Chris Davis' suspension raises questions about MLB's flawed drug policy
The Orioles have run away with the AL East, taking a major league-high 10-game lead into Friday's doubleheader with the Yankees despite losing Matt Wieters and Manny Machado to season-ending injuries and getting subpar production at several other positions. As they get ready for the postseason, however, they'll be without another key player, as Chris Davis has been suspended for 25 games after testing positive for Adderall, an amphetamine and banned stimulant. Given that Baltimore has 17 regular-season games remaining, Davis will be ineligible to return until after the team has played eight postseason games -- if it makes it that far. But beyond the impact on the Orioles, his suspension exposes multiple weaknesses in the drug policy that was revised back in March.
Davis enjoyed a breakout season last year, leading the AL with 53 homers, 370 total bases and 138 RBIs, numbers that earned him All-Star honors and pushed him to third in the AL MVP voting. Amid his big season, he was subject to accusations that he was using performance-enhancing drugs, though he maintained his innocence and never tested positive for any steroid or human growth hormone.
However, as Davis revealed in his statement following the announcement of his suspension, he previously had a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for Adderall, which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, but is also commonly abused. TUEs for Adderall are not rare; according to the league and the Major League Baseball Players Association, a whopping 119 players — 9.9 percent of those on 40-man rosters — had such exemptions last year, with 116 exemptions the year before. That rate is more than twice the National Institute of Health's 4.4 percent estimated rate of ADHD among American adults between ages 18-44, pointing either to an epidemic among athletes or — more likely — a lax approval process for granting TUEs from MLB-certified clinicians to players with no legitimate medical need.
The latter category may include Davis, who not only didn’t have a TUE for 2014, but also didn’t have one for either of the previous two seasons, according to the Baltimore Sun’s Dan Connolly, who additionally reported that Davis didn’t apply for one this year because he was turned down in the past. The situation is all the more puzzling given that Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal has reported that Davis does have ADD or ADHD, and that the circumstances of why he stopped receiving the exemption are unclear.
From Davis' statement:
"I apologize to my teammates, coaches, the Orioles organization and especially the fans. I made a mistake by taking Adderall. I had permission to use it in the past, but do not have a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) this year. I accept my punishment and will begin serving my suspension immediately."
Those words should sound familiar, because they're virtually identical to the ones of Padres outfielder Cameron Maybin, the other major leaguer suspended for using a banned stimulant this year, from back on July 23. If the players had true medical needs for those TUEs, it stands to reason that they'd be diligent about getting them renewed. That should particularly be the case given that, under the current Joint Drug Agreement, the 25-game suspension for a positive test for a banned stimulant doesn't take effect until the second infraction; follow-up testing is mandated after the first positive. Given the confidentiality requirements of the JDA, the window of time between Davis' two positives has not been reported, but Connolly reported that Davis’ previous positive occurred prior to this year. Thus, he had no reason to expect anything but this outcome if he was using Adderall without the proper paperwork.
Beyond that weakness in the policy is that the JDA classifies stimulants as a separate category apart from "Performance Enhancing Substances," a definition it limits to anabolic androgenic steroids and agents (including hormones) with anti-estrogenic activity. While it’s true that stimulants don't build muscle the way steroids do, they are certainly capable of enhancing performance by increasing alertness and reaction time and countering the effects of fatigue. And like steroids, they’re against the law without a prescription. In fact, the Controlled Substances Act classifies them as a Schedule II drug due to their high potential for abuse and causing severe physical or psychological dependence. Anabolic steroids, meanwhile, are classified under Schedule III, given their lower potential for abuse or physical dependence. In other words, in the eyes of U.S. drug policy, amphetamines are more dangerous than steroids.
Amphetamines have a long history in baseball dating back to the 1950s, in the wake of use in the military; one version of the story holds that ex-fighter pilot Ted Williams, who served in World War II and Korea, helped to popularize their use. As noted by ballplayers-turned-authors Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton, "greenies" were commonly available throughout major league clubhouses during the 1960s, and Hall of Famers such as Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Mike Schmidt are among those who have admitted to using them. During a 1985 Pittsburgh drug trial, former Met John Milner told the jury that Mays dispensed "red juice" — liquid amphetamine — from his locker and that another Hall of Famer, Willie Stargell, was among those who gave out greenies with the Pirates. In 2003, Tony Gwynn told the New York Times that an estimated 50 percent of position players used them.
