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Explaining MLB's recent wave of PED bans, and what league can do

What's behind MLB's surge in steroid suspensions? Is the league experiencing a PED epidemic? What can (or should) it do about users? Jay Jaffe tackles that and more.

The baseball world is still reeling from news of the recent suspensions of Chris Colabello and Dee Gordon for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Since the announcement of the latter last Friday, yet another player—Dodgers reliever Josh Ravin—has drawn an 80-game suspension as well, running the total number of major leaguers suspended in 2016 to six. That count will only grow: On Wednesday, ESPN's T.J. Quinn reported that more suspensions are on the way. The current wave raises questions about the progress the league has made in combating a problem that has been around for decades.

The suspensions of Colabello (announced April 22), Gordon (April 29) and Ravin (May 2) were preceded by those of Mets reliever Jenrry Mejia (Feb. 12; his third suspension, which triggered a lifetime ban), Indians centerfielder Abraham Almonte (Feb. 26) and Phillies reliever Daniel Stumpf (April 14). Already, we've seen as many major league players pinched as in all of last season. The only recent year with more was in 2013, when the Biogenesis scandal took down seven major leaguers (plus seven minor leaguers).

So what's behind this recent spate of suspensions? What kind of steroids are in the mix? And should MLB and its fans be worried about the sudden upswing in positive tests? What follows are some thoughts on the situation, including what—if anything—the league can do to deter players from using PEDs.

1. These are old school drugs

Unlike the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) and Biogenesis scandals, which largely centered around sophisticated designer steroids, several of the players from the current wave have been linked to older drugs. According to Quinn, Colabello, Stump and one upcoming offender whose suspension will be announced “in the next few days”—we'll call him the Player To Be Named Later (PTBNL)—all tested positive for Turinabol, a testosterone derivative whose chemical name is dehydrochlormethyltestosterone. Turinabol was originally patented in 1961 and was the primary steroid systematically administered orally (in the form of a blue pill) to more than 10,000 East German athletes in the '60s, '70s and '80s, often with horrific consequences. Cardinals catcher Cody Stanley, the last player who tested positive last season, was also suspended for Turinabol. Gordon tested positive for Clostebol, a weaker anabolic steroid that was also used in East Germany, as well as exogenous testosterone. Phillies infielder Freddy Galvis, who was suspended in 2012, is the other recent player who tested positive for Clostebol.

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According to Quinn and the anonymous sources he spoke to who are familiar with the current cases, two possible explanations exist for the Turinabol spike. The more likely one is better testing techniques. "[T]wo years ago, researchers found that by increasing the sensitivity of their testing equipment, they could detect some metabolites that stayed in the body much longer," Quinn wrote. Turinabol, like most orally ingested steroids, is metabolized fairly quickly in the body and used to be undetectable after a week, but the higher sensitivity of the tests has shifted the window of detection to months. That means players taking the drugs in the off-season, thinking they could stop in time to appear clean during first wave of tests in spring training, are instead getting caught.

The second explanation, according to Quinn's report, is that a supplement called Alpha-4D, which is being sold over the counter and advertised as a "pro-anabolic stack," has been identified as containing Turinabol; though it's not listed as an ingredient, such grey-market products can be laced with banned drugs that produce the desired results. In 2014, the drug was placed on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's "high risk" supplement list. While none of the players who tested positive have admitted to using the supplement, its availability suggests a route that has yet to be closed off.

Meanwhile, it's worth remembering that last year, Mejia, Twins starter Ervin Santana, Braves reliever Arodys Vizcaino and Mariners pitcher David Rollins were all suspended for testing positive for Stanozolol, another synthetic anabolic steroid developed back in the early 1960s and commonly sold under the name Winstrol. It also has a long history of abuse among athletes: Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for it at the 1988 Summer Olympics, and slugger Rafael Palmeiro became baseball's first high-profile player to be suspended after testing positive for it in 2005. The rash of positive Stanozolol tests triggered an MLB investigation into whether they were linked, but commissioner Rob Manfred said at the time that no such evidence existed, and no further breaks in the case have been reported.

Along with the relatively recent introduction of Carbon Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) tests that can identify the introduction of exogenous testosterone (such as in the case of Gordon), all of this should be regarded as a relatively positive development (no pun intended). The testing program is getting better at catching users.

2. This is not an epidemic

With better detection technology comes a higher number of positive tests, but it's worth keeping the figures in perspective. Even including Mr. PTBNL to boost the count to seven players suspended in 2016, that's less than 1% of all players on major league rosters. With 750 roster spots (30 teams with 25 players each) plus 113 players currently on major league disabled lists, seven out of 863 comes to 0.8%. That number will climb, as Quinn noted that Mr. PTBNL’s “positive test is one of a handful being processed,” but it’s worth remembering some history.

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Back during the supposedly anonymous survey testing in spring 2003, when everybody on 40-man rosters was tested, 96 of the 1,438 samples (from roughly 1,200 players) tested positive, a rate of 6.7%. Some of those positives were contested by the players' union, but not enough to drop the final percentage below the 5% threshold needed to implement the mandatory testing regime for the first time. Even with exact percentage in question, that comes out to roughly six to eight times the rate of 2016 positives, and those were discovered by a program that was much less sophisticated than that of today. Further positives this year will take that ratio down, but the point stands that it’s a fraction of what it once was.

