Analysis: Baseball's hidden ethnic bias

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, July 23 (UPI) -- The uproar over Chicago Cubs Manager Dusty Baker's assertion that black and Latin American players get less worn down by the heat isn't baseball's only ethnic brouhaha.

A more important controversy involves the disparate impact of the ongoing revolution in how baseball teams evaluate players. Is the trend pioneered by the statistics-savvy general managers of Oakland, Calif., Toronto and Boston toward more rigorous evaluations of ballplayers' records -- such as searching out low-priced players with the unglamorous skill of being able to wheedle bases on balls from pitchers -- biased in favor of white American players?


Or, when looked at from a more politically incorrect perspective, does this trend mean that previously the Anglo white-dominated baseball establishment had actually tended for decades to discriminate irrationally against Americans and in favor of more free-swinging Latin hitters, who on average weren't quite as productive as their batting averages indicated?


This controversy can help illuminate issues of discrimination and disparate impact stretching far beyond baseball. The remarkable quantity and quality of baseball statistics allows for careful testing of theories about ethnic bias.

The Toronto Star newspaper ran a series of articles on June 28 under the heading, "White Jays: In a city of so many multi-cultural faces, Toronto's baseball team is the whitest in the league. Why?" Nineteen of the 25 players on the Blue Jays' opening day roster were white Americans, three were African-Americans, and three were Latin Americans. (The average major league team has about three American blacks and seven Latinos.)

In late 2001, the Blue Jays hired as general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who is a follower of maverick statistics analyst Bill James. The Star documented that Ricciardi's quantitative acumen has had what civil rights litigators call a "disparate impact:" "Of the 39 players Ricciardi has since acquired through trades, free agency or waiver claims, 36 of them -- 92 percent -- are white," the newspaper reported.

The Star's sports reporter Geoff Baker claimed that this "raises the issue of whether the Jays truly need to be more representative of the city they play in at a time when they are satisfying fans by winning."


Toronto is 8 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic. Exactly why, say, Toronto's large Asian Indian community would feel that replacing a few whites with Caribbean players would make the Blue Jays "more representative" of them was never explained. Apparently, to the Toronto Star, "more representative" just means "more non-white."

Not surprisingly, readers were outraged at the newspaper's seeming call for roster quotas, directing 2,000 complaints to the Star's ombudsman. Blue Jays' star slugger Carlos Delgado, a black man from Puerto Rico, scoffed, "It was probably the stupidest thing I've ever seen." The team's second biggest hitter, African-American Vernon Wells, responded, "Black, white, green or gray, it doesn't matter. We get along, we have a good time, and it shows up on the field."

It's easy to criticize the Star's series, yet, although blinded by its political bias, it was groping toward the germ of an important idea. There's a revolution going on in how teams evaluate talent, and this growing sophistication is, on the whole, likely to benefit previously overlooked U.S. players at the expense of Latin Americans with flashier batting averages and stolen base totals.

Defending the Star's much reviled "White Jays" series, columnist Richard Griffin wrote the next day, "Jays General Manager J.P. Ricciardi along with Oakland's Billy Beane and other new-wavers believe in building offense through patience at the plate and taking no chances on the bases. That's a pre-WWII style of play. Under those criteria, Jackie Robinson could not have played in the majors."


While that's an ignorant libel of the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 -- Robinson was highly disciplined both at the plate (garnering as many as 106 walks in a season) and on the base paths (averaging 16 stolen bases out of 21 tries during the six seasons for which we have data) -- Griffin vaguely identified a genuine trend back toward Ted Williams' style of baseball.

It's not a racist conspiracy. In fact, it's making baseball more meritocratic. Yet, this illustrates that almost any business strategy is likely to have a disparate impact on some group.

Ricciardi is part of the new generation of executives who have broken with the consensus of old baseball hands on what kind of players to pursue. For decades, big league scouts have searched for young men who "look good in a uniform." They want "five-tool players" who can hit for average, hit for power, run, field and throw. Once they get to the big leagues, baseball has traditionally evaluated hitters based on the "triple crown statistics" of batting average (hits divided by at bats), home runs and runs batted in.

The new executives have turned instead for guidance to maverick statistics aficionados like author Bill James. In fact, a quarter of a century after James self-published his first "Baseball Abstract" book of breakthrough statistical analyses, the Boston Red Sox hired him last winter as "Senior Baseball Operations Adviser."


