The Other Side of a Roberto Osuna Trade

Friday night, Roberto Osuna became the latest player suspended under the Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy policy. Per ESPN:

Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was suspended without pay for 75 games on Friday for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy, the league announced.

Osuna, 23, has agreed not to appeal the suspension, which is retroactive to May 8 and extends through Aug. 4. He will wind up missing 89 days, which would cost him about $2.54 million of his $5.3 million salary.

Osuna receives the third-longest domestic-violence suspension in MLB history, behind Jose Torres (100 games) and Hector Olivera (82 games). The specific allegations which led to this suspension are still unclear, but we know Osuna was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, that he has pleaded not guilty to those charges, and that he is presently awaiting trial. Jon Heyman reports that the severity of the penalty was related, in part, to the interview MLB had with Osuna’s girlfriend.

I’ve written before about the problems with MLB’s domestic-violence policy, both generally and in the context of specific players. Osuna’s suspension is yet more evidence of why this policy is flawed. It may seem odd to cite one of the league’s longer domestic-violence suspensions as evidence that the policy isn’t working. A look at the case in context reveals why such a claim makes sense, though.

First, it’s important to note the language of ESPN’s report above. We learn here not that Osuna decided not to appeal but rather that he agreed not to appeal. Osuna, in other words, effectively settled his case with MLB, agreeing to a shorter suspension in exchange for not appealing. This sort of resolution isn’t necessarily dissimilar to a plea bargain or civil settlement, both of which have their utility. It’s an open question, however, whether baseball’s accused domestic abusers ought to have a say in their own discipline, particularly when that discipline is being enforced by their employer. And Osuna’s case isn’t an isolated incident; rather, it’s standard policy. The same thing happened with Aroldis Chapman, for example.

And then there’s the matter of the punishment itself. According to the Daily News, Osuna will supposedly “participate in a confidential and comprehensive evaluation and treatment program supervised by the joint policy board of MLB and the players’ association.” On the surface, this would appear to be precisely the sort of course MLB should pursue with offenders. As I noted in an earlier post, one of the five objectives of DV policy ought to be rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, studies suggest that treatment for domestic-violence offenders isn’t effective. A 1991 study from the Urban Institute found this (boldface mine):

[O]ffenders in treatment were no more likely to abstain from severe violence or threats of violence while in treatment than offenders not ordered to treatment. In both groups, 80 to 85 percent abstained from severe violence during this period, while just under half (47%) abstained from threats of violence.

Contrary to expectations that treatment would reduce violence, a significantly smaller proportion of offenders in treatment abstained from physical aggression: the prevalence of cessation from physical aggression was 57 percent for the treated offenders, compared to 88 percent of those not ordered to treatment.

Roughly 20 years later, the Washington State Institute of Public Policy reached the same depressing conclusion:

Based on six rigorous outcome evaluations of group-based DV treatment for male offenders, we conclude that the Duluth model, the most common treatment approach, appears to have no effect on recidivism.

The inability of treatment to prevent further cases of violence obviously isn’t the fault either of Osuna or the Blue Jays or Major League Baseball. That an effective course of treatment hasn’t been created, however, both (a) highlights the challenges inherent to constructing an effective policy and also (b) raises the very real possibility that, even after an offender has paid his so-called debt, he might still merit closer attention in this regard than his peers.

The offender’s role in choosing his own suspension and the efficacy of treatment in domestic-violence cases: I’ve identified both as areas of the league’s current policy that could benefit from revision. I’d like to dedicate the remainder of this post, however, to what is probably the most problematic aspect of that policy — and which is mentioned in this comment from Buster Olney:

Because of the way Osuna’s punishment is constructed, there’s a real chance he’ll represent some kind of asset at the trade deadline. Indeed, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that, from a baseball perspective, talented domestic-violence offenders are an opportunity. Obtain the player at a discount, wait for the suspension to be served, trade them at a profit. That plan netted the Yankees Gleyber Torres, for example, in exchange for Chapman — after Chapman had been acquired in a deal headlined by Eric Jagielo. Jagielo, now 26, has recorded zero major-league plate appearances and has passed the majority of the season at Double-A. Torres, meanwhile, has become an MLB regular at age 21.

