Four ways to deter PED use

Setting the scene

For players who choose to use performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), Major League Baseball has a one-size-fits-all approach to punishment. A first offense results in a 50-game suspension, two offenses merits a 100 game suspension, and a third offense garners a lifetime ban.

In the wake of Melky Cabrera’s suspension, many have wondered if baseball does enough to PED use. Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson is particularly incensed, as his team can blame several losses on Cabrera.

Last Thursday, Fangraphs’ Alex Remington had some thoughts on the subject. Of those covered, he pointed out that there are essentially three scenarios where it’s possible to rationally justify PED use.

Players like Cabrera, who are nearing a big free agent payday, have everything to gain from enhanced performance. Getting caught cost him many millions of dollars, but he’s still in line to earn several million dollars next year. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Manny Ramirez types who have nothing to lose.

The third flavor is embodied by players like Alex Sanchez or Kevin Frandsen. These 26th men are in a desperate situation. Perform and they might just cling to a bench job. Struggle for even a couple weeks and they’re back in the minors dealing with long bus rides and a fraction of the pay. No wonder some of them cheat: They have a strong incentive to do so.

These cases highlight that the current MLB policy is lacking. The uniform punishment structure is not a uniform deterrent. So, what are some creative approaches that baseball could use to effectively eliminate PEDs from the game?

1. Individualized punishment

If MLB is insistent on a blanket punishment, 50 games is reasonable. There are players who have been caught for PEDs who appear to be victims of laziness rather than intentional cheating. J.C. Romero comes to mind.

However, nothing says a punishment must be uniform. Some cheating is worse than others. Synthetic testosterone, HGH, and amphetamine related offenses should be punished more than marijuana use, for instance.

The specific circumstances should be taken into consideration as well. A healthy, soon-to-be free agent player like Cabrera possibly deserves a stouter punishment than Sanchez—especially given recent news that Cabrera attempted to create a fake product webpage during his appeals process.

This approach would require MLB and the players’ union to form a task force to explore how to enforce “fair” punishment.

2. Vacate the player’s current contract

This punishment is particularly harsh as it requires several layers. Obviously, the player’s contract would be immediately vacated upon a failed appeal. Imagine for a moment if Ryan Braun had not had his suspension overturned. His long-term contract would be nullified.

We need several wrinkles to make this idea work as a deterrent. One way that could be achieved is to have the club receive some number of additional arbitration seasons over the player. This would prevent players from intentionally nullifying bad contracts and to serve as further punishment.

The player would be paid at the major league minimum for these years while the club would pay an amount decided via traditional arbitration. That money would go to a league-managed fund.

If the player has remained clean throughout the club control period, he would receive one-third of that money. The remaining two-thirds would be dispersed evenly to clubs who have no PED offenses at the MLB level in the last five years.

Admittedly, the idea is deliberately punitive and would require specific contract language to enforce.

3. Force teams to roster suspended players

One of the weaknesses of the current policy is that it punishes only the individual. An individual who is asked to make a risky choice that only affects himself will have an easier time accepting the risk. If he’s caught, only he has to live with the outcome.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

So what if his choice punishes his entire team?

By forcing teams to use a 25-man roster spot on a suspended player, everybody loses. The Giants would be wringing their hands quite a bit more if they were stuck with a 24-man roster for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.

Ostensibly, in addition to digging at a player’s conscience, such a policy would result in improved self-policing.

4. Penalize teams in the draft

Similar in theme to number three, this approach would take draft picks from a team based on the number of offenses at the major league level. The more PED offenses one team suffers, the more draft picks it would lose. Essentially, this idea is a recognition that clubs need to bear some of the responsibility for making sure their players make healthy choices.

For example, the Giants would lose their first round pick in 2013 for Melky. If Aubrey Huff tested positive tomorrow, they would lose two more picks. If Brett Pill tested positive the next day, they would lose another three picks.

The punishments need not be limited to a single year, although they should reset under some condition, perhaps if a club goes two seasons without a PED suspension.

The idea is that if the team is being punished, it will be careful not to subtly encourage PED use. Further, players who are caught will find it much harder to find major league jobs and will have to “pay their dues” before earning significant money.

