Posted August 23, 2012

Suspensions of Colon and Cabrera show system does work

Bartolo Colon, Melky Cabrera, Oakland A's

Bartolo Colon was suspended for 50 games Wednesday after testing positive for elevated testosterone. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

Another week, another feel-good comeback story interrupted by a suspension for performance-enhancing drug usage, leaving a contending team scrambling to fill the resulting void. Last week, Major League Baseball rung up the Giants’ Melky Cabrera for failing a urine test due to elevated testosterone levels, and suspended him for 50 games. On Wednesday, they did the same for the A’s Bartolo Colon.

The 39-year-old Colon wasn’t overachieving to the same extent as the 27-year-old Cabrera, who had emerged as a threat for the NL batting title, with an outside shot at MVP honors. But if anything, the portly righthander had come back from an even closer brush with baseball oblivion. From 1997 through 2005, Colon was a front-of-the-rotation workhorse for the Indians, Expos, White Sox and Angels, but en route to winning the 2005 AL Cy Young award, he left a Division Series start in the second inning due to a torn rotator cuff. He spent the next four seasons lost in a wilderness of poor performance and injury while bouncing from the Angels to the Red Sox to the White Sox, putting up a 5.18 ERA, never making more than 18 starts in a season, and totaling more days on the disabled list (420) than innings pitched (257). Frustrated by his progress and the way he was used, he bolted both Boston and Chicago midseason, then sat out all of 2010.

Colon re-emerged with the Yankees last year after undergoing a controversial, cutting-edge medical procedure in which fat and stem cells from his bone marrow were injected back into his elbow and shoulder in an effort to repair his torn rotator cuff and damaged ligaments. Relying almost exclusively on a mix of two- and four-seam fastballs — which he could still pump into the mid-90s on occasion — he posted a 4.00 ERA in 164 1/3 innings, striking out a respectable 7.4 per nine. He led the majors in strikeouts looking thanks to outstanding movement and pinpoint control, ranking 10th in the AL with a 3.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Yankees opted not to retain him, so he signed a one-year, $2 million contract with Oakland, where he was expected merely to eat innings at the back of the rotation while other pitchers recovered from injuries or matured in the minors. Instead, he spearheaded a rotation that ranks second in the league with a 3.80 ERA, putting up a 3.43 ERA himself over 24 starts and 152 1/3 innings, both team highs. Though his strikeout rate dipped to 5.4 per nine, his 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio still ranked fifth in the AL, and his percentage of strikeouts looking ranked first.

Colon’s stem cell treatment, which took place in the Dominican Republic drew a great deal of scrutiny from MLB because of fears that human growth hormone was involved. The orthopedic surgeon who performed the operation, Dr. Joseph Purita, had used HGH on other patients but denied using it on Colon, and ultimately MLB’s investigation found no wrongdoing. HGH wasn’t involved in Colon’s positive test; MLB only began screening for it via a blood test this spring, and has yet to strike an agreement with the players’ union to do so in-season. Colon’s positive test was for synthetic testosterone, though how it was administered has yet to be reported. At least publicly, the pitcher didn’t put the blame on having unknowingly ingested a supplement that contained testosterone, a tack taken by some recently suspended players (J.C. Romero and Guillermo Mota come to mind), and one Cabrera was attempting to take when MLB ‘s investigation uncovered his scheme.

Colon’s suspension is the fifth among major leaguers this season, following those of the Giants’ Mota (who drew a 100-game suspension for a second offense), the Phillies’ Freddy Galvis, free agent Marlon Byrd, and Cabrera. At the major league level, that’s more suspensions than occurred in 2010 and 2011 combined, when Cincinnati’s Edinson Volquez, Florida’s Ronny Paulino, Tampa Bay’s Manny Ramirez and Colorado’s Mike Jacobs all tested positive, the latter becoming the first player suspended for via HGH testing. Depending upon whom you listen to, that’s either evidence that the game’s Joint Drug Agreement is actually working, or that PED use remains rampant. On the one hand, the testing program continues to evolve, with the league adding the HGH blood test, improving its collection procedures in the wake of Ryan Braun’s overturned suspension and more closely scrutinizing urine tests where the testosteone-to-epitestosterone ratio is under the 4-to-1 benchmark that triggers further analysis via a Carbon Isotope Ratio (CIR) test.

