Longer PED Suspensions: Deterrent or Retribution?

In the wake of the Biogenesis reports linking several more Major League players to a PED supplier, Bud Selig has begun to talk about enacting stiffer penalties for failed drug tests. From last week:

“The time has come to make meaningful adjustments to our penalties,” said Selig, according to CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman.”We need to do everything possible to deter the use of performance enhancing drugs … [the recent Biogenesis investigation has] driven my intensity to increase the toughness of our PED penalties … Apparently the penalties haven’t deterred some players.”

And then, earlier this week, Selig made this statement:

“If people want to continue to do what they shouldn’t do, then the one thing that you have to do is you have to have stricter penalties,” Selig said. “It’s as simple as that.”

If only it really were as simple as that.

In reality, punishment theory is actually a pretty complicated subject, and Selig’s oversimplification of the issue might be better PR than policy. It would be terrific if enacting harsher penalties actually stopped people from doing things that society didn’t want them to do, but unfortunately, the decision of whether or not to break the law is much more complex than simply weighing the benefit derived by breaking the rules against the cost of the penalty associated with getting caught.

I’m not a behavioral scientist and I don’t want to pretend that I know more about this than I do, but I have done some reading over the years on the motivations behind punishment and the relative effectiveness of those ideals. The generally accepted reasons for punishment include deterrence, retribution, incapacitation, and rehabilitation – most penalties fall under one of these four headings. Selig’s stated goal for harsher penalties is that of deterrence, but I wonder if we’re not getting to a point where actually increasing the severity of the suspensions would move MLB further from deterrence and closer to some combination of retribution and incapacitation.

I’d suggest that the list of players that Major League Baseball has suspended for failing a PED test should give us pause before thinking that longer suspensions are going to actually serve as a deterrent. With perhaps the notable exceptions of Melky Cabrera, Yasmani Grandal, and Carlos Ruiz, pretty much every other player that has had to serve a suspension — we’ll deal with the separate case of Ryan Braun in a minute — for a PED violation has either been a fringe Major Leaguer or a former star trying to hang on at the end of his career. Those who have actually been punished by MLB’s drug testing problem lean far more towards the Marlon Byrd/Kevin Frandsen pool of player types.

There are essentially two conclusions you can draw from the types of players that have been suspended to date – that the great players who are using have enough money to purchase PEDs that aren’t yet being tested for (or can afford to hire enough lawyers to get their suspensions overturned), or that the incentives for using PEDs are skewed towards those players who aren’t necessarily risking much by using in the first place. Personally, I think both conclusions are likely true to some extent, and the latter statement is why harsher penalties may not act as much of a deterrent to begin with.

If you’re a player on the fringes of the big leagues, you may very well become convinced that you will not have a Major League career without resulting to some chemical assistance. Former MLB player Erik Knott penned a great article on this very subject last week, and this paragraph is worth reading again even if you already read the article:

Moral objections aside, players who used steroids proved they would do whatever it took to get to the big leagues, and I didn’t. I could have ordered them and learned how to use them just as easily. Maybe I would have jumped from 87-91 to 90-93. That would have been enough velocity to get the ball by hitters from the left side. Control was never an issue for me, and neither was keeping the ball on the ground and in the park. Would that extra velocity have gotten me more swings and misses, more time in the bigs, and therefore more career earnings? As I sit here and reflect on it frankly, I think the answer is probably yes.

Knott believes that using PEDs may have given him a Major League career he might not have otherwise had, though he chose not to use them for reasons not related to the possibility of being caught. I’m sure he is not the only player who feels that they may have pushed him over the tipping point, and if one sees PED usage as the difference between a big league career and no big league career, then no length of suspension is going to deter him from using. After all, under that belief system, not using is essentially the same thing as imposing a lifetime ban on yourself. What is the difference between MLB keeping you out of the sport for failing a drug test and MLB keeping you out of the sport because you’re not good enough to play at that level? From a utilitarian perspective, both not using and getting a lifetime ban have the same result.

