It was announced today that Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles was suspended 25 games for amphetamine use. He will miss the last 17 games of the regular season and as many as 8 playoff games, depending on how far the Orioles get in the playoffs. Specifically, as far as I know, Davis was taking prescription Adderall.
Adderall is the brand name for generic amphetamines. When sold illegally, it’s better known as Speed. The amphetamine class of molecules also includes crystal meth. I’m going to go into the chemistry in a bit of detail, so in honor of Baseball Prospectus‘ Russell Carleton…
WARNING! GORY CHEMISTRY!
The term amphetamine (shown above) covers a specific class of phenethylamines that act as a powerful stimulant. It’s best known as Adderall, a common treatment for ADHD and narcolepsy. It helps ADHD patients focus and concentrate, and since it’s such a potent stimulant, it helps to keep narcolepsy patients awake.
Amphetamines are chiral compounds. When a molecule has a non-superimposable mirror image, it is said to be chiral. If you look a the two identical molecules below, you can see that in three dimensions, you can’t rotate one molecule so that the four colored balls overlap. Each mirror image of the molecule is called an enantiomer, and can be distinguished as “left-handed” or “right-handed”1, as illustrated below. Each enantiomer has identical physical properties, so why do you ask that we should care about this concept? Well, chirality can affect how a molecule binds to an enzyme. A left-handed molecule may bind well to an enzyme, while the right-handed molecule doesn’t bind well at all, or vice versa. One enantiomer may provide a therapeutic effect, while the other may actually be toxic.
Adderall is a mixture of enantiomers. It’s made up of 75% dextroamphetamine and 25% levoamphetamine. Dextroamphetamine is the more potent of the two, but the other enantiomer has its uses too. Even if it didn’t, as long as it wasn’t toxic, its presence wouldn’t matter. Separating enantiomers is a difficult and costly process, so since the racemic mixture, which is what a mixture of enantiomers is called, of amphetamines is safe, that’s what it’s sold as2. In case you’re wondering, Adderall isn’t the same thing as crystal meth, but it’s very, very close. Simply methylating the nitrogen (the “N”) of the amphetamine molecule converts it to methamphetamine, which is the chemical name of crystal meth. Compared to Adderall, crystal meth is more neurotoxic and addictive, which is why it isn’t prescribed. That, combined with its effects as an aphrodisiac and euphorant, is why it’s a banned substance. Adderall, as we all know, is legal and safe when used responsibly. Amphetamines are actually a clear liquid. That’s not amenable for human dosing, so the compound is reacted with hydrochloric acid in order to form a solid salt.
END GORY CHEMISTRY
As is common knowledge among baseball fans, amphetamines, or “greenies” as they were called, were consumed like popcorn in the older days of baseball. There were clubhouses where it was the job of one of the attendants to make sure the bowl or jar of greenies was always kept full. Even all-time greats like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron have admitted to taking amphetamines.
The baseball season is a long, grueling marathon. It’s 162 games long with only 18 days off, with a bunch of travel mixed in. Yes, baseball players get to travel on fancy chartered flights, but they frequently travel late at night and don’t get to their destinations until the wee hours of the morning. They get what little sleep they can, and they get ready to play again that night. When that’s what your life is like, you need all the help you can get to stay energized and focused. Let me be clear, though, that I’m neither condemning now condoning the use of amphetamines. I’m simply explaining the rationale behind the players’ motives. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Amphetamines are considered to be a performance enhancing drug (PED). We’ll get to the PED characteristics of the drug shortly.
Despite the fact that Adderall is a controlled substance and a suspected PED, a ballplayer is allowed to take amphetamines if he gets a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) from MLB. All a player needs to do is find a doctor to diagnose him with ADHD. That’s it. Remember, there’s no purely objective test for ADHD, so if you don’t actually have it, you basically just have to be very convincing. The fact of the matter is that all you have to do is to keep trying until a doctor will give you what you want. If one doctor shoots you down, just try another one. Sadly, this also works with other drugs such as SSRIs and benzodiazapenes.
Depending on what criteria the doctor uses to diagnose the patient, somewhere between 2-5% of adults have ADHD. In MLB, that number is around 12%. What a joke, huh? It certainly looks like the vast majority of players are faking it in order to get the TUE. MLB has completely failed in regulating amphetamines. They say it’s illegal, yet they leave a loophole the size of Petco Park. If MLB isn’t going to scrutinize these TUEs, they might as well either completely legalize the drug or completely ban it.
