MLB’s Testing Mess May KO Season

On Saturday, the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka got hit upside the head and ultimately concussed by a 112-mph screamer off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton, the third player he faced in the team’s first simulated game of summer camp. By Monday, a good portion of Major League Baseball could identify with the headaches and other scary consequences of being knocked down so soon after restarting amid the coronavirus pandemic. The testing program that represents a foundational piece of the protocol to keep players and essential staff safe broke down, causing teams to delay or cancel workouts and amplifying a crisis of confidence within the sport.

Indeed, if one didn’t already feel a fair bit of ambivalence regarding MLB’s attempt to stage even an abbreviated season amid the pandemic, the dysfunction that’s been on display since late last week has certainly provided cause for concern. While the league reported results of its intake tests that initially appeared promising, the caveat attached — incomplete results from most teams — was enough to raise some eyebrows. Beyond that initial stumble, Monday brought news of at least half a dozen teams whose workouts were delayed or canceled due to holiday-related holdups in receiving test results, a matter that should have been anticipated well in advance. All of this comes while the ranks of players testing positive and those opting out both continue to grow, producing absences that could potentially reshape the season and in some cases have life-altering consequences. And of course, this is all unfolding (unraveling?) against the backdrop of record-setting numbers of new cases in the U.S. with totals topping 50,000 for three consecutive days.

Should MLB attempt to proceed at all? Can it? From here, the likelihood of the league pulling this off seems more remote than ever.

Though it was overshadowed by the rancorous and all-too-public exchanges between the owners and the Players Association, MLB sold the union and the public on the viability of a restart based on its ability to expedite a high volume of tests, primarily via saliva-based tests — faster and less invasive than nasal swabs — that a repurposed anti-doping lab in Salt Lake City could process for a 24- to 48-hour turnaround. Even before that turnaround time could be called into question, MLB made a mess of its intake testing, which began at players’ home stadiums on July 1. Players and essential staff were given temperature checks, saliva or nasal swab diagnostic tests for the coronavirus itself, and antibody tests using blood samples. Only those who tested negative were permitted to enter facilities for the first workouts beginning on Friday.

On Friday, MLB and the Players Association announced the results of those intake tests: 38 total positives (31 from players, seven from staff) out of 3,185 samples collected and tested, a 1.2% rate — on par with the moving seven-day average for New York state according to data from Johns Hopkins University (1.1%), less than one-sixth of the national seven-day average (7.5%), and an order of magnitude below the nightmarish scenarios unfolding in Arizona, Florida, and Texas. Eleven of the 30 teams didn’t have a single positive case.

According to Oxford College of Emory University epidemiologist Zachary Binney, the estimated 1.7% infection rate for players (as opposed to 0.5% for staff) was significantly below the initial intake tests of both the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League:

It all sounded like good news, comparatively speaking — any positive test is cause for alarm, given the potentially life-threatening nature of the virus — but it came with a couple qualifiers that weren’t widely noted. The Athletic‘s Brittany Ghiroli reported that “a vast majority of teams had incomplete or pending results. They were not able to submit those to the league by the deadline.” On Tuesday, Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported, “At least 10 teams had not finished their intake testing by the time MLB and the PA released the numbers. At least nine teams still had not finished it on Sunday.”

Ghiroli also noted that the numbers did not include the players who were confirmed to have tested positive prior to intake, including those affected by the outbreaks in the camps of the Blue Jays, Giants, Phillies, Rangers, and Rockies that were reported about two weeks ago.

As of Monday, MLB still hadn’t produced final results; in a statement issued late on Monday — more on which below — the league said that “more than 95% of the tests under the Intake Screening period have been conducted, analyzed and shared with all 30 Clubs,” and that 98% of the new total of 3,740 samples had been processed. The statement did not include an updated rate of positive tests, however, but given those exclusions, it’s possible that the actual number of players and staff infected is at least double what’s been reported. If this process is to gain the trust of the players and the public, such data has to be circulated. The league and the union have to make transparency a priority, and should be able to do so without sacrificing individual player privacy.

MLB’s statement also attempted to address the snafus that occurred over the holiday weekend, which were plentiful:

  • On Sunday, the A’s were forced to cancel the workout for their position players because their intake results were incomplete. Via The Athletic’s Alex Coffey:

    As of late Sunday night, the COVID-19 tests for the A’s position players were in San Francisco, waiting to be shipped to Major League Baseball’s lab in Salt Lake City. The tests were due to arrive in Utah at 1:30 a.m. on Monday morning. Per MLB’s health and safety protocols, in order to enter the A’s facility, all personnel and players must test negative. The team believes the earliest it could hold a full-team workout would be Monday evening.

    A’s general manager David Forst was described as “livid” about the delayed results, which could push back the start of full-squad A’s workouts beyond Monday. In a text message to reporters on Sunday, Forst said that the delay was “due to the holiday yesterday.” But it is unclear what the root of this delay actually is. According to this source, MLB had known of the A’s workout and testing schedule a week ago and never alerted the team about potential issues or delays that would be caused by the July 4 holiday.