This is the problem with punishment-as-deterrent. There are too many scenarios in life where you cannot establish penalties harsh enough to move the needle on the decision. The only thing MLB can threaten to do is take away something that he believes he can’t receive without the use of PEDs in the first place, so the calculation of use-or-don’t-use has to come down to some other factor. In Knott’s case, it was his moral compass and his family. For someone in the same situation, but with less interest in what his father thinks about him and without a wife to encourage him to stay clean, what’s the motivation to not use? If the punishment can’t effectively act as a deterrent, then what?

That leads us into incapacitation. This is, essentially, the goal of the lifetime ban. If you can’t motivate a player to not use PEDs, then you can keep him from competing in MLB to begin with. Incapacitation is an effective reducer of crime, and there’s little question that moving to that ban more quickly would indeed reduce PED usage among Major League players. But it would get us to that reduced state of PED usage by throwing players out of the population, and if we’re actually looking to clean up the game, we should note what kinds of players have failed two PED tests so far: Neifi Perez, end-of-career Manny Ramirez, Guillermo Mota, Ramon Castro, Prentice Redman, Wilson Delgado, Luis Ugueto, Randy Ruiz, and Brian Mallette.

For all intents and purposes, those players are already serving lifetime bans. It might not be an official blacklisting, but Major League teams are not signing up for a third go around with twice suspended players. Codifying the rule into law might be a nice PR statement, but it wouldn’t actually change anything in the population of players being selected as potential MLB players. Right now, the 100 game suspension and the stigma that comes from that has been enough to keep teams away to begin with.

So, if we’re already practically incapacitating repeat users, then moving to a harsher penalty for second time violations is really more about retribution than anything else. There’s a natural element to wanting to punish people for violating the rules, and retribution serves to make us feel better about the justice system if we are punishing criminals for the crimes they have committed. But retribution isn’t as easy of a selling point for tougher penalties as deterrence, even if we eventually have to conclude that’s really what longer suspensions and a quicker path to an official lifetime ban would effectively be.

Michael Weiner, head of the player’s association, seems to understand quite well that this issue isn’t as black-and-white as Selig’s recent statements make it out to be. His response to Selig’s push for a “quick resolution” to the conversation of increased penalties for failed tests:

“There is a reasonable debate you could have in this context and the criminal justice context as to whether increasing the likelihood of detection is the way to deter — or increasing the penalty,” Weiner said. “There is a lot of serious study that says it doesn’t matter what the penalty is, it depends upon if you think you’re going to get caught.”

That last comment is really the key. If Major League Baseball wants to actually increase the deterrence of PED usage, the variable to increase is detection. You can change the calculation of whether to use or not by limiting the likelihood that a player will get away with it. If you can reduce the odds of successful PED usage without detection to a low enough point, then the benefit of using effectively goes away.

Most studies suggest that people respond much more favorably to incentives rather than penalties. The carrot works better than the stick. Even harsher penalties won’t do anything to change the incentive structure that is currently in place for players who see PEDs as their path to the big leagues. However, taking that path away through more thorough testing and increased detection can greatly reduce the allure of that incentive.

While harsher penalties might satisfy our desire to punish the bad guys that are sullying the good name of baseball’s pure history — tongue very much in cheek — I tend to side with Weiner. If MLB wants to reduce the amount of PED users in baseball, it is very likely that increased detection is the better path to pursue.

To MLB’s credit, they are also pursuing this path. HGH is being tested for in-season for the first time. Weiner’s statements suggest that the player’s association is willing to discuss implementing better testing procedures to cast a wider net and catch those who may have been getting away with PED usage previously. If we’re going to see further prevention of PED usage in Major League Baseball, it’s likely these changes — and not stiffer penalties — that effect actual change.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

I don’t get people thinking “improved” testing is any type of answer. Basically drug testing is equal parts IQ test, and finance exam. If you have the cash to get the latest and greatest, testing is always 2 years or more behind. How about taking on PED’s like they take on gambling. Even being linked to known gamblers is enough. MLB approves all doctors/ trainers/ etc, use of any source outside MLB approval is lifetime ban.

enhanced performance
10 years ago
Reply to  bkgeneral

Wow, a great discussion on PEDs and penalties. Detection is the key. I think things like genetic fingerprints, frozen and stored samples and blood testing are the key. Of course more frequent and random testing must be employed.
I do have one small gripe however with Mr. Cameron’s post. It is clear that many ped users were stars and not exactly past their prime (Canseco, McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Clemens, Juan Gonzalez, Sheffield, Giambi, Rocker, Gagne etc.). Maybe some were older but not all and definitely many were stars while they cheated. Still it is an excellent post.