On the other hand, Victor Conte, who as the founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative was at the epicenter of the game’s largest drug scandal a decade ago, claimed last week that “as much as half” of all current players are using PEDs, and that current tests are easy to circumvent. “What these guys are doing is using fast-acting testosterone, creams, gels, patches and micro-dose injections,” he told USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale. “They put this stuff on after a game, let it circulate in their blood stream, and eight hours later, it’s out of their system when they take a drug test. It’s so simple.”

MLB vice president Rob Manfred refuted Conte’s claim. “There is no way that Victor Conte would have information that would allow him to have any basis on that,” he told Nightengale. “He’s just making that up. It’s a guess.”

Conte and other critics of MLB’s program, such as former World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Gary Wadler, often appear to have their own self-interests at heart as they angle for baseball to turn its testing over to an independent agency. Even so, that doesn’t mean that MLB can afford to stand still. More frequent testing would help, as would more transparency; letting the public know who passed a test could have some value, short-circuiting at least some of the speculation and innuendo that routinely accompanies players having breakout seasons. More CIR tests, which can aid the detection of synthetic testosterone, would help as well, though the equipment to do so is expensive and the process is time-consuming, creating significant logistical problems.

One complaint that’s arisen from some quarters in the wake of the Cabrera and Colon suspensions is that 50 games for a first offense (and 100 games for a second) is too lenient, that it doesn’t work well enough as a deterrent. Admittedly, there’s nothing sacrosanct about that length; while it’s more substantial than the 10-day suspensions that were in place in 2004 and 2005, when baseball first began testing, it’s still less than two months, or one-third of a season. A player caught using PEDs and suspended without pay is still likely to bring home hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in annual salary, and could conceivably return to a team in time to help them down the stretch or in the playoffs. Perhaps now that the majority of players on major league rosters have never known anything but a league that tested for drugs, it’s time to increase the minimum penalty to 81 games (a half season) or 100 (for those who like round numbers) or even a full 162; such an increase, as with every change in the drug program, would have to be part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players’ union and owners, but if enough of the rank and file want it to be so — and want the new CBA to be re-opened so that it can be, as happened in years past — it can be.

Yet another complaint is that even though the likes of Cabrera and Colon were caught, crime does pay; the former was making $6 million this year, the latter $2 million. But both will lose roughly one-third of their salaries to suspension, with the former destroying any chance he had of the long-term, eight- or nine-figure deal he appeared headed toward as a free agent, and the latter likely to be scrambling for a non-roster invitation next spring, when his suspension will still be in effect to start the season. In any event, it’s on owners and general managers to resist the temptation to sign players who have tested positive. That Ramirez, Mota, Rafael Betancourt, Ryan Franklin, Jose Guillen, Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero, Edinson Volquez and others have received contracts after serving suspensions may show that teams lack the will to do so, but it also underscores the view that suspensions are finite, that players should be able to redeem themselves and continue earning a living if they resume abiding by the rules.

More hysterical sentiments have been sounded. In the wake of Cabrera’s suspension, broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe called for his deportation, an ugly response founded in xenophobia if not racism. Less controversially and more laughably, ESPN’s Michael Smith suggested that a suspended player’s team should be penalized too, with the penalty perhaps tied to a player’s Wins Above Replacement total, and actual wins deducted from a team’s record. That’s hardly practical considering the negligible WAR values produced by many of those suspended, and besides, why should the likes of Buster Posey or Brandon McCarthy and their various hard-working teammates suffer further beyond losing a roster staple whose transgressions flew below their radar?

Some have fretted over Cabrera potentially winning the NL batting title even while suspended (and even one official plate appearance shy of the necessary 502); his .346 mark is behind that of Andrew McCutchen, whose batting average has fallen from .373 to .350 over the course of the month. But if the home run exploits of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and others can remain on the books — to say nothing of the results of the fixed 1919 World Series — then so should Cabrera’s statistical accomplishment, which after all is an objectively determined rate statistic, not an arbitrarily determined award. While the Olympics and NCAA do vacate results revealed to be tainted by one means or another, those organizations have their own scandals and shortcomings to contend with, and should hardly be held before MLB as paragons of integrity and justice until their houses are in order.

Major League Baseball has come a long way in its battle against performance-enhancing drugs. The game may not ever be able to eradicate them completely, because the temptation to cheat is older than the sport itself, and the means for doing so extends far beyond baseball’s purview and into law enforcement. MLB’s drug-testing program could stand adjustment, perhaps even being revisited on an annual basis to stay abreast of the latest developments instead of waiting for the next CBA to be negotiated. But as the suspensions of Cabrera and Colon show, the system is catching players who use PEDs. As dismaying as it might be to see storybook seasons come to an end, the histrionic indignation that accompanies each revelation of such transgressions sounds ridiculous when one considers the degree to which usage went unchecked in the “Wild West” days of a decade ago. This is what progress looks like.