    The A’s were initially forced to cancel Monday’s workout as well, no small matter in a preseason that’s just 23 days long, though they were able to get a position player workout in Monday evening.

  • On Monday, the Astros, Cardinals, and Nationals found themselves in a similar boat as the A’s, canceling workouts because they hadn’t received the results of tests conducted on Friday. The Diamondbacks had to delay theirs for the same reason, though they did finally get one in.
  • The Angels, whose testers did not show up on Sunday to either Angel Stadium or Long Beach State’s Blair Field, the team’s alternate training site, had staff collect their saliva samples for testing and downshifted to an optional afternoon workout. The Astros weren’t tested on Saturday or Sunday. The Yankees weren’t tested on Sunday, but they collected their samples, then chose to proceed.

Yeesh. On Sunday, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle articulated the concerns of many players. Via Ghiroli, he said during a Zoom interview, “This has to get fixed… There is a lot of players right now that are trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100 percent comfortable with where things are at right now. That’s where I am.” During the interview, Doolittle checked his phone to see if his test results from Friday had come in; they had not. The pitcher also said that the team had not received its personal protective equipment, including N95 masks and gloves.

On Monday, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo issued a blunt statement about the testing situation regarding not only his team, but the entire league:

Commissioner Rob Manfred, apparently eager to find the wrong side of the issue, “jumped on” Rizzo for insubordination, according to the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga.

In its statement, MLB offered an explanation for the delays:

Our plan required extensive delivery and shipping services, including proactive special accommodations to account for the holiday weekend. The vast majority of those deliveries occurred without incident and allowed the protocols to function as planned. Unfortunately, several situations included unforeseen delays. We have addressed the delays caused by the holiday weekend and do not expect a recurrence. We commend the affected Clubs that responded properly by cancelling workouts.

It beggars belief that MLB couldn’t foresee the problems related to transporting samples on a holiday weekend that for months has been within the window of the restart effort — and yet here they are. As the New York Post’s Joel Sherman elaborated, FedEx normally handles the transportation of test samples and has its own fleet of aircraft, but the league had to turn to its backup courier, which does not, and which had to make do with a limited number of commercial flights on the holiday weekend. Additionally, the league and the lab had a backlog that included both intake testing and the beginning of every-other-day testing.

The fact that players and staff are only being tested every other day has drawn criticism from epidemiologists and other public health experts, including Binney, who called the plan “flimsy” and compared it to a below-average shortstop who “is going to miss some grounders.” A greater focus on the health and safety protocol during the negotiations might have produced a stronger plan, as Doolittle and other players have suggested, with multiple labs available to process more frequent tests; The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the union and MLB are in fact seeking to add a lab “to increase the speed and efficiency of test processing and reporting.”

Whatever system is in place needs to run like a Swiss watch if MLB is to have a shot at completing its season, and right now, one can’t blame the players for being openly skeptical, particularly given that the situation has become a mess even before teams have gone on the road. As the Cubs’ Kris Bryant told reporters via Zoom:

“We’ve had guys here that showed up on Sunday and haven’t gotten tested again eight, seven days later. And then you don’t get the results for two days either, so that’s nine days without knowing. I think if you really want this to succeed, we’re going to have to figure this out. I wanted to play this year because I felt that it would be safe and I would feel comfortable. But honestly I don’t really feel that way, which is why I’m trying to keep my distance from everybody and wear my mask, just so that we can get this thing going.

“When you get into the season and you’re traveling and you’re in an airplane, a hotel, you’re getting room service, who knows what people are doing? Especially on the other teams, too. You got to rely on everybody in this whole thing. If you can’t really nail the easy part — which is right now and just our players — we’ve got a big hill to climb.”

Said the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, “[I]t’s tough to be confident in something that hasn’t proved to be foolproof.”

Said the A’s Jake Diekman, an at-risk player due to his history of ulcerative colitis, “I feel like deep down, every player has it in the back of their mind that this is all going to fall apart.”

Unless the league and the union can iron out the process in short order, it’s entirely possible that players who have already expressed ambivalence about proceeding, from Mike Trout and Buster Posey on down, could join David Price, Ian Desmond, and others in opting out. If enough marquee players do so, it could undermine MLB’s attempt to preserve the competitive integrity of the season, not that a 60-game schedule doesn’t do so by definition.

None of this will surprise the chorus of people saying that baseball shouldn’t even attempt to proceed, and it probably shouldn’t do so for those of us who have at least been willing to suspend disbelief and see how the process unfolds. But unlike Tanaka, nobody should be blindsided by the risks involved in this attempt to play, or the speed with which the consequences of a mishap can cause serious damage. MLB needs to tighten things up immediately, or the 2020 season is going to fall apart completely.