10 years ago

All of those players you list were from an era in which there was no testing — not even an explicit ban — in place. The assumption is that once MLB started testing and punishing players, the stars either stopped (due to the risk of suspension/embarassment) or found ways to avoid detection.

But I do think that Dave was too quick to focus the discussion on fringe players. Yes, deterrence is ineffective against guys fighting for a roster spot, but aren’t we more worried about the stars’ PED use? They are the ones whose usage most harms the game, or, I should say, it’s their getting caught which most harms the game. And deterrence can’t as easily be deemed ineffective in their case.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jay29

Steroids have been explicitly banned since 1991. But I definitely agree that the focus is on stars. I recently wrote a paper on player responses to failed PED tests/steroid allegations and found that the list of implicated players was littered with people I had seriously never heard of. Dan Serafini? Steroid use is a problem and the higher a player’s profile the worse it is for the sport in terms of both PR and competition.

10 years ago
Reply to  bkgeneral

That’s not really true, and in as much as it is true, it won’t be true forever. 95% of the time people talk about PEDs they are talking about variations of testosterone. There is nothing magical about the variations that makes them particularly hard to test, they are just different. Also the regular population wide testing they are doing should be providing them with baselines that make it easier to detect future changes.

As far as it not being true forever, look at drug development in other areas, it gets expensive fast when there are no obvious areas of research. Placebo voodoo probably already provides a better return for a company like Biogenesis, which is why they were selling it.

10 years ago
Reply to  bkgeneral

There are major locial fallacies in how you frame this commentary, Dave.

The assumption given that those players _caught_ for usage since MLB began testing are a representative sample of the players _actually_ using, either then or previously, is completely unfounded. As enhanced performer says in his comment, many players who have NEVER ‘been caught’ have obviously been using, both the by the evidence, their own admission, or third party corroboration. McGwire was never caught. Palmiero was never caught. There is every reason to beliee that Manny Ramierez started using before he left Cleveland (he came in with an entirely different body after one offseason, with power numbers afterwards he’d never before had), not just ‘end of career.’ Clemens was never caught by MLB. The putatively confidential tests which MLB did in the early 2000s identified many players using, including stars very much NOT at the end of their careers. From the standpoint of the available evidence, the way usage of PEDs is framed in your commentary, Dave, is flatly deceptive: Many stars have patently used throughout their peak performance years over the last three decades. You have the evidence to have approached this question differently. For that reason, then, the line of argumentation pursued in the post has no valid basis.

“. . . [N]ot using is essentially the same thing as imposing a lifetime ban on yourself. What is the difference between MLB keeping you out of the sport for failing a drug test and MLB keeping you out of the sport because you’re not good enough to play at that level? From a utilitarian perspective, both not using and getting a lifetime ban have the same result.” No, the two situations are NOT equivalent, are not ‘essentially’ the same. A player who does not have major league tools isn’t ‘banned’ from performance, they are not qualified for the job. It’s not that MLB is being ‘unfair’ to them or ‘punitive’ to them, they simply don’t have the stuff to play at that level. Misrepresenting someone unqualified as if they are ‘penalized’ is fallacious at best.

—But it gets worse than that. The situations of a player not qualified, and a player who qualifies by dishonestly enhancing themselves does not make the latter ‘equivalent’ to those who are actually qualified on the basis of ability. Those cheating are breaking the rules of competition; they are disrespecting the effort of those who do manage to compete clean; they are disrespecting the purpose of the sport itself as a fair competition between individuals having mutual respect. Just as Player A who lacks the skills for the job isn’t actually equivalent to Player B who enhances and is banned, Player C who enhances himself to get a MLB job isn’t equivalent to Player D who had the skill/tool set to get the job clean.

