On Saturday night, news broke that Ryan Braun failed a drug test during the playoffs, and unless he becomes the first player to successfully win an appeal, he’ll be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2012 season. Braun’s camp has issued a statement claiming he’ll be exonerated, saying:
“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.”
Since the news broke, we’ve heard reports that the failed drug test was for a banned substance, not a performance enhancing drug. We’ve also heard that his testosterone levels were “insanely high“, and that a second test showed that the extra testosterone in his system was synthetic, not natural.
Despite these reports, we don’t really know what happened. We don’t what Braun took that caused the failed test, nor do we know whether he took it intentionally or not. Nearly every player before him who has failed a test has also claimed innocence, but in the end, all have still been suspended, as they have been unable to cast enough doubt on the conclusions of the testing process. It is likely that Braun, too, will end up serving the 50 game suspension, and that this positive testing result will follow him for the rest of his career.
In fact, there have already been calls for the BBWAA to revoke his 2011 NL MVP award, which is an action they thankfully do not seem to be interested in performing. Unless he actually is exonerated, this positive test is going to be a stain on Braun’s career, but in looking at what we know today, I’m not sure my view of him has actually changed much at all.
Perhaps I’m naive, but I have yet to see any compelling evidence that Braun intended to cheat the system, and for me, intent is key. I understand why Major League Baseball’s policy specifically leaves intent out of the question – trying to prove what a player meant to do or not is really quite hard, after all – but in terms of whether a player is viewed as a “cheater” or not, intent is perhaps the most important variable. If Braun simply screwed up by not being diligent enough in understanding what he was putting in his body, that’s quite a bit different than if he was trying to gain a physical advantage through using a substance that he believed would enhance his performance.
Baseball has cast a wide net in the hopes of creating disincentives to breaking the rules on taking banned substances, and no matter how you feel about the effectiveness of steroids, the game is probably better off for the efforts to remove them from the sport. However, in casting such a wide net, it is likely that MLB is going to end up punishing players for ignorance or carelessness, and lumping them into the same category as those who were actively trying to circumvent the rules.
We don’t know that Braun’s positive test result was indeed the result of carelessness, but it seems at least plausible, and it is perhaps the explanation that I most want to believe. Personally, I would view a failed test due to a lack of diligence to be significantly better than one where Braun was actually taking something in an attempt to bolster his on-field performance. Intent is the driving force on how whether or not this failed test will change my view of Braun going forward.
I hope we find out it was some kind of mistake, and he simply took something that he did not mean to take. If that is the case, then even Braun’s suspension won’t change my view of Braun much at all. If it comes out that he was trying to circumvent the rules and got caught, however, it’s going to be hard to view him as favorably as we did before. Whether steroids are effective or not, using them is against the rules, and those who try to get around them for their own personal gain deserve legitimate punishment, both from the league and through public perception.
I want to believe in Ryan Braun, however. I want to believe that he’s not a cheater. Even if the suspension holds, for the sport’s sake, I hope we find some evidence that this failed test was a one-time accident.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.