in Miami, Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
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Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that right-hander Tommy Hunter has agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract with the Indians. It’s a major-league deal, so Hunter gets a spot on the 40-man roster and will be in the Opening Day bullpen if he’s fully recovered from core muscle surgery.

Hunter split last season between the Orioles and Cubs, totaling 60 innings with a 4.18 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio. He had a sub-3.00 ERA in both 2013 and 2014, and has generally been a setup-caliber reliever since shifting to the bullpen full time.

He has good control and a mid-90s fastball, but Hunter has never missed many bats despite the big-time velocity and often struggles to keep the ball in the ballpark. He’ll likely fill a middle relief role in Cleveland initially.

“YER OUT!” Jenrry Mejia permanently suspended for a third positive PED test

Jenrry Mejia
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You knew someone would be dumb enough to do this eventually, you just didn’t know who. Now we do: MLB just announced that reliever Jenrry Mejia has been permanently suspended after testing positive for Boldenone. That was his third positive test and under the Joint Drug Agreement that means his career is more or less over.

Mejia’s three strikes came in pretty rapid succession. On April 11, 2015 it was announced that Mejía had been suspended for 80 games after testing positive for use of stanozolol. On July 28, 2015 it was announced that Mejia had failed a test for Stanozolol again and Boldenone to boot, giving him a 162-game suspension, which he’d still be serving at the beggining of the season. Now this third test.

Mejia has played five seasons in the big. He started with so much promise, looking like a great prospect coming up. His performance only matched the promise in fits and starts, however, resulting in a 9-14 record with a 3.68 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 162/76 in 183.1 innings, all with the Mets.

Per the rules of the Joint Drug Agreement, Mejia can apply for reinstatement after being banned for two years. But it would obviously require him to spend two years doing a lot of smart things he hasn’t been doing in the past year. And it would also represent a near-unprecedented comeback. It could happen, I suppose, but it’s a far safer bet that his career is over.

I’m going to break it to you: some teams will stink this year. Like every year.

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There’s an AP story out today talking about how — brace yourself — some teams are going to be bad this year. It’s true. There are some teams, such as Atlanta, Philly, Colorado, Cincinnati and probably Milwaukee who seem certain to lose a lot of games.  The article’s author notes that, while a lot of money was spent in free agency this winter, not everyone was spending. He says “for some clubs, 2016 is basically over before it starts when it comes to contending.”

That sort of framing sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Isn’t it exactly the sort of thing we heard back in the early 2000s when people were still stumping for salary caps? Boston and New York were outspending everyone, the low money teams couldn’t keep up and, as spring training dawned, the season was over before it even began for half the league at least. There were scads of articles like that written 10-15 years ago. Bud Selig and others even used that exact construction — teams going to spring training already knowing they couldn’t compete — as points of rhetoric in the leadup to the 2002 labor battle with the players. Indeed, here’s the exact language from the 2000 Blue Ribbon economic report that Bud Selig commissioned which, by the way, should be read as a piece of labor propaganda, not as an actually useful or illuminative report:

What has made baseball’s recent seasons disturbing, and what makes its current economic structure untenable in the long run, is that, year after year, too many clubs know in spring training that they have no realistic prospect of reaching postseason play. Too many clubs in low-revenue markets can only expect to compete for postseason berths if ownership is willing to incur staggering operating losses to subsidize a competitive player payroll.

Different circumstances, obviously, but the same general bogeyman: some teams have no chance to compete!

Using that as the concern for whatever ails baseball has never made much sense to me as there will always be teams that are bad. Really, go look at any year’s league standings going back to the 19th century and there will be bad teams. It’s sort of the other side of the coin of good teams. Hard to have one without the other. And it’s probably a good thing to have some good and some and teams. Who wants a total crapshoot every year? What is this, Lake Woebegone, where every team is above .500? God, how boring.

The real issue is not that some teams will be good and some will be bad. It’s why they’ll be good and why they’ll be bad and whether the dynamic which creates good and bad teams is itself positive or negative for the game.

In the 40s and 50s, almost the entire American League knew that it had no chance to compete with the Yankees but they kind of liked that because they were making a lot of money not fielding competitive clubs. That was bad. In the late 1990s maybe some felt the same way too and it was because of no revenue sharing or incompetent management. Not great, and a lot of tweaks were made. Now a small handful of teams can’t compete because they’re doing wholesale rebuilds which some people call “tanking” and others think is not an issue.

As I recently wrote, to the extent people do think “tanking” is a problem, it’s important to (a) put it in perspective; and (b) look at the incentives teams have to tank and talk about whether they should be adjusted. As far as the perspective part goes, I’d say that only having five or six out of 30 teams with no realistic shot is actually pretty good compared to other points in baseball history. There’s a lot more parity now than there used to be. As far as the incentives: look at the dumb draft rules which were imposed to save owners a buck when it came to paying amateurs but which GREATLY increases the importance of picking high and thus losing.

The AP article touches on that, but it’s buried fairly deep down, well after the hand-wringing about teams entering spring training with no chance to win. As spring training progresses, there will likely be a lot of talk of just how bad some of these rebuilding teams will be as well. Most of that analysis will stop at the current state of the team and the hopelessness the fan bases are supposed to be feeling.

As a critically-minded fan, don’t let it stop there. If your team stinks, think about why it does and why it’s pursuing the course it is. Twenty years ago you could probably be safe in saying “well, my team’s GM is dumb and the owner is cheap.” That’s not really the case for most teams now. Now, I think, it’s far more about the incentives in play which make putting a lousy product on the field in the short term preferable to not doing so. Call it tanking, call it whatever you want, but if this is concern for you — and if this is a problem for Major League Baseball — the focus needs to be on the incentives.  Not on the fact that some teams are going to stink. Because teams will always stink. The important question is why.

Marlins sign left-hander Craig Breslow

Craig Breslow
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After spending the past four seasons in the Red Sox’s bullpen left-hander Craig Breslow has signed with the Marlins on a minor-league deal.

Rob Bradford of WEEI.com reports that the contract comes with an invitation to spring training and will pay $1.5 million if Breslow makes the Opening Day roster.

Brewslow has struggled in back-to-back seasons, posting a 5.96 ERA in 2014 and a 4.15 ERA last year. At age 35 he’s not a great bet to bounce back in a huge way, but Breslow posted a 1.81 ERA as recently as 2013 and is certainly still capable of being a useful middle reliever.