It is not just the result that matters, getting the MLB job. How one gets it, and how one plays the game DO matter in the larger scheme. There is a persistent false reduction of performance enhancement to ‘outcomes only’ in much commentary on the issue, and specifically in the thinking behind your post, Dave. Enhancement is really about the process, and a resistance or inability to grasp this is diagnostic of real deficits in ones thinking. Swimming faster, biking longer, hitting/throwing it harder isn’t just a ‘result’ it’s the product of physical talent, learned skills, and behavioral qualities. Those who think ‘results are all that matter’ ARE the problem. If ‘results’ are all that matters, why doesn’t a pitcher just pull out a pistol and kneecap that guy who is about to score and mess up his FIP? Why doesn’t he must use squashy ball half the size of a regulation hardball when the other team’s big hitter is up?

Which brings this round to the very odd perspective on ‘punishment’ that is presented in the commentary. As if somehow it’s the individual who used who really matters. That person DOESN’T matter: it is the pattern of many people using to the point where the ‘sport’ becomes a contest of multiple frauds which is the real issue. Am I supposed to feel sorry for someone who is ‘punished,’ the implication of the use of that term? They made the choice; nobody else put the stuff in the bodies. Nobody else cashed those checks or did those endorsements for money. Framing as ‘punishment’ the sanction of someone with a behavioral distortion that involves them decideing to does and cheat seriously miscasts the _function_ of that sanction. The issue isn’t the ‘punishment’ of an individual to ‘change _their_ behavior,’ the issue is to caution other parties about their concurrent and subsequent choices. The point of consequences in the matter of PED usage in MLB or other sports isn’t to reform the abuser but to discourage the undecided. And as wee see from the dosing ring rung by Biogenesis with the evident connivance of a crooked players agency, deterrence is evidently too weak at present. All in all, the framing of this post as ‘results are what count’ and ‘punishing individuals does/does not change them’ doesn’t really engage with the problems actually posed to sport by PEDs.

Should penalties be stiffer? What needs to be stiffer is the testing regime: that is really what matters, not what happens after someone is confirmed as an enhancing cheat. MLB’s testing regime is far too lax. There need to be twice as many tests annually, with full randomicity. Players who have tested positive should be on very tight, lifetime testing regimes at any time they are subsequently readmitted to competition. We aren’t just talking about anabolic sterioids, there are multiple other enhancing agents now. And yes, new compounds, masking agents, and dosing regimes all stay a couple years ahead of the tests. Better testing _regimes_ will isolate those using over time, however. And that is the point: deterrence, not punishment.

And rehabilitation? I don’t personally care if anyone who chose to use is EVER readmitted to competition. The sport involved doesn’t need them, period. We don’t need Bonds; we don’t need A-Rod; we don’t need Melky. There are a lot of other people with pretty good skills who play the game very well and are a joy to watch; we don’t need big heads chasing big wallets to enjoy the game we love. But as things stand, certainly most first time abusers who are identified by testing aren’t likely to face life time bans. So the initial ban doesn’t matter that much. 50 games is rather weak; it’s a year of competition in most other sports. The point is a rapid escalation for any subsequent tests. No matter what the first positive test brings as a sanction, a second should be 2 years; flat, positive, out. A third is lifetime because that person is incapable of getting the message that their ‘reality distortion field’ is unacceptable.

Here’s a final question for you Dave, which I doubt you’ll answer since in the eight years I’ve either read your commentary or discussed this with you directly on the issue you’ve never given an answer. Is there any behavior regarding PEDs which you would actually define as unacceptable, and requiring sanctions? Reading you, the answer would be, not really. So what’s your answer?

10 years ago
Reply to  Balthazar

Palmeiro was never caught? Are you talking about someone other than Rafael Palmeiro? http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=2121659

Josh Baum
10 years ago
Reply to  Balthazar

Wow! That was sensational. It is wonderful to read someone who really gets it. I think you were a tad harsh on Dave though. In defense of his post, though I agree with you on most things, he mentions bud selig. The commish’s comments were more about retribution and like you say better testing is probably more important. It is true that it is ok to be angry and I love your viewpoint and eloquence.

commenter #1
10 years ago
Reply to  Balthazar


Mr. Jones
10 years ago
Reply to  Balthazar

This comment is nonsense. Dave is not talking about the steroid era. Your contention that “Many stars have patently used throughout their peak performance years over the last three decades” has no relevance. He is talking about MLB as it is currently, not how it was fifteen to twenty years ago.