Tainted stimulant excuse becomes less tainted

This is incredible:

A study scheduled to be released Wednesday and obtained by USA TODAY reports
that 13 of the 52 supplements (25%) purchased at various U.S. retailers
contained small amounts of steroids and six (11.5%) had banned stimulants.

What’s more, there’s a reference to another, earlier study I hadn’t heard about:

A study by the International Olympic Committee conducted from 2000 to 2002
showed 18.8% of the 240 supplements purchased in the USA contained steroids.

One of the common, and entirely justified, complaints of players is that there’s no way for them to know if the creatine they purchase has something else in it. This – again – points out the need for some kind of reasonable way for players to buy clean, well-tested supplements, whether that goes through a certification program, MLB and other sports band together to offer an inspection program — whatever.

It raises a whole new set of questions now becomes: if a player uses a protein supplement, say, with a “small amount” of steroids, would they test positive? For how long? What kind of steroids are showing up in commercially available supplements, and doesn’t that argue for FDA oversight?

If you get a large enough answer to those first questions, you can explain away every positive drug test as the result of actually taking tainted supplements:

player population * percent taking supplements and not any banned drug * percent tainted supplements * percent of time a tainted supplement causes positive test = number of players who test positive without knowingly taking steroids

1,200 players tested * 100% taking some kind of supplement * 25% of supplements have some small amount of steroids * 1% positive test rate from taking those supplements = 4 positives/season from tainted supplements.


hat-tip to MSB

Bonds indicted for perjury, obstruction of justice

From the Chronicle:

(11-15) 17:20 PST SAN FRANCISCO – Barry Bonds, the former Giants star and baseball’s career home run king, was indicted by a federal grand jury today on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the BALCO sports steroid scandal.

Bonds was indicted for allegedly making false statements to the grand jury that investigated the BALCO steroids distribution ring, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco said. Bonds is accused of four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice.

The grand jury indictment’s a long way away from a conviction, of course, but it’s been increasingly obvious since the contents of his testimony leaked that Bonds was – at the very least – flirting with perjury charges. I — and I’m not a lawyer/prosecutor/whatever — have always been unable to believe that Bonds, who by all accounts is an absolute control freak about his nutrition, workout regimen, and all other aspects of his career, would be so involved in taking substances from BALCO and not know what they were, or what they would do.

I thought this would come during the season, actually, but sometimes these things take longer.

We’ll see where this goes, then. By all accounts they’ve got enough evidence in the form of seized dosage schedules and related evidence to make the case stick. This is likely to be ugly, ugly, ugly — particularly with Bonds’ achievements in this last season when he played under the shadow of this looming indictment.

Cameron’s stimulant suspension, advance drug test notification

Mike Cameron received a 25-day suspension for testing positive again under the stimulant policy. ESPN story. It’s the “tainted supplement” track, except with an interesting twist:

He later issued a statement through his agent, saying doctors for the players’ association helped him narrow down what triggered the positive test.

“After all of the analysis and testing, I can only conclude that a nutritional supplement I was taking was tainted,” he said. “Unfortunately, the actual supplement is gone, and therefore cannot be tested. Without the actual supplement in hand, the rules are clear, and I must accept the suspension.”

As skeptical as I am generally of the “supplement” use, I’ve also argued that the current rules are really hard on players, particularly players who don’t speak English as their first language. There’s no list of approved supplements (or there wasn’t last time I looked into this), no certification process, or anything. And you can’t expect players to run everything they take through a test themselves to determine if there are trace amounts of a different drug. I wanted to see MLB and the Players’ Association work together to start making inroads into the problem, and this may be a sign that the union, at least, is taking an active interest in looking into what supplements might cause problems for their players.

Anything that helps players avoid positive tests as a result of unintentional ingestion is good. If nothing else, it would help remove this excuse.

Over at the New York Times, a story today reports teams received advance notice of drug testing:

Drug testers contracted by the league routinely alert team officials a day or more before their arrival at ballparks for what is supposed to be random, unannounced testing of players. By eliminating the surprise factor, the practice undermines the integrity of the testing program, antidoping experts said.

Does it ever. Teams could alert their guys a day early? Wow. You wouldn’t be able to pass a test for steroids, most likely, but the extremely short-lived stimulants? Absolutely. Get the word out, and you greatly help the chances that those players get busted. Even if you think they’re detectable for a couple days, knowing to give the “don’t dose tonight if you were ever dosing, wink wink” signal helps. Huge deal.

This is one of the biggest holes in the minor league program. There were constant rumors that teams had tons of time to prepare for random tests, and that they knew who would be tested. As a result, many people viewed the whole program as something of a joke. I believe the rumors have bubbled up in public, but I don’t have a cite handy.

The possibility I thought of immediately – and this isn’t mentioned at all – is that the team could take a much more active role in having a player dodge the test. Say you’ve got a known steroid user on the team, and you find out the testers are on their way, and without knowing the cycles, you know they’re in trouble if they get tested the next day. You could easily DL them and send them off to see a specialist about that nagging hamstring injury (should inflammation for pitchers) to buy some time. They’re not going to get a

You’d have to be really clever about the “how” and hope the league doesn’t find out, or that player doesn’t test positive when they catch up to them, but I’m sure you can think about how that game could be played.

Without knowing test dates, we can’t go through the transaction logs for weird player moves or anything, so we can’t know if anything like this happened. It’s interesting, though, and I hope baseball’s able to figure out how to do surprise testing in a way that’s a guaranteed surprise.

