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MLB PED testing is down, slippery misleading answers way up

Illustration for article titled MLB PED testing is down, slippery misleading answers way up
Graphic: Eric Barrow

A slew of positive tests was the biggest story of the summer in Major League Baseball, but of course, in this bizarre year, those tests were for COVID-19, rather than what we’re used to seeing positive tests for, performance-enhancing drugs.

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This weekend, the New York Post reported that a big reason for that was that MLB conducted far less drug testing in 2020 than it had in years past. Joel Sherman’s story had on-the-record quotes from multiple players about the decrease in testing, including specifically from Blue Jays third baseman Travis Shaw that ordinarily he’s “tested 6-10 times a year. This year only once.”

This conflicts with what MLB told Deadspin in September about testing, when asked whether PED testing resources were being redirected to the coronavirus testing program. What MLB said then might not be able to be classified as an outright lie, but the statements of two months ago are framed in a way that doesn’t exactly tell the full story.

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“We are absolutely still testing for PEDs and still publicly announcing all violations, as we usually do,” an MLB spokesman told Deadspin in an email. “We use multiple labs for drug testing purposes. The primary aim of our lab in Utah has changed as a result of the events in 2020, but the others are still administering the regular components of the drug program.”

Responding to a follow-up question about whether PED tests were being performed at the normal rate, the spokesman said, “PED and Drug of Abuse testing is being conducted in this shortened season in the normal course, albeit with some adjustments to the collection process to promote social distancing and enhanced hygiene.”

The key words here are “normal course,” when the question was about “normal rate,” and the wiggle room provided by the phrase “some adjustments.” For instance, not doing testing during the lockdown period would be an adjustment — and an understandable one. It also does make sense, as Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller noted in the Post story, that MLB wouldn’t want to publicize a decrease in testing rate, because that would give potential cheaters more confidence that they could get away with it.

After the Post’s story, Deadspin asked for clarification on this, and MLB replied that the annual report of the drug testing program, to be released as usual on December 1, will show how many tests were conducted this year.

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For now, what we have is the public information of positive PED tests. From May through the end of the season, there were four MLB players who tested positive for PEDs, while 2019 saw five positive tests of major leaguers in the same period. For the full year, there were nine positive tests at the major league level in 2020, compared to eight in 2019.

Where there was a big drop in positives overall was in the minor leagues — 50 positives in 2019, but only seven in 2020, all before the start of July. This should hardly come as a surprise, as there was no minor league season in 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

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One of the assertions of the Post story was that testing shut down during the period between spring training and baseball starting up again. That certainly makes sense. And even if there wasn’t as much testing, the specter of being tested still served as a deterrent to juicing.

“I don’t believe PED use increased,” Yankees reliever Zack Britton told the Post. “Players are aware of the randomness of testing and that didn’t change this year from my understanding.”

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Despite some dinger binges, like the Yankees’ back-to-back six-homer games against the Blue Jays in September, home runs were actually down a tick in 2020, from a record 1.39 per game, per team, in 2019, to 1.28. The strikeout rate also dropped slightly, from 8.81 to 8.68. Certainly, the creation of seven-inning games in doubleheaders helped to fuel that drop, but the major league slugging percentage was down, too, from .435 a year ago to .418 in 2020.

If the main goal of the testing program is deterrence rather than punishment, it would appear that MLB’s testing still was effective this year, regardless of how many tests were conducted. The question is what happens going forward, and if players going into 2021 think that they might be better able to get away with PED use.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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