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What Big Post-Suspension Numbers Say About MLB's PED Users

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What Big Post-Suspension Numbers Say About MLB's PED Users
Gene J. Puskar/AP Images

The phrase "performance-enhancing drugs" ought to be self-explanatory. If you use them, your performance will be enhanced. If you don't, it won't.

Out there right now, however, are a few ballplayers who are making things complicated.

There are three in particular: Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nelson Cruz and St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Each is coming off a suspension resulting from MLB's Biogenesis investigation, and each is proceeding like nothing ever happened.

Here's where each stood entering Tuesday's action:

Braun, Cruz and Peralta in 2014
Player PA HR AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ 2013 Suspension
Braun 120 7 .309 .350 .564 .914 147 65 Games
Cruz 177 12 .273 .333 .540 .873 137 50 Games
Peralta 175 8 .245 .331 .458 .789 116 50 Games

Credit: Baseball-Reference.com

FYI: OPS+ is a version of OPS adjusted for parks and leagues and set on a scale where 100 is average. It's helpful for comparing players from different leagues and/or different teams, as we are here.

We also shouldn't ignore Melky Cabrera, who carried a .310/.350/.481 slash line and a 127 OPS+ into Tuesday's action. The Toronto Blue Jays outfielder wasn't hit with a suspension in 2013, but the Miami New Times report on Biogenesis indicated that the stuff that got him suspended for 50 games in 2012 came from the now-shuttered South Florida clinic.

That's four guys who are supposed to be off PEDs who are hitting like they're, well, on PEDs. Cue all of us in Nervous Mother mode, with the dial at 11. There must be explanations.

I can think of two. 

 

Explanation No. 1: These Guys Are Still Juicing

This is not an accusation. This is an acknowledgement of a possibility. Maybe Braun, Cruz, Peralta and/or Cabrera are still on the juice, and we just don't know it.

There are two reasons why we know this to be plausible:

  1. These guys have already shown they're not above using PEDs.
  2. It's not unheard of for users to go undetected by MLB.

It's not easy for users to go undetected, to be sure. Cabrera can vouch. So can Braun, whose positive test for synthetic testosterone in 2011 was validated by his Biogenesis suspension and his subsequent admission that he did indeed use some "products" at the end of 2011.

However, we know it can be done.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Nelson Cruz managed to elude detection after visiting Biogenesis in 2012.

This is where Cruz and Peralta can vouch, as neither was caught red-handed by MLB in 2012, the year both of them admitted to having been up to no good. Other Biogenesis players—Everth Cabrera, Antonio Bastardo, Francisco Cervelli, et al—also managed to escape detection.

So yeah, maybe these guys are still on the juice. I'm throwing it out there because there are times when you have to throw things out there.

But then there's the other possibility: that these guys aren't using and are just plain being themselves.

Yes, let's talk about this one.

 

Explanation No. 2: These Guys Are Clean and Simply Playing Up to Their Talent

Or: Why it's OK not to freak out over some PED suspendees who happen to be playing good baseball.

For one, neither Biogenesis nor clinic director Anthony Bosch are still in business. The place and the person that got Braun, Cruz, Peralta and Cabrera in trouble can't help them now.

For another, it's recently become much harder to juice and evade detection than it used to be.

When MLB and the Players Association agreed to toughen up the Joint Drug Agreement, they didn't just agree to make the penalties harsher. Via USA Today's Bob Nightengale, the league also implemented Carbon Isotope Mass Spectrometry testing and more than doubled the number of urine samples it will collect every year. 

As with most of the league, this is the system that Cabrera is subject to. Braun, Cruz and Peralta, meanwhile, also have to deal with the part of the JDA that calls for additional tests over a 12-month period for violators of the program. In the wake of Biogenesis, they're being watched very closely.

So let's assume that these guys are clean. What then? How do we explain their numbers?

Oh, you know. We could just look at them as results of their natural talent. It's not like these guys are doing anything they haven't done before, after all.

Credit: MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

What Braun is doing in 2014 is in line with what he was doing before a PED cloud descended on him in 2011. His 147 OPS+ is only a few ticks better than the 140 OPS+ he had between 2007 and 2010.