Thus, those who believe that the home run records broken in the 1990s and 2000s fell only because of steroid use — a commonly held belief, but one that ignores the rapidly changing conditions under which the game was played, including changes to the construction of the ball itself — are left to explain how the use of amphetamines to keep players from previous eras more alert and available is somehow different because it didn't have an impact on the records that fell. Even commissioner Bud Selig has spoken of his awareness of the presence of greenies in the clubhouse of the Milwaukee Braves in the late 1950s (Selig was a minority owner of the Braves, while Aaron was their star). It's quite a contortion to pretend that the home run kings prior to the last two decades were squeaky clean, whereas more recent ones are not.
Amphetamines were added to MLB's drug policy in November 2005, with the first positive test triggering additional testing, a second resulting in a 25-game suspension and a third mandating an 80-game ban. Infielder Neifi Perez became the first player suspended under the policy in 2007; he received both a 25- and an 80-game suspension that year, making him the only major leaguer to draw the longer ban. Since then, such suspensions have been relatively rare, though high-profile players such as Maybin, Mike Cameron and Carlos Ruiz have been among those caught; Ruiz tested positive for Adderall in 2012 and has subsequently received TUEs.
The upshot is that because of the policy's distinction between stimulants and steroids, players suspended for the former are still eligible for postseason play once they've served their suspensions, while those who get banned for the latter are not. That change was enacted this spring in the wake of widespread dissatisfaction with Jhonny Peralta being allowed to return for the Tigers’ postseason run last fall after his 50-game Biogenesis-related suspension.
Davis could theoretically return to action as early as the fourth game of the American League Championship Series, should the Orioles advance that far after a five-game Division Series and be willing to play a man short until his suspension expires. Rosters must be set at the beginning of each series and can only be changed due to injuries; activating Davis mid-series due to a less-than-legitimate injury would likely be met with intense scrutiny and create even more controversy than his return would under current circumstances. It's possible that MLB and the union could revisit the policy again this winter if Davis were to return and have a significant impact that draws outcry, as Peralta did last October, when he hit .333/.353/.545 while playing in all but one of Detroit's 11 Division and Championship Series games.
The extent to which Davis can actually help the O's is up for debate. Not only are his 26 home runs less than half of last year's staggering total, but his offensive performance has also otherwise collapsed. After hitting .286/.370/.634 with a 168 OPS+ in 2013, he's down to .196/.300/.404 and a 97 OPS+ in 2014. Early in the season, he kept his batting average above .200, but without power; he hit .250/.372/.382 with two homers in April before going on the disabled list due to an oblique strain. He went yard 11 times in May and June, but his batting average fell below the Mendoza Line just before the All-Star break and hasn't been above it since late July. His .256/.326/.436 September line in 43 plate appearances is his first month since May with an average above .200 or an OPS above .700.
Despite his poor performance at the plate, Davis has helped the Orioles in the field; via Defensive Runs Saved, he's been eight runs above average in 115 games at first base and average in 21 games at third base (Ultimate Zone Rating has him at +2 and -1, respectively) en route to 1.5 Wins Above Replacement. He has started 18 of the team's 28 games at the hot corner since Machado's season-ending knee injury on Aug. 11, with the surprisingly productive Steve Pearce (.287/.360/.523 with a career-high 16 homers) playing first. When Pearce missed a over a week due to an abdominal strain in late August/early September, Davis returned to first while Jimmy Paredes, Kelly Johnson and Ryan Flaherty took starts at third.
None of those alternatives can match the offense of even a diminished Davis. Paredes is 7-for-20 for the Orioles with three extra base hits, but he's a career .239/.278/.322 hitter in 427 major league plate appearances. Flaherty has hit .219/.278/.347 in 264 PA while seeing time at second base, shortstop and third base, and Johnson has hit .212/.294/.356 in 265 PA while bouncing from the Yankees to the Red Sox to the O's, thus completing his career tour of AL East rosters. As if the team weren't already shorthanded enough without Davis, Machado and Wieters (whose season ended in early May due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament and ultimately Tommy John surgery), the O's have also had shortstop J.J. Hardy (.281/.320/.392 with nine homers and 10 DRS) miss time with a bad back; he received a cortisone shot on Tuesday and returned to the lineup on Friday after a week off.
Given their sizable advantage over the second-place Blue Jays, the Orioles' spot in the playoffs is secure. Their magic number to clinch the AL East is down to eight, and they have a six-game edge on the AL Central-leading Royals for the league's No. 2 seed; if the season ended today, they would play Kansas City in the Division Series while the Angels played the winner of the Wild-Card Game. They have enough time for manager Buck Showalter to figure out the team's best lineup without Davis. But even given this year's underperformance, his absence won't help Baltimore, and once he returns, the problems raised by his suspension won't go away without further action by the league and the union.