The system, as currently devised, encourages that kind of thinking. The new MLB inefficiency, however, probably shouldn’t be players whose attractiveness to other teams as a trade asset is increased by a domestic-violence suspension — and, when stated like that, it’s difficult not to see the perverse incentive created by the league’s policy.

Fortunately for all involved, this particular incentive can be removed easily — just by creating a rule that domestic abusers cannot be traded during an investigation or suspension. Such a revision would limit teams’ incentive to perform a calculus that weighs a player’s on-field merits against this type of off-field conduct.

Of course, all of this may be academic. If Osuna is convicted or pleads guilty, there’s a significant chance he won’t be able to get a visa to play in the United States (see Jung Ho Kang). But if Osuna’s suspension, the third most severe ever under the Joint Policy, has this many flaws, what about the lesser penalties?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that “there’s a real question to be asked regarding what the point of MLB’s domestic-violence program is, because right now it doesn’t seem to have one.” After Osuna’s suspension, that point seems more true than ever.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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5 years ago

“It’s an open question, however, whether baseball’s accused domestic abusers ought to have a say in their own discipline, particularly when that discipline is being enforced by their employer.”

This is a result of the MLBPA having bargained with MLB for some semblance of “fair” treatment in cases like this. To say that players ought not have “a say” would be to say that it would be perfectly fine for MLB to dish out lifetime bans to players any time it wanted. The system may not be perfect, but suggesting that players should be powerless is akin to suggesting the baseball union should be outlawed.

de Carabasmember
5 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

You make a good point. One would not want MLB to have that kind of unilateral control over punishment. But I also agree with Ms. Ring that the player being able to effectively “plea bargain” their suspension is not ideal.

I wonder if there is a middle ground, wherein the MLB can apply stringent penalties, and leaving it to the MLBPA to act on the player’s behalf in the event of a too-severe penalty.

5 years ago
Reply to  de Carabas

Without the ability to “plea bargain” the MLBPA would be regularly appealing these suspensions. MLB is building precedent for these cases, and the precedent seems so far to be enough for the policy’s real purpose: public relations. But if a player does not agree and is not allowed to bargain, then he has zero incentive NOT to appeal whatever punishment is handed down. You can’t realistically avoid appeals and more negative attention if the player is not involved from the outset. From a logistic, as well as an ethical or moral, standpoint, I just don’t see the problem with “plea bargains.” Why would they be okay in a criminal court for murderers, but not okay here?

Travis Lmember
5 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

I think you implied it, but MLB probably sees an appeals process as the worst possible situation for their PR team. Lots of articles to write throughout the process, keeps it in the fans’ eyes, when really what MLB wants to do is just bury it.

Heck, their primary metric for their solution might even be how many articles/airtime minutes are spent on the situation. The fewer the better.

Regulator Johnson
5 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

This is absolutely right: this is the other side of the benefits accrued to the worker by unionization. The restriction of management’s ability to impose unilateral sanctions is a feature, not a bug, of the collective bargaining regime.

I’d argue as well that the article’s claim that Osuna’s attractiveness as an asset is increased is dead wrong as well. Teams are only interested because of his perceived lack of value (which is why the Yankees got Chapman for nothing). The more accurate reading is that domestic violence suspensions make players significantly less attractive to their current teams, which strikes me as eminently appropriate.

I get the point the author is trying to make, but short of a lifetime ban I think the MLB program is appropriately applied, especially when contrasted to the fiasco that is the NFL’s approach.

5 years ago

You are correct. I think the author really just wants harsher penalties and took some liberties to create that narrative.

5 years ago

I think the reference to the NFL is doubly apt. Manfred and the MLB want penalties the players will accept because the alternative is the players sue the league and have a chance of winning, which subverts the league’s effort to protect itself.

5 years ago

To be fair, criminal arrests occur at a rate of about once a month in the NFL. MLB has far fewer cases to adjudicate.