In criminal justice studies, the problem of separating actual crime from enforcement policies across jurisdictions is well known. Over the past decade, cycling has suffered from a decade of embarrassing revelations about steroid and other PED use. The suspension of 13 major league players, including one of its all-time sluggers, Alex Rodriguez, it exposes the pitiful weakness of MLB’s testing process and penalties for PED use. Use may have been no less than cycling, just pursued with less vigor.
The evidence in the recent case is best described as “out of the blue sky” in that it hit MLB in the head through no effort of their own. A former disgruntled employee of the Biogenesis lab purported to have supplied the players with PEDs started the process in motion. To its credit, the league then pursued the case with vigilance by bringing suits against former employees in order to obtain records.
The league’s testing procedure (“analytic evidence”) uncovered only 13 users from 2009 to the present. Yet, now there is strong evidence that many players not only using PEDs, but doing it right underneath the nose of the testing process. Whether through MLB’s feckless attempts or the Player’s Association foot-dragging, the testing procedure is a joke. Players are tested upon reporting to spring training, providing them with full knowledge of the test’s timing. MLB should just include a warning sign to users – if you are using PEDs, then stop or mask them before this date. During the season, the collective bargaining agreement allows for one random test. So, once that is out of the way, a player can supplement with PEDs to their heart’s content without the threat of a test. Of course, cycling and Olympic sports have shown that sophisticated doctors, labs, and chemists can mask PED use quite well even with more randomized tests, but baseball’s procedures don’t even make it difficult.
Beyond the testing, baseball’s CBA permits only a 50 game suspension for the first positive test. A second positive test incurs a 100 game suspension, still less than a year. At a third test, the hammer comes down with a lifetime ban. Given the extremely low probability of being caught even one time, it’s not hard to see how players tempted by PEDs descend into that pit. If I assume that the likelihood of the testing process catching a user is 1 in 100 (the data suggest its even smaller), a player's "expected value" of games lost is less than 1. So, the threat of lost games is trivial. The threat of embarrassment is likely a greater deterrent, at least for some players.
A cynical viewpoint is that MLB’s foot-dragging on PED testing and punishment makes some strategic sense. After all, cycling’s public relations wounds seem self-inflicted through its enforcement. That viewpoint maybe correct, but until recently, it has only been implemented by the cooperation or, at a minimum, complicit actions of the Player’s Association. All of a sudden, the voices of the anti-steroid players have grown loud. This heightened degree of peer scrutiny and disapproval may prove a stronger deterrent to use than the current or even stiffer policy.