We hoped you liked reading MLB’s Testing Mess May KO Season by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

The number of daily new cases in the US is double what it was a month ago. For me personally, it’s reached the point where I consider it immoral for MLB to attempt a season. Baseball players, stadium workers, etc. should be isolating at home like the rest of us, and the federal government should be doing MUCH more to help people than it has.

PS: I hope Rizzo told Manfred to get bent.

TKDC
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Member
TKDC

I’m weary about a season, too, but “the rest of us” are not all hunkered at home (disclosure: I am). The federal government has indeed failed us but it’s not really tenable or realistic to continue doing nothing. For many, they never had that choice and they still don’t.

We as a country are depressed. Polls show the country is just in the deepest of ruts. Sports could really help with that. We should appreciate the hell out of every essential worker, from doctors to grocers to EMTs to anyone else. We should also appreciate everyone in baseball that is taking some risk to bring back baseball. I honestly think it will be of great help to our country.

None of this excuses the inept and at times heartless response by those in charge, but you have to play the hand you are dealt.

Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

“We should also appreciate everyone in baseball that is taking some risk to bring back baseball.”

The problem is that they’re risking not just their health but the health of others.

TKDC
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TKDC

That’s true, but it’s unrealistic to not balance risks. The idea of everyone isolating for months/years is not realistic and frankly also not healthy.

Personally, I’m saving my ire for those that are actively trying to be assholes and one particularly influential person who they seem to be following. If you are wearing a mask, washing your hands, trying to mostly socially distance, then you’re part of the solution and it’s reasonable to try to have some semblance of activity and interaction with others, especially if it is for your livelihood. But also for sanity. This isn’t just my opinion; I’ve heard it from several of the highly respected doctors providing expert opinion on this, like Dr. Fauci.

ashlandateam
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ashlandateam

My psychiatric appointments have all been over the phone/via Zoom due to Covid since March. And, in each of them, my psychiatrist makes sure to remind me to do what I need to in order to stay mentally well – according to her, I need as much normalcy in my life to stay sane, or else it just doesn’t matter how well I’m social distancing and protecting others – there’s a lot that can harm us other than the virus also when we don’t take care of ourselves mentally.

I don’t know if baseball being played fits into that category. But we all have to collectively balance what risks we’re willing to take as a society, because ‘surviving the virus,’ and ‘living a life’ are not the same things. So of course we’re careful (hence the Zoom appointments with doctors). But also, we need to have things in our lives that help give us a much needed distraction from the truly awful things going on around us.

tomerafan
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Member
tomerafan

But we all have to collectively balance what risks we’re willing to take as a society, because ‘surviving the virus,’ and ‘living a life’ are not the same things.

Amen.

My father was in the early stages of cognitive impairment when COVID hit, but his cognition has fallen off a cliff in the last 100 days due to isolation, disruption of routine, etc. The brain is a complex, complex animal and we can’t even begin to understand the impact that COVID is having on the uninfected living. That’s true for folks on the cognitive impairment spectrum (look at same of the observations on rates of acceleration of early Alzheimer’s and dementia patients), as well as those with mental health issues.

Truly, I have prayed for baseball to come back this season, if it is safe to play, as much for my dad to have sports to watch and talk about again as it is for my own direct personal enjoyment. I don’t want the players to be in harm’s way so that we can be entertained, but I do believe that having sports back is vital for the cognitive and mental health of many, many, many people. Hopefully a balance is found.

On a personal note, good luck to you on your own journey, and stay well.

martyvan90
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Member
martyvan90

“Truly, I have prayed for baseball to come back this season, if it is safe to play, as much for my dad to have sports to watch and talk about again as it is for my own direct personal enjoyment. ”
Amen brother. My prayers for your journey with your Dad. I have good memories as well as tough ones during my dad’s battle with a horrible disease. Stay well.

carter
Member
Member
carter

I go back and forth on what is correct regarding professional sports. They are trying to give people entertainment in a time when people desperately need it. There is no guarantee that next year is going to be any different. Let’s not pretend like sports are not important. This is people’s careers as well, and plenty of players haven’t made the big bucks yet, and missing a year right now will prevent some players from ever doing it. That is to say nothing of the countless people who make a living from baseball as well: writers, scouts, coaches, vendors, etc. Very few of the people whose livelihood depends on baseball are getting rich.

So, what is the alternative? Cancel the season? Then what? That is likely what will end up happening at some point, but just outright canceling it at this point also seems incorrect as well. If you are looking around the country right now you would realize that we are farther away from the end of this then we were when it started 5 months ago. Is there any real hope when you look around the country that this is going to improve for the better in the near future? I’d say almost assuredly no.

sbf21
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sbf21

I enjoy a good game of poker. Been playing for decades. One thing I learned early was that unless I wanted to get cleaned out regularly, playing the cards I was dealt often meant folding my hand.

Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

I appreciate the thoughtful responses to my comment. Thanks!