Do performance enhancing drugs actually enhance performance? The curious case of Jhonny Peralta

Rob Carr

On July 30th, the Detroit Tigers gave up a pretty neat prospect in order to bring then-Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias to Comerica Park. One of the big reasons the Tigers needed a shortstop is because their starter, Jhonny Peralta, was likely going to find himself suspended due to his alleged involvement in the Biogenesis doping scandal. That came to pass, and Peralta missed almost all of August and September.

And now?

Four years. $53 million. That's how much the now-admitted performance enhancing drug (PED) user is getting via his brand new conract.

Brad Ziegler was one of many who took offense to the deal:

But there's a problem with this analysis. If Peralta's performance is a byproduct of his PED use, and now he's drug-free, shouldn't we expect him to stink up the joint next year? And if so, shouldn't owners and GMs factor this into value? In other words:

Why the heck is there a hot market for a guy whose past performance is inflated by his discovered drug use?

There are a few explanations. Let's go through the ones that spring to mind.

1) The teams believe that the player was using the drugs to recover from an injury, and only for that reason.

Call this the Andy Pettitte excuse. This is a possibility, for sure, but semantically, that'd mean the drugs (as used) are performance restoring, not performance enhancing. It's a thin line and probably on the wrong side of cheating, but regardless, but it means that the GMs bidding didn't think that Peralta's performance was a function of the drug use. Basically: his offensive output was at his "natural" levels, and the PEDs aren't a long-term reason behind those results.

2) PED use creates long-term benefits.

Someone snarky would call this the Marlon Byrd rule. I'm not that someone.

Under this theory, whatever Peralta took a year or so ago will give him extra power for two, three or even five years after. Possible? Maybe -- I don't know the science behind the stuff, but I assume the GMs do to a meaningful degree. I don't want to discount this explanation too much, even though I personally think it's unlikely. However, my belief is based on a narrative which simply doesn't jive with the reality of Peralta's contract and that of others, so I can't just discard this explanation. Certainly, if this is the right one, Ziegler's gripe is well-placed.

3) PED use is still rampant and already-caught PED users are actually less risky signees than the not-yet-caught.

This one is incredibly cynical, but when dealing with million dollars contracts, perhaps a lot of cynicism is warranted?

Let's say that it turns out that PED use is still widespread in MLB and both the players and teams know it. A guy like Peralta already got caught, yes, but let's further assume that he's going to keep using -- that he has to in order to maintain his value. (It's not just about the contract, either; there's a pride factor here, as few professionals want to be mediocre if not worse.) He'll likely be more cautious than others, which is good for the team because he's slightly less likely to be caught. And if he is caught, the team saves 100 games worth of salary! Longer suspensions are the new market inefficiency!

Okay, that isn't very likely.

4) Performance enhancing drugs, in some (if not many) cases, do not actually enhance performance.

As a GM, your top priority is to make your team better. You look at a guy like Jhonny Peralta and see a career 101 OPS+ guy with an outlier year in 2011 (122 OPS+) and 100 games of 119 OPS+ in 2013 among a bunch of OPS+ years in the high 80s and into the 90s. There's the PED use, of course, too, which according to our current narrative explains Peralta's 2011 and 2013 seasons. Take out the PED use and Peralta -- whose range at shortstop is suspect -- is more Juan Uribe than he is Jimmy Rollins, and is probably worth a $16 million over two years or maybe $30 million over three, if you're willing to overpay a bit.

On the other hand, let's say the narrative is wrong, and that the PED use isn't the driving factor behind Peralta's hitting. In that case, you pay him like the 3.5 win guy he has been in two of the last three years (and note that his 2012 season was a result of a horribly low BABIP, and likely a fluke) and whose .154 isolated slugging in 2013 -- after he was caught juicing, and is presumably clean -- is consistent with his career to date (.158). While Peralta was certainly cheating -- them's the rules, and he broke 'em -- that doesn't mean that whatever he was doing was actually working, and as a GM, you shouldn't assume that it was. Some of the other evidence suggests that the PED use was a non-factor, so you treat it as such. And the other GMs do too.

That seems kind of right to me.

People can reasonably disagree as to what the appropriate punishment for PED use is. But to conclude that GMs are rewarding players for known, public, and punished PED use requires that the teams are actually benefitting from having such players on their roster. There are only a handful of explanations which support this belief, and the most likely explanation for why Peralta received such a great offer simply isn't consistent with the current PED narrative.

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