In November 2013, the Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year deal, less than four months after Peralta had been suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs, and we got to have a What It All Means conversation.
Peralta was coming off a strong offensive season — he’d bounced back from an awful age-30 season to hit .303 — and the incentives his new contract raised seemed too obvious not to worry about. “Apparently getting suspended for PED’s means you get a raise. What’s stopping anyone from doing it?” big league reliever David Aardsma tweeted. “It pays to cheat,” tweeted another reliever, Brad Ziegler.
On Tuesday, a very different type of player was caught. Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte will serve an 80-game suspension after testing positive for Nandrolone. Marte, a borderline superstar and one of the most exciting players in the game, is younger and better than Peralta was. But his suspension retroactively tells us something about Peralta. And these three-plus seasons since Peralta’s signing tell us something about Marte. Both things tell us more about What It All Means.
To get with the second part first: What’s next for Starling Marte? He’ll serve his suspension, then he’ll come back. He will be good again. As good, probably, as he was while using steroids, which will certainly be interesting.
Over the past five years, there have been 20 (or so) established major leaguers with thriving careers who were busted for PEDs — depending on your definition of established major leaguers with thriving careers. I count:
• Dee Gordon
• Chris Colabello
• Abraham Almonte
• Ervin Santana
• Alex Colome
• Jenrry Mejia (caught three times; banned for life)
• Ryan Braun
• Nelson Cruz
• Antonio Bastardo
• Francisco Cervelli
• Everth Cabrera
• Alex Rodriguez
• Yasmani Grandal
• Bartolo Colon
• Melky Cabrera
• Marlon Byrd (caught twice)
• Freddy Galvis
And now Marte. You might notice something about those names: They’d make a pretty good major league team, even now, even after most have presumably — presumably — gotten clean. In fact, let’s test something. Each of these players served a lengthy suspension and then returned to action. In each case, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system produced a projection for them, using their pre-suspension stats. PECOTA didn’t know that they used to be on the juice and now were off the juice. If the juice had been making them better, and the juice had been removed, PECOTA should be systematically high on these players.
We’re going to remove multiple-offenders Byrd and Mejia, who were not presumably off the juice. And Gordon, Colabello and Almonte’s first full seasons are only two weeks old, so we’ll leave them out of the results for now. Everybody else?
Let’s make some caveats here. It’s a small group of players. It’s a group of players that, depending on your view of human nature, might be more likely to still be using than the average player. And there are certainly some players here — Braun and Cabrera — who did in fact decline in the year after the suspension.
On the other hand, those players who declined would end up producing later seasons as good as, or better than, the ones PECOTA had projected for them, so one might argue that they didn’t really decline at all, they just had off years. In a group of 13, somebody’s going to have an off year.
Meanwhile, Colon has had one of the game’s most extraordinary third acts, Grandal is a secret star, and Colome might be the hottest reliever on the trade market this July. Santana’s 2017 stat line is practically all bold ink at the moment. Cruz hasn’t finished lower than 15th in MVP voting in the three seasons since his suspension. Braun has made an All-Star team and received MVP votes since his suspension. A-Rod’s first season post-suspension was the best season he’d had in a half-decade or more. And Peralta, the player who’d apparently tricked the Cardinals into paying for his steroid-inflated stats, had the best WAR of his career and finished 14th in MVP voting.
Presuming these guys were clean after their suspensions: Does this mean steroids don’t do anything? No, it just means that a small sample of 13 players caught doing PEDs in the past five years collectively improved after they presumably got clean. Now, there are other smart people who have written that steroids don’t work, and there’s a long and complicated debate we could have right here about whether the data shows steroids work, and I’d probably be comfortable taking either position because boy it seems like they must. But what it does mean is this:
Starling Marte is going to come back from this suspension. He is most likely going to be just as good a ballplayer as he was before. His career will be long and successful.
This is the paradox of PEDs: If almost everybody who gets caught taking them continues thriving after they get caught taking them, there are very few cautionary tales for players to latch onto to get scared straight. PEDs seem to offer the promise of enhanced performance, but without any seeming risk — beyond the suspension and the embarrassment, at least.
Now, what does Marte tell us, retroactively, about Peralta?
Aardsma, Ziegler et al, had their hearts in the right place — almost nobody wants to see baseball slide back toward heavy, secretive, unpunished PED usage — but they were wrong. Marte’s suspension shows that financial incentives aren’t the only factor — or, perhaps, even a primary factor — driving players’ decisions.
Marte is less than halfway through an eight-year contract extension that he signed in March 2014. His salary already is set in stone for the next three years, and the club options that Pittsburgh holds for 2020 and 2021 are so automatic — and so club-friendly — that Marte probably wonders from time to time how to get out of them. There is almost nothing Marte could do on the field this year — other than get suspended! — that could affect his income, now or in the future.
If not money, then what? For starters, Marte goes out in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands every day and tries not to fail in front of them. He runs out of the dugout with a team of friends that he tries not to let down. He plays a sport that will record everything he did and wave it in front of him for the 50 years or so he lives after his retirement. People cheat at golf, at crossword puzzles, at Sporcle quizzes, at card games with their family members. Half the bats in a Sunday slow-pitch league are illegally doctored. So of course there’s incentive for ballplayers to cheat when the world is poised to GIF their every failure.
Which gets us back to What It All Means. The most important part of Marte’s suspension — or Gordon’s last year, or Santana’s the year before — is how surprising it is. Since Ziegler and Aardsma worried that the league’s free-agent market was incentivizing PED usage, very few players have tested positive. There has not been a run on drugs in the three and a half years since the Cardinals made Peralta rich. Either everybody is getting away with it, or something is successfully creating incentives for these players not to cheat.
I suspect we’ve already said them in this piece: The fear of embarrassment in front of fans, the fear of disappointing teammates, the fear of a bad mark next to one’s name in baseball’s history books. The same incentives that would lead a player to cheat would dissuade him from cheating. It didn’t stop Marte, but it appears to be broadly working across the sport. Ziegler and Aardsma should be pleased. Marte should be embarrassed.