Chris Davis had the TUE in the past, but for some reason that hasn’t become clear yet, he wasn’t able to get it for the 2014 season. Obviously, he continued using anyway. Chris Davis ended up getting suspended because this was his SECOND violation. You only get a warning for the first offense. So why did Davis continue using after his first violation? There are three possibilities:
- He’s an idiot.
- He’s addicted.
- He legitimately has ADD/ADHD, and therefore has a medical need to continue using.
From what I’ve read, Davis may really have had ADHD. Even if that’s true, I’m sure he didn’t mind the stimulative effects of the drug. It could be a mixture of the three reasons I gave. It’s all speculative, and really, it’s not that important. If Davis couldn’t get the TUE, then he should’ve stopped using. While he was expected to regress some from his monster 2013 season, he was still expected to be a major contributor and an important part of the 2014 Baltimore Orioles, and doing something that could get him suspended at any time was selfish and careless. Thankfully for Orioles fans, due to his dismal season and the Orioles huge 11.5 game lead in the AL East, Davis’ absence will have a minimal impact.
Amphetamines as a PED has been a hot button topic in recent years. Like steroids, the “evidence” against them is anecdotal. It has been scientifically proven that Adderall will boost energy, focus, and cognitive abilities. The same cannot be said about its capability to boost baseball performance. Although steroids draw more ire from baseball fans, I’d argue that at least for position players, amphetamines are more of a PED than steroids. This is absolutely only a theory of mine. It is an untested hypothesis and therefore I have no evidence to back this up. My reasoning is that a drug that boosts your energy and focus will boost a player’s hit tool, i.e. make him a better hitter. Steroids can only boost your power, and the hit tool is more important than power. It’s also reasonable to assume that it will boost a players fielding skills. Again, being more alert and focused will help with fielding the ball better. Steroids may be able to help you throw harder, but range and fielding is more important than arm strength. For all you anti-steroid fans out there, think about this next time you condemn a player for steroid use, and don’t forget the number of Hall of Famers that have readily admitted to taking greenies.
I think it’s absolutely unfair to call Chris Davis a cheater. There’s no difference between Davis and all the players with a TUE. Furthermore, if Davis really does have ADHD, he’s certainly less of a “cheater” than players who are faking the condition so that they can legally take Adderall.
While I’m on the subject of Chris Davis, I’d like to touch upon his season a little bit. Last season, Davis had a breakout year. He hit an excellent .286/.370/.634, good for a 168 wRC+ and 6.1 WAR. He also led the league with 53 HR and 370 total bases. His success was due to a mechanical adjustment in his swing. The power was always there, he was just finally able to make the contact necessary to make use of that power. Going into this season, he was expected to regress some. PECOTA had him projected at .259/.324/.479. I originally thought that was a bit of an extreme regression. The projection systems were taking his pre-2013 seasons into account, and obviously couldn’t know of the adjustments he made at the plate. As it turns out, PECOTA was being too kind. This season, Davis has been terrible, hitting .196/.300/.404 with “only” 26 home runs. That’s only a 93 wRC+. He is hitting for a lot of power, but it’s not enough to overcome the low AVG and OBP. That power has barely kept him above replacement level offensively.
So what happened? Jeff Sullivan wrote a good piece for Fangraphs exploring this question, and it’s well worth your time. With all due respect to Sullivan, I think the answer is simpler than he’s proposing. For starters, he does have a .242. BABIP, which is almost 80 points below that of his career. All that bad batted ball luck will certainly normalize. Baseball Prospectus got a quote from a scout that explains things further:
“His timing is off; his hands and wrists aren’t working; he’s a mess. It’s to the point where you hope he’s been playing with some sort of undisclosed injury this year, because even the batting practice displays are uncomfortable.”
It looks like he’s either hurt, or he got his mechanics all out of whack again. Add that statement to his low BABIP and natural regression, and you get a simple explanation for his struggles this year. The power is absolutely, positively still there. I don’t believe we’ll ever see 2013 Chris Davis again. I do think he’s a mechanical adjustment and improved plate approach away from becoming an effective slugger again. I’m making it sound more trivial than it really is, but I think there’s still the potential for a 4 WAR player in there.
Hopefully going into next season, Davis will have gotten healthy (if that was the problem), made the adjustments he needs, and get that TUE he needs. I’m optimistic that he can once again become a major contributor to the Baltimore Orioles next season, and if they’re lucky, maybe he can make an impact late in the ALCS or the World Series.