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December 12, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Braun Banned for PEDs [Version 9]

by Jay Jaffe

This story was initially published around 8:30 PM ET on Saturday night and has since been revised several times as new information has emerged. Please scroll down to see updates.

The baseball world was rocked on Saturday with an ESPN "Outside the Lines" report that Ryan Braun tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug during the playoffs. Braun was initially found to have an elevated testosterone level, and a subsequent test (presumably via the "B" sample" taken from the same specimen) revealed that the testosterone was synthetic. The actual identity of the substance hasn't been revealed.

Braun is disputing the result, which was not announced by Major League Baseball because the appeal process had not been completed; instead, information on what is designed to be a confidential process was leaked to veteran steroid beat reporters T.J. Quinn and Mark Fainaru-Wada, either by someone involved in the testing process or inside the commissioner's office. According to the report, immediately upon being informed of the positive, Braun requested a retest. That second test, says a source close to the case, was not positive. But what ESPN's story doesn't say is whether that second test was a test of the "B" sample — another portion of the original sample taken at the same time, a common drug testing protocol — that turned up negative, or whether it was a new sample, collected at a later date, that was tested.* This is such a critical piece of information that I'm surprised at the lack of clarity on the parts of these well-versed reporters and their editors; via the Twitter accounts of Quinn and Fainaru-Wada I have requested a clarification.

Braun's camp has expressed some optimism that their appeal may carry the day. A spokesman from Creative Artists Agency, which represents Braun, has issued a statement:

"There are highly unusual circumstances surrounding this case which will support Ryan's complete innocence and demonstrate there was absolutely no intentional violation of the program. While Ryan has impeccable character and no previous history, unfortunately, because of the process we have to maintain confidentiality and are not able to discuss it any further, but we are confident he will ultimately be exonerated."

While it is believed that no positive test finding has been overturned in the short history of MLB's drug testing program, it is more accurate to say that no positive test finding that has been made public has been overturned. The possibility exists that there have been situations where players were exonerated via the appeals process — due to false positives or other anomalies — without news of the original positive becoming public. If the finding is upheld, Braun will face a 50-game suspension, severely denting the chances of a Brewers squad already scrambling to replace the likely loss of Prince Fielder to free agency. The appeals process could take several weeks.

It's bad enough that a well-liked star is getting hit with a PED suspension, but what makes this one particularly awkward is that just weeks ago, Braun was named the winner of the National League Most Valuable Player award. He enjoyed a fabulous season, hitting .332/.397/.597 with 33 homers for the Brewers while helping them to their second playoff appearance in the past four seasons and their first division title since 1982. His .340 True Average ranked second in the league behind Matt Kemp's .350, his 6.4 WARP fourth behind Kemp (8.9), Joey Votto (7.0), and Clayton Kershaw (6.5). There's no precedent in baseball for an awards vote being overturned, and nothing in the language of the league's policy on the matter; note that the award is given by the Baseball Writers Association of America, not MLB. Given the soapbox derby that the subject often generates in the mainstream media, it's not a surprise to see at least some faction move to do so, but remember that nobody asked Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, or Roger Clemens to give back awards won when they were allegedly using PEDs. BBWAA secretary/treasurer Jack O'Connell, who administrates the awards confirms that there are no plans to move for a re-vote. ""The voters used the infomation they had at the time of the election. I don't see how we can change that," he told the L.A. Times.

Braun's positive test is just the third among major leaguers in 2011, following Manny Ramirez's positive test back in April and Eliezer Alfonso's in September; ironically, both were second offenses resulting in 100-game suspensions, suggesting that the gap between those who get it and those who don't is widening. Ramirez's positive test forced the slugger into retirement; he has just successfully applied for reinstatement, along with an agreement to reduce the ban to 50 games once he signs, given that he sat out all of last season. His previous positive, in May 2009, ranks as a better parallel to Braun's in that it was the first time MLB's testing program caught a star at the top of his game, and also one in which an initial test of elevated testosterone levels empowered MLB to to take a closer look.

Aside from a hideous clothing line, the 28-year-old Braun is a likeable player who symbolizes the Brewers' renaissance; back in April, with Fielder poised to make his last lap around the league in Milwaukee colors, Braun signed a contract extension that will keep him in town through the 2020 season. He has been cited by Bud Selig as an example of what's right with the game. One hopes that there's some reasonable explanation that will explain the positive result away so that we can forget this ever happened. The odds on that may appear longer than those of Fielder reupping, and the damage to the public perception of Braun won't easily be undone even if the result is rolled back.

