Mitchell Report fallout: Fantasy ramificiations (Part 1)

I know that this is coming a little late, but I’ve had the majority of it completed for a while now and didn’t want to ignore just because the buzz has died down a bit. It’s still relevant, so, with that said, here is my opinion on the Mitchell Report and how it should affect your fantasy baseball decision making.

Advantages

Sometimes the biggest advantages in fantasy baseball can be attained simply because your opponents don’t do their homework. One such opportunity has presented itself this off-season. As I’m sure you’ve heard, last month, Senator George Mitchell released a “report to the commissioner of baseball of an independent investigation into the illegal use of steroids and other performance enhancing substances by players in Major League Baseball.” The subject of PEDs is a very complex one, but I’m going to try and simplify it as best I can for the sake of this article.

Players

To lazy fantasy owners, the Mitchell Report has provided a list of players that are either very risky going forward or should be avoided all-together. To those that do their homework, this could be an excellent opportunity. Below is a list of the players listed in the Mitchell Report who are currently playing and are viable options in fantasy baseball:

Rick Ankiel
Barry Bonds
Paul Byrd
Roger Clemens
Jack Cust
Brendan Donnelly
Eric Gagne
Jason Giambi
Jay Gibbons
Troy Glaus
Jose Guillen
Jerry Hairston Jr.
Matt Herges
Paul Lo Duca
Nook Logan
Gary Matthews Jr.
Andy Pettitte
Brian Roberts
Scott Shoeneweis
Mike Stanton
Miguel Tejada
Derrick Turnbow
Ron Villone
Rondell White
Gregg Zaun

The steroid stigma

When fantasy owners see this list, they start thinking about all the reasons not to take these players. Aside from the overall negative impression being on this list creates, here are some reasons that I’ve heard owners cite for leaving them off their cheat sheets:

1) Morality
2) Higher risk of a performance drop-off
3) Possible suspensions
4) Possible legal trouble which would result in loss of playing time
5) Higher risk of injury

Morality

Hopefully this doesn’t apply to any of you, but I know that some fantasy players won’t draft a player who they deem to have shaky ethics. This could include a guy like Elijah Dukes who gets into legal trouble with women or Milton Bradley who is famous for his on-field charades. Or, it could include a guy like Barry Bonds who allegedly has taken steroids.

I’d like to share a quick story about this. One THT Fantasy Focus reader, at the beginning of the 2007 season, told me that he nominated Barry Bonds for $1 at his league’s auction as a smokescreen. He didn’t actually want Bonds, but the rest of his league refused to bid anything for Bonds because of his steroid issues. This reader ended up getting Bonds and his very good fantasy season for just $1. This is obviously an extreme example, but these are the kind of opportunities that we need to capitalize on.

While I am absolutely against steroids, a player’s use of them (especially if it is only alleged use) should not dissuade you from taking him. It’s not like you’re choosing this person to be your new best friend. You are taking him for your fantasy team, and if he can put up good numbers for you, then that should be all that matters. If he can help you win, he needs to be considered. Case closed.

Performance drop-off

MLB banned anabolic steroids in 2002. Any players who once used steroids have since stopped and have developed new statistical baselines or left baseball entirely. Anabolic steroids were banned long enough ago where we really don’t need to worry about it.

We must also keep in mind, though, that many of the players are accused of taking HGH, not anabolic steroids. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said that “players who are set on cheating have apparently moved from steroids to HGH.”

While I in no way condone the use of HGH, the fact of that matter is that there is currently no urine test that can detect the use of it. Unless they switch over to blood testing (which can detect HGH, if I’m not mistaken) or develop a method of detecting HGH in urine, players who have been using it will likely continue to use it. There’s also no proof that HGH improves performance to begin with, anyway.

This means that we can continue to evaluate these players using the same baselines that they’ve developed over the past couple of years. The main problem with players who stop using anabolic steroids is that once they stop, their production is expected to drop off. With HGH, that problem likely won’t exist in 2008. If players are continuing to use HGH (or, if by some odd chance, anabolic steroids), the risk of a drop-off isn’t existent, even if the level they are at is unnaturally high to begin with.

Suspensions

Here is what Senator Mitchell had to say about suspending the players mentioned:

I urge the Commissioner to forego imposing discipline on players for past violations of baseball’s rules on performance enhancing substances, including the players named in this report, except in those cases where he determines that the conduct is so serious that discipline is necessary to maintain the integrity of the game. I make this recommendation fully aware that there are valid arguments both for and against it; but I believe that those in favor are compelling.