25 comments
dongange1
dongange1

Yup works alright, as long as you're not playing in NYC, Boston, St L, Philly or other large baseball markets. I quit taking this testing issue seriously when a guy leads his team to a WS title after coming back from a broken bone in his wrist in 13 days! First broken bone ever to heal in less than 6 weeks, oh and it's not like you need any wrist action when swinging the bat. 

RobOlds
RobOlds

The testing is catching cheaters, which is good, but it doesn't seem as if it's proving to be much of a deterrent.  Players are willing to risk short term gain because they think a 50 game suspension is worth it.  I say either suspend players for an entire year after the first time and ban them for life the second time they're caught, or just ban them for life outright. 

jceasar11
jceasar11

Correction: When players are still using steroids the system is NOT working.

DougBogle
DougBogle

There was a time when protecting the integrity of the game was the most important rule in baseball.  How can you say the policy is working when the A's benefited from wins that Bartolo Colon pitched in, the Giants benefited from wins that Melky Cabrera contributed, both while cheating.  The policy may be catching the cheaters, but fails in protecting the integrity of the game.....an integrity that was so revered by the Vincents and Giamattis of the world.....and a failure or inspection by media like yourself to highlight that. 

Jon
Jon

Who cares with all the other scandals in baseball. It's just a fact of life that we all cheat at something so don't get so high and mighty!!!

BobWickham
BobWickham

The penalty for the player should be a full season for the first offense, and lifetime ban with loss of pension for the second. More importantly, the team should not be able to fill the roster spot, giving them more incentive to know what goes on in their own clubhouse.

eldoil
eldoil

Didn't anyone wonder how Melky's batting average went up 100 points over last season?  Let's face it, baseball overlooks this nonsense until someone gets caught.

midniteran
midniteran

"This is what progress looks like."  At this stage of the testing game, sad but very true.  And an article that points the finger at the users / cheaters, rather than the drug-testing policy, that admittedly, will need to add that mid-season blood draw they've been debating.  Kudos, Mr. Jaffe.

JackWilliams
JackWilliams

I agree with Joe. The system is not working. MLB announces a few token penalties. Big deal. But a trend is developing: busted players formerly played for the NYY.  They played well for them ,too. What say you about the NYY, Selig?

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

These examples are hardly evidence that the system is working.  They are evidence that there are knuckleheads out there that are either too cheap to get the best and most current stuff, or are too dumb to use it correctly.   The doctors are always ahead of the testers, although MLB drug detectives alway use a few laggards like Melky & BIg Bart as proof positive that they are hot on the trail.   Legalize the stuff & get it over with.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @jceasar11 Steroids?  What decade is this?   How about popping greenies and smoking grass?   These guys have moved on.   Time for you to join them.

jay_jaffe
jay_jaffe

 @DougBogle Doug, I wasn't in the locker rooms during the Nineties and Aughties when the steroid problem took hold, and when the owners, players union and commissioner effectively conspired to avoid the problem by focusing on a labor war while the media underreported the widespread abuse of the drugs. In the 12 seasons I've covered baseball I've written a ton about the steroid problem at my own site (futitilityinfielder.com), at Baseball Prospectus and here, and I contributed over 25,000 words on the topic to BP's most recent book, Extra innings. I've done my best to avoid resorting to shrill histrionics when it comes to steroids, but please don't accuse me of failing to inspect the problem.

SoCal
SoCal

 @BobWickham I agree. I'm willing to bet a LOT of people would clean up if the penalty was more harsh.

@JoeCabot Just because "it has gone on for decades" doesn't mean it should continue. There are literally 1k's waiting in line in the minors to take over these highly overpaid athletes spot on the team. How about we drop there salary down to 100k a year?

 

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @BobWickham Wow.  Overreact much?  This stuff has been going on for decades.  The doctors are always ahead of the testers.   Ban a guy for life & watch him file a lawsuit & start outing other players, with those players in turn lawyering up.  Utter chaos.  While much of American society medicates itself daily, athletes are not supposed to?  They put their bodies through much more than the rest of us - let them do what they must to heal & keep performing at a high level.