Still, as the news cycle has continued to roll, it's shed light on a situation about which the public should have some doubts, because word of Braun's positive broke before the appeals process could be completed. If the tests were indeed contradictory, one would have hoped that a process that is supposed to be confidential remains confidential until the league and the labs get to the bottom of this. That's not the case, however, and while it's important not to rush to judgment about whether Braun is guilty, either way this appears to be a very dark day for baseball.

Update (1): It's worth noting a pair of tweets from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt. First, "Braun cannot give his side of the story because he is not allowed to talk during appeal process," and second, "Just spoke to someone familiar with the details of Braun's test and was assured he will be found innocent. If so, horrible this leaked out." As bad as this looks right now, there does appear to be a glimmer of hope that this is all going to go away.

*Update (2): The ESPN article has been revised, but the wording is still frustratingly vague:

Since being informed of the results, Braun has been disputing his case. A source close to Braun said that when he was told about the positive test, he immediately requested to be tested again. That second test, using a different sample that was tested by Braun's camp, the source said, was not positive. Those close to Braun believe that the difference between the two tests will show that the first test was invalid. Although Braun's representatives acknowledge that a non-positive test would not negate a positive one, they believe the second test shows certain anomalies that will suggest problems with the first. They declined to specify.

Huh? If the test was indeed taken from a new sample, then the interval at which it was collected would be an issue; different drugs stay in the system for different lengths of time, and even if it was collected just "a couple of weeks later," as Haudricourt's blog entry suggests, that could compromise the appeal. Also troubling is the use of the phrase "tested by Braun's camp," which suggests the introduction of bias into the proceedings, since all testing is supposed to be done by an independent third party, not someone with a vested interest in sides or camps. You'd think reporters who have been covering this stuff for the better part of the decade would be able to produce more precision, but they have not, and it only raises more questions about what's already a very curious case.

Update (3): This story won't sit still. Haudricort reports that a source from the Braun camp says that it's not a PED for which Braun tested positive:

But my source -- and again, this is from Braun's end and not MLB -- familiar with the test's findings says the "prohibited substance" was not a performance-enhancing drug or steroid of any kind. And the source says there has "never" been a result like this in the history of the MLB testing program.

Fox's Ken Rosenthal tweets that has a story pending with words to the same effect, that the positive test was for a prohibited substance, not a PED. In a follow-up, Rosenthal tweets, "What he did triggered violation of #MLB steroid-testing policy. Source says substance was prohibited, but not PED." I'm not an expert enough to speculate as to what substance that might be, but it's worth remembering that in 2009, Ramirez's positive test was for human chorionic gonadotropin, a female fertility drug that steroid users often take in order to kick-start testosterone production following a cycle. Furthermore, it's important to note that the Joint Drug Agreement (PDF here) defines "Prohibited Substances" in three classes: "Drugs of Abuse," "Performance Enhancing Substances," and "Stimulants."

Update (4): Rosenthal's story corroborates Haudricourt's:

The source described the test result as highly unusual, “never seen in the history of (baseball’s) drug-prevention program.”

“When it happened,” the source said, “everyone was just scratching their head.”

Another source, however, said that the substance in question triggered a violation of baseball’s steroid-testing policy, even if it is not technically listed as a PED.

Update (5): As I said above, the assertion that no positive test finding has been overturned is inaccurate; there have apparently been cases overturned before the result of the initial positive was publicly reported. Various reporters hinted as such on Saturday night; as Haudricourt pointed out, "No player is known to have had positive drug test overturned on appeal but details would not be released in that event." A source with knowledge of MLB's testing program corroborates the existence of overturned cases, Kevin Goldstein has talked to people in front offices who corroborate that, and at least one player does as well. On Saturday night, Jimmy Rollins tweeted, "[N]ever been overturned is "technically" correct. I know of a case that no one will hear about."

This story just gets weirder and weirder.

Update (6): The weirdness continues. The New York Daily News's Teri Thomson reports that the level of Braun's testosterone in the first test was "insanely high, the highest ever for anyone who has ever taken a test, twice the level of the highest test ever taken," according to a source familiar with the case. That ratio is one of the "highly unusual circumstances" to which Braun's handlers have referred. The same source also says that there were chain of custody issues involving the test, which was sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency laboratory in Montreal to undergo carbon isotope ratio (CIR) or isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) testing. Those tests revealed that the levels were caused by exogenous or synthetic testosterone. The report includes this rather cryptic statement from the source:

"The argument before the appeals board won't be that the original ratio was so high and doesn't make sense," said the source, "but there will be a defense. It's not something he knew or should have known about."

