The return of Eric Thames is one of the best stories of the 2017 baseball season. You almost certainly have heard it by now, but it bears repeating: Thames was a prospect who mashed at AAA but couldn’t make the jump to the big leagues, and after several years of trying, migrated across the Pacific to play for the NC Dinos of the KBO League. He started hitting like a superstar, and became a superstar, before deciding to return to the states to make another attempt at an MLB career. So far it’s going, uh, pretty dang well; Thames is hitting .326/.446/.761, good for a 202 wRC+ (meaning he’s been 102% better than league average) and for the love of Wisconsinites everywhere.
People were predicting success for Thames before the season even started, but the degree of his success is what has caused surprise and adulation to spread across the league. Or, in the case of some particularly joyless lumps, baseless speculation of steroid use. The response from most of the decent baseball world was swift and angry, while Thames himself took it in stride:
Eric Thames was drug tested again tonight. "If people keep thinking I'm on stuff, I'll be here every day. I have a lot of blood and urine." pic.twitter.com/De1smFWVj7— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) April 26, 2017
At the time of that quote, Thames had been drug tested twice in quick succession; then, last week, he was tested a third time, leading to some speculation that these “random” tests weren’t anything of the sort. But Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy (who presumably has firsthand knowledge of MLB’s drug testing) suggested otherwise:
But we don’t have to take McCarthy’s word for it, or guess about whether three tests in ten days is unlikely. With the Joint Drug Agreement, the policy agreed to by both MLB management and the Players Association that governs drug testing and consequences, and some basic probability, we can estimate the likelihood of three tests in ten days occurring randomly. And then we can ask the related question: what could Thames do about it, if he was being deliberately targeted for drug testing?
Under the Joint Drug Agreement, every player is tested as soon as they report to spring training (§ 3.A.1.a), and once again “at a randomly selected date and time” during the season (§ 3.A.1.b). None of Thames’s three recent tests could have come from the first provision, as it’s not Spring Training, but one of them could have been one of his mandatory in-season test that the second provision requires. The other way a test can happen during the season is under § 3.A.2.a of the JDA, which authorizes 3,200 drug tests “of randomly-selected Players at unannounced times” throughout the season, and any of Thames’s three tests could have been the product of that provision.
That leaves us with two questions to ask. What is the likelihood of a player undergoing two § 3.A.2.a tests within ten days of their annual § 3.A.1.b test? And what is the likelihood of a player undergoing three § 3.A.2.a tests within ten days of each other?
Both those questions require us to estimate the odds of a § 3.A.2.a test on any given day. The JDA covers all players on a 40-man roster and all free agents or released players, meaning that, on any given day, just about 1,000 players can be selected to be tested. The 2017 season spans 184 days, so the 3,200 § 3.A.2.a tests will come at a pace of about 17 per day. That means that a given player has a .17 percent chance of being tested on every single day. Incidentally, that in turn means that the average player will be tested 3.2 times per year under § 3.A.2.a each season, and therefore between 4 and 5 times total in a season.
The probability that a given player will be tested three or more times under § 3.A.2.a in a specific ten-day span is just 0.05%. But there are a lot of ten-day periods over an entire season, and when we consider all of them, the probability rises to about 1.15 percent.
And that’s not the only way Thames could’ve been tested three times in ten days; he also could’ve had two § 3.A.2.a tests within ten days of his § 3.A.1.b test. The probability of that happening is 2.84 percent, which brings the total estimated probability of three tests within ten days to almost precisely 4.0 percent.
That doesn’t seem particularly high, but it’s also not incredibly low. And remember, there are something like 1,000 players subject to the testing program. The probability of this happening to Eric Thames specifically at some point in the 2017 season might be only four percent, but we’d expect roughly 40 players each year to have three tests in a ten day span.
The takeaway? Thames almost certainly isn’t being targeted. It would be a massive scandal if he was, and while doing three tests in ten days around the time when multiple people are speculating that you’re doing steroids is a strange coincidence, it doesn’t look like it’s anything more than that.
But let’s assume that there was some clear evidence that Thames was being selected deliberately. Maybe, instead of being tested three times in ten days, Thames was tested eight times in ten days. (The probability of that happening would be miniscule.)
The JDA itself doesn’t answer that question. It only authorizes “random” testing, but it doesn’t define what it means to be random, or say what might happen if the parameters of the agreement are broken. So I turned to baseball legal expert Nathaniel Grow, an Associate Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Georgia and a regular FanGraphs contributor. Grow has written about the implications of numerous baseball legal issues, including the CBA, labor law, and the ongoing minor league minimum wage litigation.
Under the JDA, the players to be tested are selected by an Independent Program Administrator (IPA), who is chosen jointly by the MLBPA and the league and affiliated with neither. Grow said Thames and the MLBPA would have two main options if Thames was being targeted, with the first being moving to fire the current IPA. Under § 1.A.1.c, the IPA “may be removed for acting in a manner inconsistent with the Program or for misconduct that affects his ability to perform as IPA.” If the IPA is fudging the “random” selections to focus on players who are hitting a ton of massive dingers, that would almost definitely qualify as “acting in a manner inconsistent with the Program.”
The other option would be to file a grievance under the CBA. In that case, it would be handled much like any other issue between a player and management (like the Kris Bryant service time grievance), and would likely go before an arbitration panel. Any resolution down that path could be a long time in coming; the Bryant grievance is still unresolved.
My last question for Grow was whether Thames could ever just say no. If he had been tested every day of the previous week, and the guys with white coats and clear cups showed up at his locker for the eighth consecutive day, could he simply refuse? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, was no. Section 3.A.2 specifically says that there’s no limit to the number of times a player can be selected for a random test, so there’s no point where Thames could truly say that a threshold had been crossed. And, Grow pointed out, § 7.G.2 authorizes the Commissioner to discipline a player who violates the JDA in some way other than testing positive, meaning that Thames could face fines or suspensions if he did try to refuse. MLB has every reason to encourage players to voluntarily take the tests, and if they do have an issue, to resolve it through the procedures established in the CBA rather than taking it into their own hands.
All that leaves us basically back where we started. Eric Thames is great. He’s probably not doing steroids, and he’s also probably not being specifically targeted for steroid testing. And, even if he was, his options for redress would be limited at best. Next time something like this happens — next time an Eric Thames or Jake Arrieta comes out of nowhere, and surprises everyone with their performance — enjoy it! Watch them make an opposing hitter look foolish, or hit the absolute stuffing out of a baseball, and be happy. If nothing else, do this for me; I would rather write dumb posts filled with sweet home run gifs than write dumb posts filled with probability calculations and parsing of the JDA. We’ll all be happier if we can just relax.
Many thanks to Professor Grow for his help. You can find his work at FanGraphs, and follow him on Twitter at @NathanielGrow.
Henry Druschel is a Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @HenryDruschel.