Concluding thoughts

The challenge facing baseball is to discourage players from using PEDs. The current solution has proven to be good but not great. Plenty of players, and not just fringe talent, have been caught using banned substances.

So long as there are scenarios where a player can rationally decide that PEDs are an appropriate risk, players will use them. It might be time for baseball to employ creative, punitive solutions that punish more than just the player involved.

Ultimately, the powers that be need to make a decision. Is the goal to completely remove PEDs from the game, such that it is exceedingly rare for players to take the risk? Or does baseball want to employ an efficient solution that takes care of the low hanging fruit but leaves some hanging in the upper branches?

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10 years ago

Law of unintended consequences—#3 may “result in improved self-policing,” or it may simply put the teams on the player’s sides and collude in helping them to conceal any PED discoveries.

A sinister theory, but not out of the realm of possibilities.

Brad Johnson
10 years ago


It would make sense to put excessively punitive measures in place for any team that is proven to collude in concealing PED use.

Originally I wanted to include something to the effect of “turn them over to law enforcement.” I scrapped it because I wasn’t sure it was legally enforceable.

In this case, it sounds a lot like fraud. Mix that with an illegal substance and I’m sure some serious laws are broken.

David P Stokes
10 years ago

Not all PEDs are illegal, so “turn them over to law enforcement” isn’t really a great idea.  It would be like expecting the courts to put Gaylord Perry in prison for throwing a spitter.

10 years ago

1) Okay, this is interesting, but the main way to deter PED use is to not have a joke of a testing system.

As I understand it, a player get his random test say in May, and then he’s done for the rest of the year, with every opportunity to dope for the rest of the year. (Possibly this is how Braun slipped up, with ‘extra’ testing for the playoffs not well anticipated.)

2) Regrettably it is like Victor Conte says. It’s not just a few guys. If you want to take a damn good blind guess at who’s doping, just simply look at the guys on the AL Home Run leader board who now have more than 20 HRs and who have never hit 20 before, rookies included. Totally sucks to be the messenger on this, but fans naturally resist the truth, and that’s part of the problem.

The Melky impact on the season this year is profound – why would it just be him?

Brad Johnson
10 years ago


That’s another reason why I didn’t formally present that idea. Although I don’t agree with your example. It would be like putting someone in jail on a DUI for crashing while on blue lilies. The legal system doesn’t support it but it makes perfect sense.

Banned substances (almost) uniformly share one characteristic, they’re unhealthy. They’re not illegal because they don’t fall under any regulator’s purview.


That is not my understanding of how the system works. See the story about Bautista’s dozen+ tests over two years.

The system definitely could be tightened up a bit, but I’d have to research more to comment on how.

10 years ago


Yes, I hope I’m wrong about the testing frequency – Joey Batista would be exactly the type of player one would profile from his stats, a guy who picks up his game later on in his career. Innocent or guilty, he’s definitely a suspect. Sucks.


Here’s Victor Conte talking about the testing to Scott Ostler:

“One reason baseball doesn’t, Conte speculates, is that the testing program is run by MLB, rather than an independent agency, and thus there is a conflict of interest. If testing nabs too many players, that would be bad for business.”

And the link:

10 years ago

First, I recommend these articles to read on PEDS:

By Eric Walker, “The Sinister Firstbaseman”

By Malcolm Gladwell “Tipping Point” “Blink”

First off, I want to say that I think that none of these are realistic because the MLBPA has stonewalled the penalties and testing to “protect” their members.

But I agree that more should be done.  I like the idea of individualized penalties, but then this means a longer process of idenitification and judging.  Meaning a season could be over before a player is penalized.

To the commenter’s point above:  what if the team conspires with a player to have him overperform one season then the team takes care of the player, somehow, down the line?

There is no way the MLBPA would allow a contract to be voided.  I would love that.  Instead of placing the money with teams, which might just be rewarding the teams smart enough to avoid detection, I would just put the money in the players’ retirement fund, ideally if there is one focused on old players who need financial help.  That might get the players union to OK such a plan (though I doubt it).

Regarding penalizing a team (3), as Bochy was just quoted, a team can’t watch a player 24/7.  Unless, that is, that is what you are proposing.  Here, you are potentially penalizing one of the victims here, the team and particularly the fans, though they might benefit from his improved play, they are still victimized by the player’s deceit.

