The numbers—and the truth—about baseball's PED problem and why it may never go away
- As home runs continue to rise, the suspicion of increased PED usage still looms over Major League Baseball. The question now is whether the penalties for a positive test should be more stringent.
News item: Home runs are flying out of ballparks at the highest rate in baseball history, and the tape-measure shots have increased dramatically in two years.
News item: Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte, already playing under the security of a $31 million contract, did not mount a word of defense when MLB hit him last month with an 80-game suspension for flunking a spring training drug test for the use of Nandrolone, an injectable anabolic steroid that has been around since the 1960s and is easy to detect.
Connect the dots at your own pleasure or peril. This is the unfortunate toxicity left from The Steroid Era. It has empowered doubt—even though the home run craze is due to a massive change in hitting philosophy more than anything else.
Separately, two things are true: baseball has become a game of too many home runs (squeezing out of the game rallies, balls in play, baserunning and strategy) and performance-enhancing drug use is continuing as long as the players association and owners allow every player two cracks at juicing before throwing them out. The two sides proved they still aren’t serious enough about ridding the game of PEDs by negotiating a Collective Bargaining Agreement last off-season that did not touch penalties for such use. The game suffers and the juicers, by way of changed body chemistry, benefit.
“I think we are back up to large scale use again,” said one former player. “It’s all over, but folks don’t want to see it. Many long time baseball people are still oblivious. I was hoping for more in the new CBA.
“If you use the nuclear option and make it a lifetime ban for getting caught, you will only have to use it once and then guys will be incentivized to stay clean. As it stands, it still seems to be worth the risk.”
MLB ran 8,281 drug tests on major league players last year. Thirteen major league players tested positive. The new CBA calls for an increase in tests this year that could amount to around 12,000 tests.
Said Dan Halem, chief legal officer for MLB, when asked about a suspected increase in PED use, “Through the testing numbers we haven’t seen it. We are testing way more than we have in the past. The magnitude of the number of tests we have is significantly greater—greater than even last year. Among major league players we run something like 12,000 blood and urine tests.
“Our tests are as good as any testing available and based on current technology. We have not seen [a rise in usage]. The positive rates certainly don’t support it and we’re testing more, which should mean we should be picking up more. But on that front and on the investigative front we haven’t seen anything to indicate an uptick.”
Because penalties don’t go far enough there is little indication that fewer players are willing to take the risk of using PEDs. This year 34 minor and major league players have already violated the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Two of those were on major leaguer rosters: Marte and Philadelphia pitcher Elniery Garcia (for Boldenone, an old-school anabolic steroid more commonly administered to horses).
Commissioner Bud Selig used to talk about “eradicating” drugs from baseball. It’s simply not happening and it never will, not with these penalties. Here’s a look at minor and major league violations of the drug program over the years, and even with more advanced testing you see virtually no decline from more than a decade ago:
Here’s a thumbnail look at what’s going on with PED use since 2014, when baseball introduced more sophisticated testing, including Carbon Isotope Mass Spectrometry (IRMS).
• The major leaguers who are flunking tests are the ones using old-school steroids. Among the 28 major league violations since 2014, the most popular among the 12 substances to show up in tests were Stanazolol (six times), Turinabol (six) and Boldenone (five). No major leaguer has flunked a test for amphetamines in the past three years.
Some players who evaded testing positive were found only through later news media reports to be using so-called “designer” drugs. Those players included Taylor Teagarden and players connected to the Biogenesis clinic in Miami, including Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez.
While it would be helpful for baseball to learn from players why and how they turned to steroids and thought they could beat tests, no busted player has answered a question about his use from MLB, including Dee Gordon last year and Marte this year.
• Over the 2016 and '17 seasons, of the 64 minor league players who violated the drug program for drugs of abuse, amphetamines or other banned stimulants, 90% of them were American-born players who came out of high schools, junior colleges and four-year colleges.
• Over the 2016 and '17 seasons, of the 49 minor league players who tested positive for steroids, 65% were pitchers from the Dominican Republic—and 20 of those 32 pitchers tested positive for Stanozolol, or Winstrol, the infamous drug of choice for Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson way back in 1988.
Halem acknowledged that the rate of positive PED tests in the Dominican Summer League (not including amphetamines and drugs of abuse) was as high as 3% in 2008 but is now under 1%, though that is still higher than in U.S. minor leagues.
I tried to gain a little discovery myself in talking to Baltimore Orioles pitcher Alec Asher. He was one of five players in a three-month window last year to test positive for Turinabol. Why would a journeyman pitcher turn to a hardcore steroid, one developed by the East Germans a half century ago and favored by the Russians in their recent Olympic doping scandal, and think he could get away with it? Asher emphatically denied using PEDs to me, just as he and others, including then Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello, did to MLB officials at the time of their positive test for Turinabol.
“What’s frustrating is that I can’t prove my innocence,” Asher said. “What stinks is that people think of me that way, and I would never do anything to cheat the game. There were a cluster of five of us who tested for the same substance, and none since then.”
The five players actually tested for metabolites, or markers, of the drug, rather than the drug itself. Recent testing has increased the window for detecting such metabolites—from weeks to as long as months.
The drug experts MLB used were clear about the science: the metabolites were a 100% indication of Turinabol in their system, without any concern for the possibility of a false positive. Articulate, emphatic denials after positive tests have come to be known around baseball as a “Ryan Braun defense.” The decline of trust continues.
Now, about all those home runs …
• Home runs per game per team are at an all-time high (1.19), while the rate of hits per game (8.50) is at its lowest level in the 45 years since the adoption of the DH.
Read that again: even with home runs flying out in record numbers, there are fewer hits in a baseball game today than at any point in almost half a century.
• Home runs per game in April jumped 11.9% from last April—and a whopping 29.2% increase from April 2015.
• The surge has happened quickly: home runs are up 38% since 2014. If the current pace continues, the year-by-year rise in home runs since 2014 will look like this:
There will be more home runs hit this year than the 1974 and '75 seasons combined.
• If it seems to you as if tape-measure home runs are becoming routine, you’re right. The number of home runs hit at least 450 feet, as measured by Statcast, is on pace to be up 31% in just two years:
Let’s be clear: PEDs are not driving this explosion in home runs, the way they did almost two decades ago. A change in hitting philosophy is causing this boom more than anything. Get the barrel in the zone early, hit the bottom third of the ball, generate a launch angle between 23 and 28 degrees.
There’s a saying going around baseball: There is no damage on the ground. The damage is in the air. And damage means money.
A generation of players has been trained to hit this way. “Hitting for average” is dead. Strikeouts are up for a 12th straight year. We are just getting started with this home run era. And because the risk for flunking a drug test is the loss of only half a season, and the reward can be transformative with long-lasting benefits, some doubt will linger about the role of PEDs. We await the next Marte, and yet people, as they did with the Pittsburgh outfielder, will act surprised when it happens.