Yesterday, MLB announced that Marlon Byrd has been suspended 162 games for failing a second PED test, which will effectively end his big league career. As a guy who turns 39 in a few months, he was already nearing the end of his days as a productive player anyway, and with a chunk of the suspension carrying over to next season, it’s unlikely any team will offer him a contract this winter. So this is probably it for Marlon Byrd.
But having his career end like this isn’t much solace for the pitchers that Byrd faced, or the teams that lost games in which the Indians gained an advantage from having him on the field. For instance, here’s Dan Haren’s comments in the wake of the news coming out yesterday.
@Ken_Rosenthal can I get back all the home runs he hit off me please? Thanks
— dan haren (@ithrow88) June 1, 2016
Also last year magically returned from a broken wrist in 16 days, at age 38. Proceeded to homer off me that day. https://t.co/7ubQOpskCk
— dan haren (@ithrow88) June 1, 2016
This is one of the issues the current system can’t really address. Sure, Byrd’s career is likely over, but maybe it would have been over four years ago had he not started looking for chemical assistance, and so what did he really lose by taking the banned substances? For players in his position, on the bubble of the major leagues, the incentive to use will always be larger than the costs of getting caught as long as one doesn’t care too terribly much about their reputation.
So every time a player fails a test and gets suspended, there’s a push for a different set of punishments, ones that would try to reduce the financial incentive to take PEDs, or at least increase the cost of getting caught. The most common suggestion is to allow teams to void the contracts of players who fail drug tests, so that players can’t use the money to secure a large financial commitment, then benefit from that commitment even after the suspension ends. Unfortunately, this suggestion is highly problematic.
Right now, the go-to statement for players who get busted using a banned substance is that they were taking legal supplements and they have no idea how that illicit compound got mixed in there. It’s easy enough to just wave those comments off now, because there’s no real way to prove whether they’re telling the truth, and it doesn’t really matter either way; players are held responsible for what goes into their body, with ignorance not being an acceptable excuse. But if you allow teams to void the contracts of players who fail their tests, you’re creating a system where teams have a significant financial incentive to get underperforming expensive players to fail their tests.
For instance, if a team could void a long-term deal after a failed test, and then a guy like Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols magically ended up with a positive test result, then it suddenly matters a lot whether or not they took something intentionally, because we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. You’d hope that teams wouldn’t be lacing their cortisone shots with some drug that would show up in the PED test, but with that kind of money at stake, the distrust created between players and teams would be enormous as soon as one big long contract was voided after a failed test, where the player claimed he must have been given a tainted shot by the team doctor.
And, in that scenario, teams would have an incentive to actively encourage their older, expensive players to use PEDs. Didn’t get caught? Maybe you’ll perform better and we’ll win more games. Got caught? We save a bunch of money on a contract we probably didn’t want to have to endure to the end anyway. By instituting a voided contract option, you’d create a host of bad faith incentives, and create a worse situation than we have now.
So that’s not a passable solution, but we can also agree that the current system probably isn’t a strong enough deterrent to use. But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be some adjustments made to raise the cost of getting caught for the players without rewarding the teams that benefited from the performance of the players before they got caught. Ideally, we’d want a system that served as a stronger disincentive for players to use and also deterred teams from signing players who they suspected of using, or gave them a financial incentive to do more work to try and determine who is using and who is not.
To that end, here’s one thought I had yesterday, though I’ll fully admit I’m not a labor lawyer and I don’t know the legal ramifications of trying to implement something like this. Consider it more of a thinking-out-loud idea than any kind of fully-fleshed-out suggestion.
Upon a player’s first failed PED test, his future salaries — not just for this contract, but for the remainder of his big league career — above the league minimum will be held in escrow throughout each season, and paid out only upon the completion of the season in which the player passes all his drug tests. In the event that the player does indeed pass all his tests, he receives the full payment of his salary for that year.
If a player fails a test while his paychecks are sitting in escrow, however, his right to that money is forfeited, and it is instead transferred to a fund controlled by the MLBPA. At the end of the season, the players association pays the money deposited into that fund to the players who did not fail any PED tests that season. The “you didn’t take steroids!” bonus checks would be small enough for each player that no individual would have a significant incentive to cause someone else to fail a test for their own financial gain, but it would redistribute money from those who failed PED tests to those who did not, rather than rewarding the team with a rebate on the contract they signed.
Of course, this would only come into effect upon a second failed test, so we wouldn’t be talking about a large amount of money being held in escrow or distributed around the league. But even the threat of having most of your paycheck get held in escrow could act as a deterrent to failing even one test. If you’re accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and have expenses commensurate with the paycheck you’re receiving, it could become a bit of a financial frustration to have to live off league-minimum paychecks during the season, even if you could expect to receive the remainder of your withheld salary at the end of the year. For a player accustomed to having a regular income stream during the season, the loss of access to their money until October or November of each year would raise the cost of getting caught the first time.
I’m sure there are logistical nightmares associated with putting a player’s salary in escrow, and legal ramifications regarding how pay has to be handled between employer and employee that I’m not aware of, but an escrow-type situation could potentially reduce the financial rewards for using while also avoiding the massive problem of giving teams a get-out-of-jail-free card that the voided-contract proposals create.
Of course, nothing will ever serve as a perfect disincentive. There will always be players who believe their only chance to stay in the big leagues is to use, and take the risks associated with getting caught. But if the system could create a bit more of a cost for those who get caught using without giving teams a reason to try and get their own players to fail tests, perhaps it’s an opportunity worth exploring.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.