As the other commenter notes, this rule would just force teams to work to help players they catch hide what they are doing.

Same with 4, you penalize the victims here again, for the fans are as much victims here.  We want a clean game.  The only way a team can enforce that is watching a player 24/7.

I’m not sure why you did not mention this in your article, but I think stiffer penalties will help greatly in stifling player’s ingenuity in using drugs. 

If the penalty was, let’s say, lose one year immediately, no pay (pay goes into player retirement fund or supporting destitute older players), players will think a lot more about drugging up, and after second one, two years. 

The average major leaguer’s career span is not so great that they can risk kissing away one year then two years.  And being away from the game for two years is pretty much the kiss of death for a career, being out of competition that long.

I would also add a fine related to the player’s pay that season.  I would prefer 100% fine, but whatever the MLBPA is willing to accept, as long as they accept some significant fine.  That way, the pay they receive while cheating (of course, the assumption is that the cheating is happening that season, no way to prove it was happening before, unfortunately).

Of course, the MLBPA will put in all sorts of process and procedure to protect the player, but to my point about penalizing the player for prior pay, once there is a positive test, maybe the player’s pay can be put into a trust account awaiting final judgement, with minor spending allowances given the player for living expenses or something.

10 years ago

Vacating contracts!  Holy unintended consequences Batman… Think the Angels would spike one of Vernon Wells’ supplements to get out of that deal? 

The idea might work, and the player’s association might accept, if the forfeited cash still had to be paid by the team (i.e. if nothing can get them out of their financial obligations) but went into a pool to be split among players.  Even then I have a hard time seeing anything like this ever gaining the acceptance of MLBPA.

10 years ago

Why is anyone listening to the self-interested Victor Conte?  He works for a testing lab, of course he wants all sports to stop running the tests and to use his firm’s services.  And the more he can paint the sport as out of control, the more likely his company’s services will be used.  Why are people giving him another 15 minutes?  There must be someone more reputable to talk to, like a college professor somewhere.

Ideally, all the major sports would combine forces and fund an indepedent testing organization.  That should give them enough control and yet enough independence as well, to satisfy both the public and the owners, as well as the players.

Even better, put this on the players’ associations to do something about this.  If they don’t trust the owners, then they should be proposing some way of certifying that their players are clean before owners sign them to contracts and will stay clean after signing.

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

If I had limited myself to things that the owners and MLBPA would accept, I’d be back down to the 50/100/lifetime penalties.

Clearly, none of the parties involved are overly concerned, they could have easily gone down this path 10 months ago when they negotiated the new CBA.

OGC, when you punish innocent people (fans, clean teammates) for the actions of an individual, you create one of the most powerful disincentives possible.

When that doesn’t hold is if a “person of authority” provides the instruction to harm the innocent. As well as certain narcissistic personalities.

Put another way, players currently can rationally evaluate where or not it makes sense to use PEDs. As I covered, quite a few players can rationally say “I should use PEDs.” Only they suffer the consequences if their gamble fails.

If somebody else were to also suffer those consequences, the player could decide they do not have a right to make the decision to use PEDs. That’s the theory anyway.

10 years ago


Cool comment, your first two paragraphs are right on.

Here’s the thing – Melky’s bust mind-f-ed a lot of 10 year olds in the SF Bay Area. Parents had to try to explain. It’s a bigger bust than Braun.


10 years ago

I don’t understand how Gibson can “blame losses” on Cabrera. Does he mean that Cabrera should have been suspended all year, and the Giants would have had inferior players in the outfield? Or that PEDs made Cabrera single-handedly win all Giants games? Either argument, even the former, is purely speculative – why has Gibson’s knee-jerk reaction gotten so much attention?

10 years ago

Voiding the contract would not be a deterrent to someone with incentive to hit free agency earlier.