Following the presentation of the report, Bud Selig said that “Those recommendations that I can implement independently, I will do immediately.” Of course, he also said that “[Mitchell’s] report is a call to action. And I will act.”

The problem is that for many of these players, Selig has very little real evidence to base any action on. All he needs is “just cause” — which is less than what a court would need, mind you — but the MLB Player’s Association has said that they will protect these players. MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr said, “We will make certain that should any player be disciplined, he will have a right to a hearing and the full panoply of due process protections our agreements contemplate, and we will represent him in that process.”

Another thing to consider is that a lot of the players on the list are accused of taking the substances before Major League Baseball introduced its steroid testing policy in September of 2002. The Mitchell Report made mention of this:

Under basic principles of labor and employment law, an employer must apply the policies in place at the time of the conduct in question in determining what, if any, discipline is appropriate.

What this means is that even if a player flat-out admits that he took ridiculous quantities of anabolic steroids, if he did so before September of 2002, he cannot be suspended by Major League Baseball. This is something that is crucial, yet many fantasy owners will overlook. HGH bans weren’t introduced until January 2005, so anyone accused of using before then should also be okay in this regard.

Legal issues

Legal issues obviously need to be examined one at a time, but I don’t know how many quotes I’ve read from lawyers saying that much of what Mitchell said about specific players wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. This isn’t what Mitchell was trying to do, of course, but for fantasy purposes potential legal consequences need to be examined.

Let’s assume, for a second, that a lot of these guys will actually need to go to court. Consider this quote from Keith Scherer, a federal criminal defense attorney who penned an article for THT in November about Barry Bonds.

Yes. Unless Bonds takes a deal, his case won’t go to trial before the end of the 2008 season. It can take several months — often more than a year — to bring a relatively simple case to trial in federal criminal court. Even when both parties expect that the case will eventually end in a plea, it can take that long to get to it.

While the Bonds indictment in question was perjury-related, it seems that this would apply to this Mitchell business as well. Even if a player does get charged, it doesn’t look like he would miss any time in 2008 unless the charges are significant and he takes a plea deal relatively quickly. This seems pretty unlikely, though, given what most are calling shaky evidence.

Injury risk

As I have said many times before, I am not an injury expert, nor am I pretending to be one, so what I’m going to do is give some of my thoughts on this and let you come to your own conclusions.

Injury risk is the only reason I’ve heard for downgrading these guys that holds any water, really. Still, it seems possible that there won’t be a significantly larger injury risk for many of these guys going forward.

Anabolic steroids are generally associated with a higher risk of injury, but they have been banned for a while now and it seems somewhat unlikely that guys are still taking it. While MLB teams will no longer be given advance notice of testing, I find it hard to believe that teams were blatantly helping players like this. It might be a little naive, but I have a hard time seeing this being the case. For guys who are accused of taking HGH, it’s actually been said that many take it because they believe it helps with injury recovery, which is the reason players like Andy Pettitte have given for their use of HGH.

Because steroids and HGH unnaturally enlarge certain parts of one’s physique, this can cause undue stress and lead to strains, tears, and other kinds of injuries. Even if a player has stopped using, the effects of PEDs could still linger from prior use, and this possibility should be considered.

The problem comes in that we really don’t have any conclusive research linking PEDs to injuries, and a lot depends on an individual’s own, unique situation. This doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon, either. As Bryan Tsao said in a recent conversation I had with him, “I doubt we will ever have it given the ethical constraints around giving people steroids.”

The fact of the matter is, we don’t really know how steroids will affect these guys because 1) The details of every single player’s situation are fuzzy, at best and 2) We don’t have much quantitative analysis to make even general conclusions.

The bottom line is this, though: In competitive fantasy leagues, you often have to look in some overlooked places to find value. If, coming off the Mitchell Report, the only change in a player’s true value is the possibility of an increased injury risk, I believe that this is a guy we need to seriously consider.

Concluding thoughts

That concludes Part 1 of THT Fantasy Focus’s Mitchell Report breakdown. If you have additional reasons for downgrading players mentioned in the Mitchell Report, please shoot me an e-mail. I’d love to hear them.

In Part 2, we’ll examine how this report changes, or doesn’t change, the fantasy value of some of the big name players Senator Mitchell wrote about and how to properly evaluate them.

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