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December 3, 2012

Bizball

Changes to MLB’s Drug Testing Coming After Spike in Testosterone Suspensions

by Maury Brown

Baseball has had its fair share of bad luck. On or off the field, it seems whenever it’s in the midst  of dodging controversy, something steps in. And while 2012 won’t go down as “bad,” it did not go unscathed either, especially when it comes to the league’s drug policy. Over the past year, the use of testosterone has grabbed more headlines than the league likely wanted.

As part of the labor agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association,  report on drug testing is released annually by an independent administrator of the program. This year showed that, of the 5,136 tests for performance-enhancing drugs and stimulants, there were a total of 18 players who tested positive and were disciplined. While one could argue that a single drug suspension is too much, those 18 positive results accounted for less than 1 percent (0.35%) of the total tests. Not all of these players served suspensions as first time offenses; use of stimulants only results in follow-up testing. Of the 18 tests  that resulted in discipline, 11 were for stimulants. Only after a second violation, however, does an announced suspension occur. Two players (Baltimore Orioles shortstop Ryan Adams, who at the time was on the roster of the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, and Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz this past Tuesday) were given 25-game suspensions for stimulants late this year after their automatic appeals process. That means that nine players tested positive for stimulants for the first time.

Outside of stimulants, a total of seven positive tests for performance-enhancing substances resulted in 50-game suspensions. In recent years, the joint report released by MLB and the MLBPA would see, at most, one player come up positive for testosterone. With the spike in positives on those tests, it raised the attention of not only the media but the league as well. Some, like former BALCO head Victor Conte(who  has parlayed his controversial place in history by supplying the “clear” and the “cream” to several notable athletes, including Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones and, reportedly, Barry Bonds through chemist Patrick Arnold), has said testosterone is baseball’s “new epidemic.”

There were three announced suspensions for testosterone during the course of the year (San Diego Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal, Oakland Athletics pitcher Bartolo Colon, and San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera), but  the annual report listed  four players. In speaking to a person familiar with the report but unable to go on record, that player was Manny Ramirez, who retired in early 2011 to avoid a 100-game suspension for a second violation of the drug policy. After sitting out the entire 2011 season, a deal was reached with MLB and the MLBPA to allow his reinstatement and to serve just 50 games rather than 100 after signing with the Athletics.

While the report details these players, former NL MVP Ryan Braun was not listed. Though he did test positive for elevated levels of testosterone at the end of the 2011 season, his suspension was overturned based on what was deemed a breach in the chain of custody of his test sample.

Given the Braun incident and the positive tests this year, the league and the union have agreed that changes in testosterone testing will likely occur. In speaking to a source familiar with the league’s efforts in strengthening the drug policy, one avenue being explored is a player’s unique “marker.” Currently, a player looking to take testosterone for a competitive advantage simply focuses on not having his testosterone-to-epitestosterone (T/E ratio) higher than 4:1. What really sets flags off for a potential follow-up test, however, is whether there is an abnormal pattern (i.e. a player tests 1:1 then jumps to 3:1—a sign that something unnatural could be taking place with the body’s metabolism). If the league is able to reach the point where every player can be identified by this metabolic marker, it will become more difficult for players to skirt the edges of certain thresholds identified in the drug program.

As to the other three PED violations that resulted in discipline last season, one was for Clostebol (Philadelphia Phillies infielder Freddy Galvis, 50 games), one for Tamoxifen (free agent outfielder Marlon Byrd, 50 games), and one for Clenbuterol (San Francisco Giants pitcher Guillermo Mota, who received a 100-game suspension for a second PED violation. His first was November 1, 2006 while with the Mets). It should be noted that Byrd had been working with Victor Conte for some time. Tamoxifen, the substance Byrd tested positive for, is a drug used for breast cancer treatment, but it can also be used to stimulate testosterone production.

In Nashville on Sunday, before the Winter Meetings officially got underway, Commissioner Selig was invited to meet with the trainers and medical staffs of the league’s clubs to get direct feedback on how they see the drug program working. Selig normally meets quarterly with the trainers on the topic, but this year they invited him to the Winter Meetings for the discussion. It seems nearly certain that Selig will have discussed the issue of testosterone.

It seems more changes to the drug program are on the cusp. This past year set a record for all major sports leagues when a total of 1,181 blood tests for human-growth hormone were taken during spring training. No in-season testing took place, but the current drug agreement, reached as part of the latest CBA, leaves that open by saying the league and union would look into the “possibility of implementing in-season testing.” The league has been doing HGH testing in the minors for three years, and as one person close to the discussions said, that lends itself to making the transition to testing MLB players a much smoother path.

That could happen sooner rather than later; the union has said that they are open to making additional changes. At the very least, beginning with the 2012-2013 offseason, players will be subject to random unannounced testing for HGH. Not only will in-season HGH testing be part of these on-going negotiations to strengthen the drug policy, further deterrents to address the use of testosterone is already something the union is very open to.

It’s amazing to see the changes in the league and union’s approach to the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. Before 2003, there was no testing for PEDs, and the union fought it vigorously. Now, MLB is seen as the gold standard for drug policy in professional sports.

That begs the question of how fans will react. If more players test positive, is it a sign that there is, as Conte says, an epidemic, or is it a case of a stronger program that then has the capacity to ferret out more players looking to find a competitive advantage through chemistry? If it’s the latter, then the media and fans may wish to take a different stance. Instead of beating the league about the head and shoulders when players test positive, there has to be consideration of how the testing of substances continues to evolve. Make no mistake, there is still room for improvement, but few can say that baseball’s drug program isn’t light years ahead of where it was just a few short years ago.

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

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