James coined the term "sabermetrician" from the initials of the Society for American Baseball Research to describe amateur number-crunchers. Professional baseball executives, managers and scouts frequently denounce sabermetricians as pasty-faced math nerds who aren't worth listening to because they never advanced beyond playing right field in Little League.

That hasn't stopped the stats boys from arguing for a couple of decades that baseball executives overpay for all-around athletes. In their research, they've found that baseball teams don't always require the sheer speed and athleticism that, say, playing cornerback in the NFL demands. Instead, a crafty general manager can more cheaply assemble a team that includes some players who look less like defensives backs and more like (gulp) golfers, yet who possess various unsexy skills that pay off in winning ballgames.

The most undervalued trait, the numbers geeks have found, is a "sixth tool:" the ability to not swing at pitches outside the strike zone. Batting average, traditionally the most prestigious statistic, correlates less with scoring runs than does on-base percentage, which counts hits along with two less admired ways to get on base: walking (letting four bad pitches go by without swinging) and getting hit by a pitch.

Similarly, rigorous analysis shows that the stolen base is a much riskier tactic than was long thought. The cost of getting thrown out is at least twice the benefit of making it. Teams were overvaluing players who ran a lot because they were forgetting to count how often they got caught.


Sabermetricians have done less to revolutionize thinking about pitching, however, because baseball already possessed an excellent statistic in the earned run average.

Strikingly, the dispute between the baseball establishment and the sabermetricians is in essence a continuation of baseball's first great argument over strategy, the one between Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Cobb, the greatest star of the early 20th century, believed baseball revolved around line drives and stolen bases. Ruth won the hearts of fans by bombing previously unimaginable numbers of home runs. Yet, in the minds of many baseball insiders and sportswriters, Cobb's cunning, elegant style remained preferred over Ruth's seemingly vulgar, showy antics.

What the elite didn't understand, however, was that that Ruth had a second arrow in his offensive quiver. By intimidating pitchers with his power to slam out of the park balls thrown down the middle, he forced them to try to nibble at the edges of the strike zone. When they missed, he'd accept a walk, earning as many as 177 free passes in a season. Batting behind Ruth, Lou Gehrig ran up enormous RBI totals.

Although Cobb's career batting average of .366 was the highest ever, significantly better than Ruth's .342, Ruth's on-base percentage of .474 substantially beat Cobb's .433.


Ruth's greatest disciple was Ted Williams (although the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds is now contending for that title), and he became a role model for many mid-century players. Williams may have been the most technically proficient American ever -- he also flew a jet fighter in the Korean War as John Glenn's wingman, and in his retirement became perhaps the best fisherman in the country. But nobody ever accused him of being a great all-around athlete. He was slow on the base paths and awkward-looking in left field.

Then, Jackie Robinson arrived in the National League. At UCLA, he'd been an All-American halfback, a star guard on the basketball team and the favorite for a gold medal in the long jump until World War II cancelled the 1940 Olympics.

In statistical retrospect, he seems the epitome of the smart percentage player (his career high in steals was 37). Indeed, African-Americans have provided many of the most patient hitters and highest percentage base stealers, such as Joe Morgan, Bonds (whose unbelievable-sounding 198 walks last year broke Ruth's single season record), and Rickey Henderson (who broke Ruth's career walks record). In fact, the offense-starved Los Angeles Dodgers just brought the 44-year-old Henderson up from the minors and made him their leadoff hitter.


The percentage of African-American big leaguers has dropped sharply since about 1975, but not because of changes in how statistics are evaluated. Instead, baseball is simply losing the battle with basketball for popularity among black youths in America.

At the time, however, it was Robinson's base running that electrified onlookers, especially New York journalists. As the Star columnist sensed, the arrival of speedy African-American and Latin American players in Robinson's wake slowly changed fashions from getting walks and toward stealing bases.

By the 1960s, the fad for speed reached self-defeating proportions as more teams installed as their leadoff hitters extremely fast runners with low on-base percentages. "For a decade or more, baseball was held grip in the grip of the (Luis) Aparicio / (Maury) Wills generation of leadoff men," Bill James wrote in 1986.

What James calls "the delusion that 40 or 50 stolen bases could compensate for a comparative inability to reach base" faded very slowly. For example, in 1984, Toronto's speedy Dominican shortstop Alfredo Griffin walked four times in 140 games ... and made the All Star Game.

