Performance-Based Pay for PED Policy Violators

PED Policy Violators Should Be Subject to Performance-Based Pay

Major League Baseball has made significant progress in reducing the influence of performance-enhancing drugs on the game. Improved methods of testing, increased frequency of testing, and stiffer penalties for positive tests have all contributed. Cooperation from the MLB Players Association (driven by the long-awaited realization that PED usage has a considerable net negative effect on its members) has cleared the way for these changes.

However, Ryan Braun’s recent suspension exposes a disheartening truth. By forfeiting a small percentage of a massive contract, his indiscretion (whatever it was) seems to have been well worth the risk. Many have noticed this, and nearly as many have suggested ways to address this concern.

Two suggestions have been mentioned most often. Some believe MLB should lengthen suspensions for positive tests, or perhaps even institute a lifetime ban for a first offense. While doing so would certainly serve as an effective deterrent, it may actually go too far, and place too much faith in the testing system. Furthermore, in certain gray area scenarios, MLB may be reluctant to rule against a player if it would lead to such a severe punishment.

Others suggest that a player’s contract should be voided for violating MLB’s PED policy. But while ending a contract may seem appropriate in some ways at first glance, determining how to draft the next contract is much trickier.

  • Would the player’s club be granted exclusive rights to determine contract terms (similar to a player’s early years in MLB)? MLBPA would never agree to that.
  • Could the player file for arbitration if he and the club cannot agree to contract terms? This would burden arbitrators with the impossible task of determining PED’s direct impact on the player’s past performance.
  • Would the player become a free agent? This could get really messy. With regard to PED users, teams may not have any reliable data with which to determine a player’s value. While I normally favor a free market approach, that’s just too problematic. Furthermore, in certain rare scenarios, players may actually violate the PED policy intentionally to escape an unfavorable contract. In such cases, the original club may be the only party ultimately punished.

Despite the logistical concerns associated with voiding contracts, the suggestion is made in the right spirit. First, it acknowledges that the few remaining would-be renegades are likely to be deterred only by the threat of significant financial penalties. Second, it acknowledges that clubs deserve some degree of protection from the misleading effect that PED may have on a player’s performance and value when they negotiate a contract.

After all, a team may have been completely duped into signing a promising player to a lucrative contract, only to learn the hard way that his promise was directly attributable to PED, and that his potential is greatly diminished if he complies with the PED policy going forward. Then again, PED may have a negligible effect on a particular player’s performance, and the club may find the contract to have been suitable. No one can definitively determine the direct effect that PED have on any given player’s performance. I propose a plan that may spare MLB’s applicable parties from ever pretending they can:

  • If a player violates the PED policy, he is suspended without pay (I would prefer 81- and 162-game suspensions, respectively, for first and second offenses, mainly because it seems less arbitrary than 50- and 100-game suspensions; in the big picture, though, I’m okay with the current lengths)
  • Upon return from the suspension (if the player’s contract doesn’t expire during the suspension), the remaining length of the contract is preserved; however, the monetary compensation is no longer guaranteed. Instead, the contract is performance based, and the player must match his pre-signing level of performance in order to receive the full value of the contract. If the player cannot match his pre-signing level of performance, then he receives a percentage of the full value that corresponds to his performance
    This plan would serve our two primary purposes – to deter players and protect affected clubs. The appeal is that it does so without handing down an excessively harsh punishment, but instead by simply putting the burden back on the player to prove his value.

This plan raises some logistical concerns, but I’m confident each of them could be addressed (although it might require someone much smarter than I to do so):

  • What factors would be used to determine a player’s pre-signing performance level? It would be important to turn many factors into a single number (the way WAR does). Perhaps a player’s WAR for the three years preceding the signing could be considered (with more weight given to later years).
  • What if a player is injured after his suspension? This would unfairly deny a player the opportunity to earn under a performance-based contract. With that in mind, I believe a player’s WAR per plate appearance (or per batter faced) should be used, rather than a player’s cumulative WAR. While clubs should be protected from PED fraud, they’ve always accepted risks associated with injury. This would be no different.
  • Would clubs limit playing time in an effort to unfairly deny a player the opportunity to earn under a performance-based contract? Quite possibly, if the rules empower them. This is another good reason to set the performance standard on a per-plate-appearance (or per-batter-faced) basis, rather than a cumulative basis.
  • Is this plan especially harsh toward elite players? No. Their pre-signing performance level would be tougher to match than an average player, but an elite player would presumably have more earning potential.
  • Could a player earn more than his contract’s original value if he exceeds his pre-signing performance level? No. A player would forfeit that opportunity as part of the penalty for violating the PED policy.

Photo by Keith Allison

Nicholas Patrick

Nicholas Patrick serves as a school principal, doctoral candidate at Miami University, member of the Cincinnati Reds grounds crew, devoted fan of the Dayton Flyers, and founder and coordinator of M-SportsFans (the official national Special Interest Group of Mensa members dedicated to sports and sports analytics). His research and writing have been featured at the SPEIA Basketball Analytics Summit, Mensa Annual Gathering, Sports Illustrated/The Cauldron, RushTheCourt.net, Redleg Nation, and the University of Cincinnati's Sports By the Numbers course.