10 years ago

I disagree with the entire premise of “PED”s being bad for the game and I hate when people talk about the integrity of the game.  Only sports writers and people who think the game was better “…way back when” get their knickers in a twist over what somebody took to improve their performance.  Baseball is the most beautiful, fascinating professional sport out there and I enjoy watching it played on the field.  If somebody wants to put junk into his system because he thinks it makes him better, let him knock himself out.  If he wants to risk illegal equipment during the game ( like Babe Ruth’s corked bats,) go for it.  Let the enforcers on the field handle the immediate stuff.

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

Dennis, I sympathize with that sentiment and would agree if we knew much about the long term effects of the myriad substances these players use. We don’t.

And because they’re either illegal, prescribed for non-standard use, or unregulated supplements, nobody is putting much effort into learning.

But this thought path introduces an interesting #5 – Offer a league accepted, “safe” alternative. This of course can never happen as it opens the league to massive liability.

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

I don’t have any philosophical complaint with using PEDs.

What I don’t like are half measures (the current policy) or a set of incentives that compromises player health.

10 years ago

I think the min problem is that MLB and MLBPA has no interest in curtailing PED use and only does what thy see as the bare minimum to keep the public and the law content. MLB at the very least turned a blind eye and at most encouraged PED use in the 1990’s when attendance was down after the strike wiped out the world series. The McGuire/Sosa home run duel of 1998 is exhibit A and Barry Bonds is exhibit B. they didn’t have anything beyond be most minimal testing till the US Congress took notice. Dingers sell tickets and that matters more to MLB than the integrity of the game. Dingers raise salaries and that matters more to MLBPA than the health of the players.

10 years ago

The idea of a competitive remedy is getting daylight because it’s so obvious that 1) Melky altered the course of the competition in the NL West this year, and 2) Melky has the exact career statistical profile that screams guilty. (It’s not his BAPIP that did it, kids).

Well, there is no competitive remedy. What if every World Series game this year is won by the home team? What if the NL team wins the WS in the 7th game at home? No prob? Melky got that 7th game home field for the NL…


As many like to say, Barry Bonds was a HOFer before he started taking PEDS. But notice how there are also these guys (typically Latin players like Miguel Tejada and Igor Gonzalez) whose careers are simply considered products of PEDs?

Who decides that and what’s the criteria to say one guy got more out of the juice than another? Seems like Bonds got the most of out doping vs. anyone. Igor Gonzalez was never that good, but somehow Bonds was the best of all time?

Regrettably, Melky fits into the latter category, and somehow Ryan Braun was previously good enough, just like Bonds. Go figure.

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

Given the factors involved, it’s impossible to tell who has done what. Your point about Latin players could speak to a subtle, unconscious racism.

Certainly, the null hypothesis is that PED use is distributed uniformly across different groups. Academically, we shouldn’t suspect a Latin player more than a guy from Wisconsin unless multiple studies tell us to reject the null.

10 years ago

Hey Brad,

Thanks your very gracious response.

NL West pre Hanley + Kemp’s return was a very light-hitting league. Melky was huge..

David P Stokes
10 years ago

Punishing innocent people for the actions of an individual may create a powerful disincentive, but it’s also a perversion of justice.

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

It’s only a perversion of justice if our “innocents” are in fact bereft of responsibility. I would categorize fans and clean players as blameless but that’s not the same as having no responsibility.

Paul E
10 years ago

For an annual average salary of $3,500,000 , they can draw blood and urinate on a monthly basis for independent testing servicers. Forget “random” – 30 teams in 30 days, once per month, for everybody – including the drunken scouts and front-office types. Hey, for $3.5 million per annum, sign me up……

I’d like fans to submit the names of the 5 players they suspect most of “PED’ing” in 2012. You know, kind of like All Star voting.

Melky’s big hit in the All Star game is more egg on Bud’s face. Selig is a joke and this is what he has wrought. F – him if he can’t get his house in order

10 years ago

The Alex Sanchez type of user far outnumbers the Barry Bonds type, but their cases don’t get the headlines, so we tend to forget them, which is part of the problem. Neifi Perez got busted twice on his way to the lowest RCAA in the modern era. Meanwhile, we focus on the minority and use terms like “Performance Enhancing”.

10 years ago

Simple solution – adjust the results for the relevant team by the WAR of the player involved.  Giants would be down 5 games by now. I can assure you teams would put their own testing regimes in place pretty quick if that was the penalty.