Is the source suggesting that Braun's sample had been tampered with? That he had an undiscovered condition that boosted his testosterone? It's unclear.Thompson also reports that MLB is 13-0 in its appeals process, a record that contradicts the information both I and Kevin Goldstein have received. Both Haudricourt and Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan report sources telling them that MLB has not lost a PED-related arbitration case case.

Monday Mega-Update (7): As expected, Monday morning brings several interesting articles on various fronts.

• On Twitter, many people, including our own Colin Wyers, spent time on Sunday discussing the possibility of a false positive in the testing; one scientific journal article Wyers came across suggested that the false positive rate of the initial urinary testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E) test could be as high as nine percent.

Under MLB’s testing process, any player's sample where the T/E ratio is higher than 4/1 undergoes a second test that is considerably more accurate. Will Carroll, who discussed the process and logistics of testing at SI.com, weighs in at his Tumblr with a note about the misconception of false positives once the second round of testing is complete:

The ratio test isn’t very accurate, which is why it is no longer used as a standalone. It used to be, until the secondary test (gas chromatography and isotope ratio) became widely available. But having a high ratio proves NOTHING; it simply triggers the more accurate test.

So why do the ratio test at all? The GC-IRMS test is expensive and time consuming. You (and the lab techs in Montreal) don’t want to do hundreds of them. The ratio test is simply a way to spend time and resources on the cases that need that kind of time and attention. 

So to summarize: T/E ratio is pretty accurate, but not to be relied on. Good enough to use as a trigger. Second test? Very, very, very accurate. False positives, like masking agents, remain one of the red herrings of drug testing.

As accurate as the second test may be, the sheer volume of the testing still creates the possibility of false positives. According to the Associated Press' Ronald Blum, MLB conducted 3,868 in-season tests in 2011, up from 3,747 tests in 2010. Supposing a nine percent false positive on the first test, that would be 348 false positives in 2011. If the false positive rate of the GC-IRMS is even one percent, that's still roughly three players per year getting popped. If it's 0.3 percent, that's one player per year — one unlucky SOB. Braun and company aren't claiming that's what happened in this case, but in the general discussion of the process, it's worth bearing that in mind.

• Noting that MLB policy requires a player to "provide objective evidence in support of his denial," Andrew Keh of the New York Times sheds some light on the Braun camp's defense strategy:

To that end, Braun’s defense team is in the midst of systematically gathering evidence of everything he ingested in the days leading up to his test before the playoffs began. The team is cataloging the contents of his locker and his medicine cabinet at home, anything provided by his trainers and so on. The substances will be tested by labs approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“Because Ryan doesn’t know what caused the positive result, we’re still doing our analysis,” said a person with knowledge of the tests and appeal. The positive test did not show he ingested any steroid or performance-enhancing drug, that person added.

…Braun has not been suspended because his case is still being appealed, which raises the possibility that he could report to spring training not knowing his fate. The panel that will hear his case will include a representative of M.L.B., a representative of the players union and an independent arbitrator chosen by the two sides. The case will most likely be heard in January, and the arbitrator will rule 30 to 45 days later.

In other words, it's quite possible—even probable—that Braun will report to spring training with this unresolved. The angry mob renting nooses and pitchforks by the hour is going to run up some serious charges.

• As noted above, multiple sources have contradicted what we at Baseball Prospectus have heard from insiders regarding MLB's record in the appeals process. Passan, who was one of the sources reporting MLB's spotless record, appeared to acknowledge some wiggle room in a tweet this morning: "No player has won in arbitration, the official appeal. Have cases been dismissed? People say yes. No source told me explicitly." In his column today, Passan appears to provide a mechanism for that:

Indeed, MLB had its chance to dump the Braun case. Part of its joint drug agreement with the players’ union calls for a meeting after the confirmation of a positive from the second sample. If both parties agree there is no reason to proceed – whether because of a chain-of-custody problem or another circumstance – they can overturn the suspension.

Further down, Passan mentions the aforementioned Rollins tweet in passing but files it as a conspiracy theory rather than a situation that may fit the parameters of what he's just outlined! It's an odd juxtaposition in a piece that's tone, I must admit, I generally disagree with; Passan has done some good legwork on this story—he's an excellent reporter in general—but much of the piece seems to equate Braun's dispute of the test results as being as bad as testing positive. I don't care for that tack at all, particularly in a situation where the process has been thrown open to the public as it never has before.

