PlayBook: WAR on Drugs

By Fraser Lockerbie

The MLB is reeling in the wake of two positive tests for elevated testosterone inside a week. What it needs is a better system of checks and balances. What we bring you today is our solution: The PlayBook’s WAR on Drugs.

Of all the people to stand on ceremony and speak loudly about the presence of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball, nobody got it more right this week than Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. When asked, for some very unclear and far-reaching reasons, what he thought about Bartolo Colón’s 50-game suspension for a banned substance, an outcome that given his size, stature, age and newfound ability was, at this point in his career, less a suspicion and more an inevitability, Bobby V replied: “I just wish we’d get that loss back he pitched against us.”

On cue, everyone nods and thinks nothing of it; a rather mundane entry into the otherwise polemic and at times problematic Book of Bobby V. So they gathered their torches from the ground, collected their pitchforks and pikes from the floor and moved on, on to the next pyre they hoped to set ablaze. But let’s back up for just one second; let’s extrapolate on the ideas of the Red Sox skipper. 

What he’s proposing if we take him at face value, if we push the idea to its absolute literal extreme, is a swift kind of NCAA-style justice (which in practice and under the direction of the bobbleheads running around the NCAA’s disciplinary committee has been anything but swift). But humor us and indulge Bobby V: what’s so crazy about vacating wins, especially if those wins affect a pennant race and were acquired fraudulently? A 50-game suspension starting now isn’t erasing Colon’s 10 wins, 24 starts, 3.43 ERA and career-high 1.4 BB/9 and 3.96 K/BB ratios. Nor is it striking from the record Melky Cabrera’s .346 average, 84 runs, 60 RBIs and 4.7 Wins Above Replacement. The Athletics and the Giants get to keep those numbers tucked away for the 162-game baseball slog even if the offending players can’t contribute anymore, but oh the difference their subtraction would make; in a year when the West will be won by one or two games, losing three or five with only 40 or so to play could be catastrophic.

When pushed to its utmost extreme, we might suggest just pulling the plug: take Colón’s 10 wins back, start subtracting Cabrera’s RBIs from Giants games played and see if the outcome would have been different. But then we find ourselves in a bit of technical soup with disproportionate punishments being doled out for similar offenses and trying to isolate individual performance in a wholly un-individual sport (an exercise that, for the record, has been the undertaking of Bill James disciples everywhere for the past 30 years and proved to be difficult at best).

A more reasonable response, though, and a response that would put the onus on Major League teams to implement their own PED testing programs, independent of the MLB’s, would be to penalize the team the value of the offending player’s WAR. The new joint drug program initiative, aptly nicknamed “the WAR on Drugs” or “Bobby V for Vendetta” (because that guy hasn’t had enough shit shoveled on him this year) would work as follows:

Every team member is required to undergo PED testing, performed in-house and at the team’s expense, every 14 days. If a  player tests positive at that level, he is suspended for 50 games, without pay. If a player returns and tests positive again, he is suspended for the rest of the season, without pay, and his WAR is subtracted from the team’s record. If a player tests positive even once for PEDs at the league-sanctioned level (tests to be performed every month), that player is suspended for the rest of the season, without pay, and his WAR is subtracted from his team’s record.        If a player tests positive twice at the league-sanctioned level, he is banned indefinitely from baseball and his WAR is subtracted from the team’s record.        In the event a player’s WAR is > 2.0 at the time of the infraction, the team is docked a default 2.0 wins, and the player is suspended in accordance with the level of the infraction (and forever considered an idiot for cheating, getting caught and still not being worth two wins above a replacement player).

Would there be screaming? Yes. Would the Players’ Union throw a fit and the owners rain down fire and fury in the press? Absolutely, but then they’d all be on the side of culpability, no longer able to say they’re interested in a clean game. They’d have no choice; in the eyes of the fans, they’d have a responsibility to accept the terms of the WAR on Drugs.

None of this, of course, would resolve the issue of untestable testosterone; that’s for science, not sport writers, to figure out. But it would introduce another level of accountability into a game wrought with inconsistency and living outside the lines, a game that despite immense fallout from a supposedly bygone era of steroids is still without a proper system of checks and balances.

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