Cruz's 137 OPS+ is on track to be one of his best, but he also once posted a 146 OPS+ and racked up a 119 OPS+ as an everyday player between 2009 and 2013. He's also being pretty much himself.

Cruz spoke to just how comfortable he now is in Baltimore and how important his manager and teammates have been, which could be playing a role here as well (per Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com):

You can't imagine what's going to happen in a new team. It's always hard to imagine how it's going to change your life. But the transition was so easy. As soon as I get here, Buck (Showalter) received me really well, my teammates embraced me as part of the family.

In regard to Peralta, his 116 OPS+ is nothing extraordinary for him. He had a 122 OPS+ in 2011 and a 120 OPS+ last year. He's also being pretty much himself.

As for Cabrera, what he's doing this year looks suspicious if you consider only what he was in 2012, as he was leading the National League in hitting at .346 when he was caught and suspended. 

But to focus strictly on 2012 is to ignore how Cabrera's 127 OPS+ this year is very similar to the 121 OPS+ he had in 2011. Which is significant, as the Miami New Times didn't find Cabrera in Biogenesis' records before the winter of 2011.

If all that's going on here is just natural talent, then we have to consider that maybe Bosch and Biogenesis did nothing to augment these guys' natural talent in the first place. 

And that's really not so hard to believe.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The site of the dreaded Biogenesis clinic. Well, former site, anyway.

It's certainly not a ringing endorsement for Bosch that Cruz's 2012 season (104 OPS+) is easily his worst since he became a full-time player in 2009. Same goes for Peralta's 2012 season (84 OPS+).

Then there's how no-name minor leaguers like Fernando Martinez, Sergio Escalona and Cesar Puello didn't turn into stars after going to see Bosch, not to mention how Bosch was unable to keep either Alex Rodriguez's production or his health from crumbling after the two first hooked up in 2010.

Maybe a doctor would have had better luck. But with his only degree being a medical degree from the Belize-based Central America Health Sciences University, Bosch only played one at Biogenesis. Maybe he had no greater knowledge of how to use PEDs to make players better at baseball than they did.

Which leads us to another point. While a player is technically cheating the moment he puts PEDs in his body, the whole "performance-enhancing" aspect isn't as easy to realize.

We think it is based on what happened during the 1990s and early 2000s, as we can look back and see how many guys got "swole" on juice and then started putting up huge numbers. But by now, that's something of a dated perception.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Like so.

Back then, guys were looking to be more like tanks than ballplayers. This involved using pretty much every substance they could get their hands on, and in massive doses to boot. In doing so, they turned themselves into freakish physical specimens.

We don't really see this anymore. We certainly didn't see it with Braun, Cruz, Peralta or Cabrera, and the same can be said of other players on Bosch's old client list. Including this guy.

Presumably, part of this is because Bosch at least knew to keep things subtle. As possible as it was to avoid detection under the old policy, loading guys up with massive amounts of multiple performance-enhancers would have been asking for trouble.

But then there's how Bosch only had so many substances to offer anyway. Probably the best he had was testosterone, and B/R's Will Carroll noted that its 3 percent concentration paled in comparison to the 10 percent concentration testosterone that BALCO was serving back in the day.

In all, it all reeks of a case of PEDs done wrong. Which is a deal-breaker, as we don't even know for certain how much PEDs help even when done right.

ESPN's Dan Szymborski (insider required) isn't convinced PEDs make a difference. I hesitate to agree with him 100 percent, but I do agree with what Peter Keating of ESPN The Magazine wrote last year: An opportunity to do a proper study on PEDs and baseball specifically has yet to present itself.

And while what happened during the Steroid Era would seem to speak volumes about what PEDs can do, there were other things going on too. As Matthew Leach of MLB.com noted in 2007, there was better hitting instruction, smaller ballparks and a pitching pool diluted by expansion in 1993 and 1998.

So could Braun, Cruz, Peralta and Cabrera be juicing their way to their fantastic numbers this season? Yeah, it's a possibility. 

But in all likelihood, they aren't. It's a safe assumption in a time when it's harder than ever to get away with juicing, and it's made all the more safer by the apparent reality that their talent comes from somewhere other than PEDs.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

 

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