Update (7.1): On the Brewers Fandemonium bulletin board (scroll down to post #471), someone posting under the name of “Mass Haas” dug up a 2007 Huntsville Times article regarding minor league outfielder Brendan Katin, who was briefly suspended and then unsuspended: “Katin's initial test showed a higher level of testosterone than normal. Upon further review, the lab guys "determined that my high level did not constitute a positive result (for steroids)," he said.” The article doesn’t include much more detail than that, though a follow-up that ran today includes this:

Former [Huntsville] Stars first baseman Brendan Katin, a teammate of Braun at the University of Miami, was briefly suspended in 2007 when a test revealed a higher level of testosterone than normal.

Katin entered an appeal and was allowed to play while the decision was pending. The findings were reviewed and, more than three months later, it was "determined that my high level did not constitute a positive result (for steroids)," he told The Times in September 2007.

Because Katin was a minor leaguer at the time, his result is likely not included in MLB’s supposedly spotless record of appeals, but it’s apparent that such a record is a very carefully qualified statement. It would be great if a reporter digs into the Katin angle to provide more detail.

Update (8): The aforementioned Mass Haas came forward and identified himself as Jim Goulart. He swapped e-mails with T.J. Quinn over the Katin case. Quinn didn’t seem terribly interested. Her has published the response, which is basically a 104-word yawn:

I'm not sure what similarities there are, other than the fact that Katin initially tested with elevated testosterone levels and he denied any wrongdoing. I don't know if Katin subsequently tested positive for the synthetic test, as Braun did, or what the circumstances were, or any details about Katin's initial positive test. It also appears MLB never proceeded with his case, for whatever reason, which would also make it different than Braun's. But Braun is engaged in an active defense, and an initial positive test does not automatically mean someone has violated the policy. He'll have a chance to make his case in arbitration.

Quinn has the connections to follow this thread, but is apparently disinterested, probably because it’s not going to grab any headlines.

Meanwhile, Passan tweets the following, “While no major leaguer has won a PED appeal, one official told me of a minor league positive overturned because of chain-of-custody issues.” This is a case separate from Katin’s, in a different organization, adding to the notion that while MLB may be 12-0 or 13-0 in cases that have gone to arbitration, cases have been dismissed before getting there, either at the minor- or major-league level. Also, note that the Braun defense brought up chain of custody issues in the New York Daily News article.

• Quinn may be disinterested, but MLB Network Radio host and friend of BP Mike Ferrin, on the other hand, will have Katin on his show on Monday night at 7:30 p.m. ET, with Passan on at 9:30. If you have SiriusXM, check it out—and take notes for me, because I don’t at the moment.

• While we’re at it on the media front, I’m going to be on Tuesday’s “Clubhouse Confidential” discussing this case. Show airs at 5:30 Eastern and re-runs at 7:30 and then several other times around the clock. I’m delighted to be invited back.

• I said this below in the comments, but I’ll add it here in the main article. I don’t have any particular opinion or stake as to whether Braun is guilty. It’s not so much that I feel compelled to defend him, it’s that I want to know moreabout this process. This leak has created an unprecedented event in the annals of MLB's testing program, a peek into the sausage factory of the testing and appeals process, which hasn't been completed, which is why this case differs from all other cases. The fact that it's a star, an MVP (though FWIW, I supported Kemp), or a Jewish ballplayer (given that I'm Jewish myself) actually doesn't interest me all that much, and I say that as somebody who's long had a soft spot for the Brewers and Braun. I'm mostly curious as to why this case is so curious.

Because the process hasn’t completed, I’m willing to grant Braun the benefit of the doubt; he’s innocent until proven guilty. The “benefit of the doubt” phrase has been thrown around a fair amount since this story broke, with questions as to why certain other stars such as Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez weren’t given the same. I don’t think that race is the primary answer here, because when David Ortiz’s name was leaked along with Manny’s as being among the positives from the supposedly anonymous survey test, he seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in many quarters thanks to the force of his personality.

In my mind, this has to do with the unique intermediacy of the process. With Rodriguez, as the highest-paid player in the game’s history and as someone whose public relations instincts are awkward at best, there’s an angry mob with pitchforks on call 24-7; he didn’t even get the benefit of the doubt from some when he saved a child from getting hit by a truck in downtown Boston. When news of his presence on the survey list broke, that test was six years old, and Rodriguez quickly admitted to wrongdoing. When we learned of Manny’s positive, he had already appealed his case and lost; there was little to doubt. With Braun, the process hasn’t played out yet, and I’m trying to keep an open mind until it does.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

107 comments have been left for this article.

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