What we’re about to delve into isn’t your normal everyday baseball talk. Indeed, this is beyond baseball and touches sports and those that might look for advantage through chemistry.
Yes, I’m talking about performance-enhancing-drugs, but really what we’re about to dig into is how the body consumes them.
Bear with me here....
This started with the 50 game suspension of Washington Nationals catcher Adrian Nieto. I gave a bit of a round-up on the minor league drug suspensions early this year with While You Weren’t Looking: Off-Season Drug Suspensions in Baseball. In it, I pulled from the MLB press release regarding Nieto’s suspension:
It was announced that Washington Nationals Minor League catcher Adrian Nieto has received a 50-game suspension after testing positive for Oxandrolone and metabolite, a performance-enhancing substance, in violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
As you look at the paragraph, click back to the link on “While You Weren’t Looking” and you’ll see that a discussion around “metabolite” was engaged in within the comments section.
I will be the first to admit that I did not take chemistry in college, and struggle to learn as much as I can around the complex topic. People far smarter than I know about these things, so I’ve engaged some of them.
The debate is “What is a metabolite, and does MLB classify them improperly?” One argument made was that “metabolite” is simply saying that the body is “metabolizing” something. In other words, why not just say, “The player was suspended for “Substance X” and drop the whole metabolite part of it all together?
According to MLB, who oversees the minor league drug testing program, press releases for minor league suspensions do not always list the substance and metabolites. The report is substance-specific, and mimics that of the WADA-certified laboratory certificate of analysis. For example, for steroids like Stanozolol or Nandrolone, the parent compound is not detected in a urine sample or reported by the laboratory, but the steroids' metabolites are. As a result, suspensions for positive tests for these steroids are reported as "metabolites" of Stanozolol or Nandrolone. However, for the steroid Boldenone, the parent compound and/or metabolites of the steroid are detected and reported by the laboratory, and this difference is noted in the league’s press releases (e.g., "Boldenone" or "Boldenone and metabolite" or "metabolite of Boldenone"). Finally, for substances like stimulants or other non-steroidal PES, the actual compound is detected and reported by the laboratory, and this difference is noted in MLB's press releases (e.g., "positive test for amphetamine" or "positive test for Clenbuterol").
Former Baseball Prospectus staff member and the author of the book, The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problems, Will Carroll expands on that saying the addition of “metabolite" has meaning.
“It's a technicality, but an important one,” said Carroll. “Remember that this works like a court proceeding. No one (usually) sees someone inject or take a pill, but we do know how the body processes them, in what time frames, and in what quantities. It's like catching a thief because they left a fingerprint behind - we didn't SEE them there, but there's evidence of it. They didn't, technically, test positive for anavar or whatever. The positive test was caused by one of the metabolites of the banned substances showing up in the sample in sufficient quantity.”
Where the new frontier may lie is in changes in how samples are collected from players.
“Where this changes is with blood testing,” added Carroll. “In many cases, there are going to be findings of the actual substances, though in some cases there are metabolites or even in some cases, "markers" - things that companies put in that can be traced. The other major exception is with hormones, like hCG, where it will often be naturally pushed through the system, but otherwise wouldn't exist in a male body.”
So, for those that are looking at PEDs in sports with closer inspection, how something is labeled says a lot about the substance an athlete tested for, how they were tested, and the minutia in-between. Think about that the next time you're in the bathroom.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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