What’s more, while designer steroids such as the fast-acting testosterone lozenges used in Biogenesis illustrate the evolution of more sophisticated and efficient means of doping, the recent resurgence of Turinabol- and Stanozolol-linked positives suggest that the population of users hasn't uniformly switched to such harder-to-detect substances.

3. Due process and confidentiality within a collectively bargained drug policy are features of the system, not bugs

Particularly in the wake of Gordon's suspensions, which was announced some 15 minutes after the end of a game in which he drove in and scored runs in the Marlins' come-from-behind victory over the Dodgers, players such as Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander voiced frustration that a player who tested positive had been allowed to play. Via Twitter, Verlander said, "This PED ---- is killing me. If u test positive, u need to not play. You shouldn't be allowed to effect [sic] games while appealing."

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​Verlander may want to read the Joint Drug Agreement again, because the policy hashed out between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the league expressly allows first offenders the right to appeal such suspensions. They are allowed their due process and can challenge the result of a positive test before a three-person arbitration panel in hopes of proving innocence or inadvertent ingestion, which can merit a lesser suspension than the current 80-game minimum. In the cases of Colabello, Gordon and Stumpf, players who tested positive during spring training were able to play during the regular season because the appeals process in their particular cases had not yet played out. Only after Gordon decided to drop his appeal was he suspended.

While Verlander's frustration is understandable, the alternative—preventing Gordon from playing until his appeal process had been completed—won't work, because the policy guarantees players confidentiality until the process plays out and a player's guilt or innocence is determined. As Clayton Kershaw told the Los Angeles Times' Andy McCullough, "You can't just say, 'Well, he's out while he appeals it,' because then his name is in the mud."

The solution, as Kershaw noted, is to speed up the appeals process, but with such a high volume of tests happening at the same time, the rate of processing samples at the World Anti-Doping Agency lab in Montreal and the existence of just one arbitration panel create bottlenecks. One fix would be to certify more laboratories to process the samples, and perhaps to appoint multiple arbitrators to handle cases instead of just one. Those things cost money, and as the size of the program increases, so do the risks of breaching confidentiality, but this does seem like a solvable problem. With the union and league currently in the process of negotiating the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (the current one expires Dec. 1), now is the time to address it.

4. Longer penalties are worth considering

Back when MLB first began suspending players in 2005, a first offense such as that of Palmeiro resulted in a 10-game ban, with 30 for a second offense and 60 for a third. In November of that year, the penalties were increased to 50 games for a first offense, then 100 for a second and a lifetime ban for a third. In March 2014, the union agreed to ramp the penalties up to 80 games for a first offense and 162 for a second, with players also prohibited from appearing in the postseason if they were suspended that year.

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As the recent wave of positives shows, even the increased length of penalties hasn't been enough to deter everybody; for some players, the risk-to-reward ratio still makes sense if a spot in the majors or a chance at a multimillion-dollar contract is on the line (more on that momentarily). In the wake of Gordon's suspension, A's reliever Sean Doolittle was among those who suggested even steeper penalties should be in play, telling the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea, “Whatever the punishment, 50 games before and 80 now, isn’t enough for the players to roll the dice for a huge payday because they know if they come out of it, they can sign another multiyear, guaranteed contract. And of course they’re getting paid off the numbers they put up while they were cheating. How do we stop that from happening?”

The obvious answer would appear to be increasing the number of games suspended for a first offense. Would 162—a full-year ban, effectively—be enough to reduce the number of users, with a lifetime ban for a second offense? Or a two-year ban for a first offense, as is common in track and field? There's no automatically correct answer. Any change in the penalty will be one on which the union and the league agree, and if the rank and file members of the MLBPA come to a consensus that 162 games or 324 games for a first offense is an appropriate deterrent to put into the next CBA, so be it.

5. Voiding contracts is unfeasible

Much of the anger directed at Gordon is because he just signed a five-year, $50 million extension with Miami after winning the NL batting title and leading the league in stolen bases last season—accomplishments that have players, executives, media and fans wondering whether he did so while using. The Marlins don't have to pay him during his suspension, but that only amounts to $1.65 million of this year's $3 million salary; they're still on the hook for the remaining $48.35 million from his deal, which in their eyes may have been secured under false pretenses.

While it's tempting to suggest that positive-testing players should lose such contracts, the reality is that this is unfeasible. Guaranteed player contracts are something that the union fought long and hard for, and if the union forfeits a victory that dates back to the days when Marvin Miller was its executive director, the owners will find a way to use it against them. Allowing teams to void deals could give them incentives to frame players for using, providing tainted medication, supplements or food to players as a means of wriggling free of a suddenly burdensome long-term commitment.

Voiding deals could work to players' advantages as well. Suppose a player on a team-friendly contract, or making some function of minimum salary tested positive; he would become a free agent and would likely get a better deal for himself. As the recent free-agent deals of Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta and Bartolo Colon show, teams are willing to pay eight-figure annual salaries via long-term deals for players who have been suspended in the recent past.

Eradicating performance-enhancing drugs within baseball is a worthy goal, but it’s one that can’t be done unilaterally, without the cooperation of players and owners within a process that guarantees the protection of individual rights within the larger framework of the sport. One hundred percent success at stamping out PEDs will never be attained, because somebody will always believe he can beat the odds, or at least that the chance that he can do so is worth the risk because of the millions of dollars at stake. It’s easy to look at the current wave of suspensions and believe that the glass is half-empty, but the truth is that it’s at least half full. The fact that players are being caught means that the system is working, not that it’s broken.