MLB says its coronavirus numbers are encouraging, but they don't tell the whole story

MLB is in damage control mode after half of the Miami Marlins’ roster tested positive for coronavirus. In a statement, MLB officially postponed Marlins games until Monday and released its latest coronavirus testing numbers.

The statement revealed no other team has produced a positive coronavirus test since July 24. MLB called that news “encouraging overall.”

“In over 6,400 tests conducted since Friday, July 24th, there have been no new positives of on-field personnel from any of the other 29 clubs. This outcome is in line with encouraging overall data since the June 27th start of testing. Through last Thursday, July 23rd, 99 of the 34,640 samples — 0.3% — had been positive.”

That paragraph, however, caused some confusion, particularly among Cincinnati Reds fans. A day after the team’s first game, Matt Davidson was placed on the injured list after testing positive for coronavirus. News of Davidson’s positive test came Saturday, July 25, a day after the date MLB used to illustrate there were no new positives. How can that be true?

Why did MLB exclude Davidson, Soto from its numbers?

While MLB’s release is technically true, not including Davidson’s positive test is a matter of semantics. Saying there have been “no new positives” on teams other than the Marlins since July 24 means it’s likely Davidson was tested before that date. He likely received his results July 25, and was immediately placed on the IL. Since Davidson’s test came before July 24, MLB omitted Davidson from its sample. If that timeline is correct, it’s possible Davidson was positive when he took the field for the Reds’ first game.

Washington Nationals star Juan Soto tested positive for coronavirus prior to the team’s opening game July 23. He would not count as a “new” positive according to MLB’s phrasing, which is why he wasn’t counted in the release.

Does MLB’s release mean no other players are currently positive for coronavirus?

It’s encouraging that more players haven’t tested positive since July 24, but that figure doesn’t cover many days. As Davidson’s example shows, it can take a day or two until tests get turned around. Teams also aren’t necessarily testing players every single day. The Marlins moved to a daily testing schedule Tuesday, after the team experienced an outbreak.

Because of that, it’s possible players haven’t received results from tests taken Sunday or Monday. The Marlins played the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday despite four Marlins testing positive for coronavirus that morning. It’s possible more positive tests could emerge once those results come back.

Other teams, like the Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves, have lost players to positive coronavirus tests, but those teams haven’t experienced additional positives since July 24.

It’s important to note MLB’s statement mentions “no new positives of on-field personnel.” That phrasing excludes team staff, clubhouse attendants, production staff and countless others involved in making the 2020 season happen. The release only includes players. While they make up a significant portion of the MLB population, there are others putting themselves at risk.

Washington Nationals players sitting in the stands.
MLB has implemented social distancing policies in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Is MLB’s positive test rate of 0.3 percent accurate?

Overall, MLB reports only 0.3 percent of tests have come back positive. The league’s math uses total number of tests as its denominator instead of the number of individuals who have produced positive tests. That method is going to produce a lower positive rate, as the number of tests is going to be larger than the number of players tested since one player can be tested multiple times.

If Davidson took four tests, but only one came back positive, all four of those tests currently go into MLB’s denominator. If MLB used players as its denominator, the only test that would be included in MLB’s math would be Davidson’s positive test.

How can MLB improve its process moving forward?

More transparency is crucial. The league should acknowledge the time it takes to turn tests around, that its sample doesn’t include off-field personnel and that players outside the Marlins have tested positive for the virus. It should also start using the percent of players who tested positive as opposed to the number of tests that came back positive.

That would paint a more accurate picture of the challenge baseball is facing while trying to play games in the middle of a pandemic.

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