Also, Howard Bryant, author of the fine Juicing the Game, replied in comments to my disagreement with his ESPN article.

Gain 5mph through steroid use? Wowza

Reader Bob Montgomery wrote:

Relatedly, I’m sure you saw this story:

Tobin said the explosion in home runs coincides with a mid-1990s “steroid era” in professional sports. Use dropped to historic levels in 2003 when Major League Baseball instituted steroid testing, the article offers as background.

“A change of only a few percent in the average speed of the batted ball, which can reasonably be expected from steroid use, is enough to increase home run production by at least 50 percent,” Tobin said in a news release.

I haven’t checked the numbers out, but…
This, though:

Tobin applied a similar, though less extensive, mechanical analysis to pitching and found a smaller impact. He calculated that a 10 percent increase in muscle mass should increase the speed of a thrown ball by about 5 percent, or 4 to 5 miles per hour for a pitcher with a 90-mile-per-hour fastball. That translates to a reduction in earned run average of about 0.5 runs per game.

“That is enough to have a meaningful effect on the success of a pitcher, but it is not nearly as dramatic as the effects on home run production,” Tobin said.

5 mph seems huge to me!

Yeah. It’d be huge. Think about it like this: a pitcher with an 87-mph fastball and good control is at best a marginal major leaguer, most likely grinding out a job at the back of the rotation or in long relief. Throwing 92 with good control, though — that’s a front-end rotation guy.

Similarly, the effects for hitters would be equally huge.

The problem is that anecdotally, we just haven’t seen those kind of increases. The marginal players who’ve been caught in baseball’s testing program saw modest increases – Nate Silver looked into this for “Baseball Between the Numbers” and it was there but not huge. We can look to other suspected or all-but-known players, like Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds, and make some assumptions, but they’re still not that huge.

And for pitchers, there isn’t a lot of evidence to point to any consistent velocity increase. Some pitchers seem to have gained 2-3mph on their fastball, but the benefits are largely in recovery and anti-inflammation, not in raw power.

Under Tobin’s theory, what you could look for in the minors as a determinant of steroid use by pitchers would be descriptions of a pitcher’s velocity through their development. Velocity estimates are unreliable generally, but you would see players stall out in their careers, suddenly return from the off-season throwing +5mph and make the majors. That development path just hasn’t been there, and if pitchers could consistently make that kind of leap, a huge, huge number would all make it as soon as the choice between use & advance and stall was presented to them — and that would be AA & AAA. It’s not there.

Again, anecdotally what we’ve seen is some pitchers who are stalled in the minors see a much more modest increase in velocity.

Beyond that, I think the attribution of the rise in home runs neglects a lot of the other, larger things going on that also drove the home run rate in those years.

Floyd Landis and the future of baseball drug testing

Floyd Landis lost his 2006 Tour de France title, in a 2-1 decision that took well over a year to complete. It’s the first time the Tour de France has stripped a winner of their title over a drug offense, despite cycling’s long-standing reputation as the dirtiest of pro sports and the extremely aggressive drug testing program cycling’s pursued. In addition to the title loss, Landis will also face a two-year cycling ban, and may see additional sanctions from the French. He might appeal, but it looks like it’s pretty much over. In the saga we can see the depressing future of drug testing in competitive sports:
– a title in dispute for so long the next year’s event is completed well before a decision is made
– extremely complicated disputes over lab policy and
– no clear winner
– many losers

I’ve tried to follow the case as closely as possible, as I’m a big cycling fan, and I still don’t entirely know what to think. Landis went after the testing as flawed, not done to World Anti-Doping Agency rules (WADA, if you remember, is always happy to trot someone out to attack baseball’s drug testing as trivial and whatnot, in part because baseball doesn’t use WADA, and… anyway). And it wasn’t. Landis claimed there was a conspiracy to frame him, and while that didn’t come out, they found all kinds of problems at the lab, including this whopper of a statement, quoted in the ESPN write-up:

“If such practises continue, it may well be that in the future, an error like this could result in the dismissal” of a positive finding by the lab.

The arbitrator who sided with Landis agreed there were enough flaws to dismiss the positive – to find Landis innocent.

Was he guilty? I have no clue. Probably, but there’s just no way to say for sure.

How long before we see a similar situation in baseball? Consider a high-profile pitcher who tests positive for steroids, and is suspended 30 days. That’s only six starts, but they’ve got every incentive – and much, much deeper pockets – to defend themselves. I’m a little surprised, given the damage to his reputation, that Rafael Palmeiro didn’t bury the story in lawsuits when he tested positive. But it’s entirely likely that we could see a player during a season mount a massive, public defense of themselves while continuing to play, as the fans of other teams scream in horror each time he takes the mound.

And the second positive, with a one-season ban? That’s worth millions to a player. They’d have little to lose attacking the system.

It’s quite likely that baseball will look to sports that have coped with rampant drug use for cues in their own battle. We could soon see players who have multi-home run games tested after games, or increased random tests for players who exceed certain performance thresholds in a week, or even who perform better than their career norms. Teams who win pennant races all might be subjected to mass tests, and then tests in each round of the playoffs – or more often. And at that point, it would only be a matter of time before a postseason was thrown into dispute.

It’s certain, though, that even if baseball doesn’t pick up the kind of increased testing that nabbed Landis, it will inevitably face the same kind of long, drawn-out scandal, and would do well to be prepared.