DougBogle
DougBogle

 @jay_jaffe Jay,  As a fan I appreciate your candor however the title of your article articulates how the "system does work."  There is a failure in understanding of the problem in the media and trying to fool the public advising the "system does work" reinforces that failure.  Cheating harms the integrity of the game.  That is one of the problems.  The Giants and the A's both benefited greatly from cheating this year.  There is no integrity in those wins, they are tainted and having the media bow down to the players and MLB by stating the "system works" just covers up that failure that those games are tainted.  Melky Cabrera was the MVP of the all star game.  Whoever is in the world series for the NL will benefit from home field advantage because of how the system fails at protecting the integrity of the game.  Let us not forget the system you so aptly entitled your article about that you claim is working so well is designed to not let the media know about cases like Ryan Braun and that was simply a leak in your beloved working system.  Who else dont we know about because the fedex guy didnt deliver the sample properly?  The system protects them.  When the integrity of the game is protected from cheating the system will have worked, until then....the media covers it up....but dont worry.  You will still get the good interviews from MLB and the players.  They appreciate your article even if the warriors of baseball and the integrity of the game are in the past. 

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @SoCal  @BobWickham Are you going to negotiate with the players union to lower salaries?  Good luck.   If baseball fans were interested in watching minor leaguers, there would be no  need for the major leagues.  This is only baseball, not some sacrosanct institution set apart from the rest of society, so enough of the sanctimonious preaching.  Baseball has survived for well over a century with players doing whatever "juice" was in vogue at the time.  With money and prestige at stake, these guys will do what it takes to stay in the game.  Legalize the stuff.  It is medication.

jhoush9087
jhoush9087

 @JoeCabot  @BobWickham Let's be honest, we know that a huge percentage are using PEDs, only a small percent ever get caught and knowing that getting caught isn't a big deal in today's world, means these few catches will not deter anything.  If they want to get serious, they have to make it really hurt to get caught.

 

If you knew you could make earn a much higher salary, due to much better performance, and the only downside is a very small chance to get caught, and still end up no worse off than if you hadn't used PEDs, then many people choose to use them.  Sure, you lose a 1/3 of your salary for getting caught, but that salary is a lot higher than it would have been otherwise, and the odds of getting caught are so small anyways.

 

To get serious about removing PEDs from competition, the crime has to actually hurt, but to be fair to the existing system, if you were to put in such strict policies, you can't make them retroactive.  What's done is done, but make it clear that starting next season, that getting caught once, and you lose a season, get caught twice and you are retired.  That may actually cause the majority of the players to stop or think twice about starting.  It will still not stop some players from starting, who have nothing to lose, like Colon.

DougBogle
DougBogle

 @jay_jaffe  @DougBogle Jay,  not that it was a mission of yours but to an extent you have won me over as to your passion toward the game.  Please feel mine in my comments.  I dont dispute the system is cleaner today then it was ten years ago.  It certainly is.  I dont dispute your passion for baseball.  That is evident.  

 

What I dispute is your title in the article that the system works.  It identifies players who have positive tests that do not get off by a technicality and whose names have not been leaked.  Last time I checked Ryan Braun was still Milwaukee's favorite son in the commissioners favorite city.  Is the game cleaner?  Yes.  Is it clean?  Last time I checked Melky Cabrera was swinging away two weeks ago.  How can you say the system works?  

 

30 years ago there was nothing more important then the integrity of the game.  Baseball would make tough decisions and the media would be skeptical and have tough investigations.  I dont claim there is a conspiracy.  I claim that if a member of the media calls out the commissioner of baseball, he or she simply wont get that interview anymore.  If they call out the players they simply wont get the interview with them going forward.  So....we get pieces about how the system works.  It doesnt work.  It just stinks less....and it does nothing to address the integrity of each and every single baseball game.  This integrity is something baseball warriors of the past cared more about then dollars, new ballparks, interviews, or being in baseballs inner circle.  

 

"If one is responsible for protecting the integrity of the game of baseball - that is, the game's authenticity, honesty and coherence - then the process one uses to protect the integrity of baseball must itself embody that integrity."  - Bart Giamatti.  

 

My challenge is with your title that the system does work.  That comment is written to please MLB and the players, not educate the fans.  Tell that to the average LA Dodgers fan who pays 20 bucks to watch a ball game in hopes to see his team make the playoffs this year.  Do you think Melky Cabrera meant 2.5 wins to the Giants this year?  Of course he did.  He was miraculously one of the best players in baseball....and a cheater.  I watched Melky Cabrera on the Yankees for years.  His face was fatter,  his body was less tone.  This year he even looked like he put on height.  All Star Game MVP?  Never.  He was not that player or ever going to be that player.  Even the average fan such as myself knew this.  Where was the investigation of him before this?  Where was the scoop by the media?  