The first Jamesian general manager was Oakland's Billy Beane, appointed in 1997. He's the protagonist of Michael Lewis' recent bestseller "Moneyball." In 2001 and 2002, Beane's A's won a total of 205 games, seven more than the mighty New York Yankees, despite paying only about one-third as much in players' salaries. Lewis, who wrote the popular book "Liar's Poker" about Wall Street traders in the 1980s, found that Beane was doing what the financial industry's "rocket scientists" have done for years: crunching numbers on a huge scale to find undervalued assets.


Following Beane's 2001 success, Ricciardi was hired to likewise buy low and sell high. For example, last season Ricciardi traded Raul Mondesi, whose contract pays him $13 million this year, to the wealthy New York Yankees for a poorly paid minor league pitcher named Scott Wiggins. Mondesi is the model of the fabulous athlete with all five of the standard tools. Yet, Mondesi lacks that critical sixth -- the ability to refrain from swinging at bad pitches.

Overall, the 39 newcomers Ricciardi has picked up averaged $642,000 in salary, compared to the $2.5 million average for the players he dumped.

Ricciardi's new team is both saving money and scoring runs. In 2001, the season before he took over, the Blue Jays were ninth out of the 14 American League teams in on-base percentage and runs scored. At the All-Star break this year, they were third in on-base percentage and second in runs. At present, they are on track to win about seven more games than in 2001.

The reason that scientific general managers like Ricciardi are modestly more likely to sign more white players than traditional general managers is because the old, less logical norms for evaluating ballplayers tend to slightly overrate Latin Americans.


For example, players with Spanish names (lumping both foreign and American-born Latinos together) were on average 15 percent more likely to steal bases per plate appearance than everyone else in baseball. Yet, because both groups were successful 68 percent of the time, it's not clear how many more runs, if any, all that extra stealing contributed.

More importantly, although they are slowly improving, Hispanic players are on average less likely to accept walks than whites or African-Americans. "It's not easy for a Latin player to take 100 walks," said Sammy Sosa early in his famous 1998 season.

In 2002, Hispanics had a combined batting average of .264, while everyone else together hit .260. On the other hand, the Hispanic "walk average" was 0.060, while the non-Hispanics' bases on balls ratio was 0.069, a significant 14 percent higher, leaving the non-Latinos with a better on-base percentage.

The patience gap has declined somewhat, from 16 percent in 1992 and 19 percent in 1982, probably because Latinos have largely closed the power gap. Twenty years ago, non-Hispanics hit home runs 42 percent more often than Hispanics, but that difference was 4 percent last year. The last 15 years have seen the emergence of Hispanics with excellent batting eyes like Delgado, Edgar Martinez and Rafael Palmeiro. Beane, for instance, rescued Erubiel Durazo, a young man who does not "look good in a uniform" because he has strangely short arms, from the Arizona bench. He's currently tied for third in the American league in walks.


Still, this huge increase in slugging has not made the shortfall disappear.

Nobody is sure why this inequality exists, but it's been around for decades. American Negro Leaguers playing winter ball in the islands back in the 1930s were amazed at the kind of pitches at which their hosts would swing.

In the past, Latinos tended to cluster at the positions where fielding was more important than power, but that does not fully account for the patience gap. In one of the few sabermetric studies ever done of the discipline disparity, David Marasco looked at American League hitters during 1994-1996. He found that American-born "glovemen" (shortstops, second basemen and catchers) were 24 percent more likely to walk than Latin American-born glovemen, while at the more offense-minded positions the gap was 7 percent.

This may be a rational response to what big league scouts look for in a prospect. Dominican youths have a saying: "You can't walk to America."

One of the main lessons of the sabermetricians has been that plate discipline is largely an unteachable trait. Hitters either have it or they don't. Scouts and executives shouldn't assume that a Mondesi can be taught to lay off bad pitches once he gets to the big leagues.


Nevertheless, because the Latin tendency toward not walking is clearly not a racial difference (Latin ballplayers come in all colors), their free swinging may change in the future. For example, if Latin players are failing to get walks merely because they lack role models at an impressionable age, that's not set in stone.

One excellent role model is Sosa. Six years ago, the Chicago Cubs outfielder was another Mondesi, a spectacular physical specimen who was a sucker for swinging at pitches nobody could hit hard. Then, at age 29 he set himself over winter to learn patience. In 1998, his walk count went from 45 to 73, and his home run total famously exploded from 36 to 66 as he battled Mark McGwire for the record. Yet, even after achieving superstardom, he continued to improve, recording his greatest season in 2001 when he walked 116 times.

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