After struggling in 2012, 31-year old Jhonny Peralta entered into a contract year needing a strong season, and he rebounded with aplomb in 2013. In July, he was hitting over .300 for the first time in his 11-year career, and posted a .356 weighted on-base average, his highest since 2005. His defense, while largely maligned in scouting circles, was good enough not to hurt his value — he contributed exactly 0 defensive runs saved (DRS), the definition of league average. His strong bat at a position of need, combined with his adequate defense, made Peralta an incredibly valuable player, and in fact, over the first half of the season, he was the most valuable shortstop in the American League, contributing 3.0 WAR. All-star voters agreed with the statistics, and for only the second time in his career, Peralta was an all-star.
But the specter of the Biogenesis scandal followed Peralta throughout the season. In February, his name surfaced in connection with Tony Bosch’s now-defunct company, and though he outright denied any involvement in the scandal, MLB investigated the connection and found enough evidence to suspend Peralta for 50-games. When the suspension was announced on August 5, Peralta waived his right to appeal, and not only admitted to making “a mistake” (he refrained from using the word steroids), but apologized and accepted responsibility for his actions.
Peralta served his 50-game suspension, allowed to return with three games left in the season. He was also allowed to play in the postseason, and was key to the Tigers’ success; over both the ALDS and ALCS, he was second on the team in both batting average and OPS, and his 3-run home run in ALDS Game 4 propelled the Tigers to victory. Peralta seized on the chance to rebuild his value heading into free agency, but was still a 32-year old shortstop just 14 games removed from a PED suspension. It was extremely difficult for even the experts to place the market value on Peralta; Jim Bowden predicted 2 years and $20 million, and Jon Heyman predicted 2 and 18. As it turns out, they were just a bit off — yesterday, Peralta signed a 4 year deal with the Cardinals for around $52 million, more than double those prognostications.
Peralta wasn’t overpaid; as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs argued, he was merely undervalued. But it led many to argue that giving a contract of this size to someone who had so recently suspended for PEDs wasn’t exactly the best disincentive against steroids. In the words of Diamondbacks’ reliever Brad Ziegler:
The Cardinals are not at fault in the Peralta case. They have a responsibility to put the best possible team they can on the field, and Peralta is a highly valuable player. But on the topic of money and steroids, Ziegler is absolutely right. One of the biggest reasons that athletes use steroids — heck, one of the biggest reasons anyone does anything — is to gain financial security. If players believe that, even if they get caught using steroids, and get suspended for it, they can still provide financial security for their families for generations, then one of the key deterrents against using steroids, the loss of money, is removed. In order to remove steroids from the game, you must mitigate the incentives for doing so.
The problem is clear, but as is often the case, the solution less so. It’s clear that the current suspension model — 50 games for one conviction, 100 for two, and a lifetime ban for three — deters some, but not all. But even with increased suspension length, there is still a great incentive to use PEDs to get to the highest level of play possible. For a kid who grows up in a poor town in the Dominican Republic (Peralta is from the DR), even a lifetime ban from the game might not be a deterrent from seeking financial security by whatever means are available to him.
Baseball has done a very effective job in changing the culture around steroids over the past several years. At the height of the steroid era, usage was not only commonplace, but commonly accepted. Today, voices like Ziegler denounce the use of steroids both in the media and in the locker room, portraying users as hurting both the game of baseball and their teammates. But the steroid era in baseball cannot truly end until players see PEDs as not just an unpalatable option, but an untenable one. And that may be impossible.