 

I agree with your comment that the media should not call out players for no reason.  As an example, Skip Bayless's comments were irresponsible the other day about Derek Jeter.  In effort to not show any bias I will disclose I am a big Jeter fan.  What isnt irresponsible is for the media to investigate a person like Derek Jeter.  I personally dont think anything would be found in this one case but as a fan we rely on you to verify that,  and if you find something then you make your claim.  I would think the average baseball player who wasnt cheating would invite that scrutiny. 

 

I empathize with your position.  You obviously care about the game.  I simply suggest if the media (not just you) in general are very skeptical and scrutinize in even a respectful manner the system or players who abuse it you will lose your access to those players and MLB....hence not being able to do your job.  I empathize with this position.  What I am craving is a warrior like Giammatti to stand up to the bullies who approved this flawed and weak system so that more improvements can be made.  This warrior doesnt just have the be the commissioner of baseball, but could be in the media.  

 

The "system does work."  Major League Baseball and the players association are proud of the title of your article.....but as you articulate in your comments above dislike the system you claim works.  You did your job.  You will get the interviews with the commissioners office and the players.  You said the company line.  Your lended credibility to the system.  A system though you even advise everyone hates, and does nothing to protect the integrity of each and every game.  

 

jay_jaffe
jay_jaffe

 @DougBogle Beloved? You must be joking. Nobody loves this system, not the players, the owners, the fans or the media. But it's better than what was in place a decade ago, which is to say NOTHING. Changing it isn't easy, as everything must be collectively bargained instead of ramrodded down from on high by the commissioner or well-meaning fans.

 

And while I know you'd love to believe this is all One Big Media conspiracy, the reality is that all too many members of the mainstream media debase the conversation with innuendo and unfounded finger-pointing when it comes to PEDs. News of imagined and actual steroid transgressions both draw eyeballs in the form of readers and viewers, so really, what is there to be gained from anyone suppressing the news? Your imagination is running wild.

 

If the system is as unclean as you say it is, then it stands to reason that every team has players who are using PEDs, and that every team has benefited to some degree from their performance, not just the A's with Colon or the Giants with Cabrera. If that's the case, where does the advantage lie? You can sit awake at night worrying about the degree to which the standings are tainted, or resort to histrionics as you see fit - but then why follow the sport at all given the presence of the drugs over the past 25 years? 

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @jhoush9087  @JoeCabot  @BobWickham To protect the players?  Isn't that each person's responsibility?  To protect themselves?   The idea of a nanny state where we all need overseers and protectors is getting really old really fast.  If a player chooses to ingest something for short term results and that substance is harmful in the long term, well, that is the player's fault & he gets to live with the consequences.  The only way that you can determine how fair these things are is to know for certain how many players are using them.  Until then you are simply guessing since you don't know who is using and who isn't.  The "juice" of the day has been in baseball for the past century & the game has done just fine.   It's only baseball.

jhoush9087
jhoush9087

 @JoeCabot  @BobWickham Wow, so shouldn't be be upset that they even suspend players?  Why try to stop it at all?

 

We do it to protect the players.  A lot of these PED's are very dangerous, and have unknown long term side effects.  You take the drugs and you have healthier athletes.  You make it such a harsh penalty that athletes can't risk it, everything becomes an even playing field, except for the desperate, and they don't have a need to use them.

 

As it stands, a lot of good athletes either can't make it, or have to use PEDs because they are competing against others who are using them.  Is that good for the game?  Is that fair?

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @jhoush9087  @JoeCabot  @BobWickham What do you have against enhancing one's performance?   It has been going on as long as baseball has been in existence & the game is fine.  In fact, performance enhancement has been going on as long as humans have been around. 

jhoush9087
jhoush9087

 @JoeCabot  @BobWickham I didn't mean to say that it would be easily put in place, or that it could happen, but that is about the only scenario that would result in a drop in PED use.  It wouldn't be a bad thing for anyone.

 

The players are using PEDs because they feel they have to to compete, because they know their competition is using too.  You make it a big enough penalty, and they would quit and then they wouldn't feel a need to use them to compete, as very few others are using them.

 

It really is a win win.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @jhoush9087  @JoeCabot  @BobWickham You wrote your post like you believe that the commissioner can just add your rules to the book like he is running a dictatorship.   Sorry, but this stuff has to be negotiated with the players union.   Good luck with a two-strikes-and-you're-done policy.  The only people winning in that scenario would be the attorneys.