Here we go again.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before in regard to a banned-substance-induced suspension: “Neglect and lack of knowledge have led me to this mistake…”
This time it’s Starling Marte of the Pittsburgh Pirates using this ridiculous cop out and smoke screen to try and shift the spotlight off his own selfishness. My disappointment extends to all Major League Baseball players caught cheating their peers, but I want to focus on Marte’s statement.
When you are a professional athlete, there is no excuse to not know what you are putting in your body. Beyond the possibility of ingesting a banned substance, when your entire livelihood is predicated on your body performing at the highest level, how can you possibly take a supplement, or eat anything for that matter, without knowing exactly what you are putting in your body? Google is a beautiful thing. So are personal dieticians, which I’m sure Marte could fit into his budget with the $31 million extension he signed. Not to mention, the MLB has a program which provides year-round access to approved supplements.
Like I said, no excuse.
Speaking of that contract extension, if we’re being honest, that’s what it all boils down to in my mind: money. Sure, a lot of fringe guys will start using PEDs in order to climb that last enormous step between the minors and the majors; that’s probably even the majority of guys. But there are established big leaguers – stars even – getting nailed, and money is likely a driving reason.
Some guys are doing it to recover from injury, a la Andy Pettitte, or to keep themselves in the majors once they get there, but – and I don’t want to pretend I’m in the head of anyone else – I would have to imagine guys like Marte, Nelson Cruz, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and Dee Gordon were at least somewhat motivated by that next contract or living up to one they just signed.
So, if we run with my hypothetical that money is the driving factor for taking these banned substances, maybe it’s time to make money the driving factor not to take the banned substances. Jake Diekman of the Texas Rangers seems to think it’s the best course of action.
I love this idea. It’s clear by the number of players being suspended – including Marte, 29 major leaguers in the last five years, and 10 since the new testing program was installed in 2014, according to Newsday – that 80 games for a first-time offense isn’t tough enough.
Though players aren’t paid while they are suspended, there is essentially no punishment once they are reinstated. In fact, the stars who have been suspended have seen hardly any falloff in their play since they came back from their time off, providing general managers little incentive to not hand out big contracts to the disgraced athletes.
I’ve compared post-suspension Braun and Cruz to their pre-suspension selves using Baseball Reference’s OPS+ (calculated using on-base percentage and slugging percentage and adjusted for a player’s home ballpark to where 100 is league average) and isolated power (a player’s batting average subtracted from his slugging percentage), and this idea becomes more clear. Though neither is perfect, OPS+ gives an idea of a hitter’s overall year at the plate, while isolated power should paint of picture of the power of each hitter, two things that should theoretically dip once a player stops using PEDs.
Braun has a career OPS+ of 141, meaning he is 41 percent better than the league average hitter, buoyed by his two monster years – including an MVP season – just prior his 2013 suspension where he posted marks of 166 and 158. Since the suspension, Braun has had an OPS+ of 113, 131 and 137. It’s not quite his peak, but he has still been an incredibly productive player hovering around his career average, especially when you consider he was smack in the middle of his prime for his biggest years.
The Brewers slugger’s isolated power for his career is .241, again dwarfed by seasons of .276 and .265 prior to his suspension. Since then, Braun has put up years of .187, .213 and .233. For context, the league average is around .140, .200 is considered great and .250 is considered excellent according to FanGraphs, putting Braun solidly in the great category since he returned.
Cruz lends even more credibility to this argument. The Mariners outfielder/DH has markedly improved at the plate since he served a 50-game suspension to finish the 2013 season. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Cruz posted OPS+ numbers of 104 and 124, slightly less than his career average of 127. The past three years, he has been at 137, 159 and 147, among the best in the major leagues.
Since 2013, Cruz’s isolated power has been .254, .264 and .268. Compare that to .200 and .240 in 2012 and 2013, and a career mark of .240.
Looking at those numbers, it sure takes away some of the doubt front offices will have when considering handing out a big contract to violators of the drug agreement. In fact, Cruz signed a four-year $58 million contract just one full season after he was suspended. Quite the punishment.
That’s where Diekman’s idea comes in. Will it completely deter potential offenders? Of course not. Even a lifetime ban didn’t stop Jennry Mejia from tested positive three times.
That said, taking a shot right at what I believe to be the heart of this issue – money – certainly can’t hurt.