Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why so few blacks in MLB? A convincing theory

Why are there now so few blacks in baseball? According to this very interesting article, by Chris Isidore,

The percentage of [American] black major league players is now 8.4 percent ... That's a touch less than half the level it was at only 10 years ago. Some teams, such as the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros, have no black players on their rosters.

Why is that? Where have all the black players gone?

For one thing, Isidore writes, major-league teams are devoting more and more of their scouts to check out players outside the United States. That's because those players aren't eligible for the draft, and can be signed directly. If you scout a player in Louisiana, there's only a 1-in-30 chance you'll wind up with his rights. But if you nurture a prospect in Venezuela, you have a pretty good chance of getting him to sign a contract with you.

But, according to Isidore, there's another important factor, and that's the fact that (as documented in "Moneyball,") teams are increasingly drafting players out of college, instead of high school.

And more white players go to college than black players, for socio-economic reasons. Result: fewer black draft choices.

According to the article, when the draft began in 1965, 56% of drafted players were high-schoolers. In 2005, it was down to 35%. Since it probably takes 15 years for the full effect of those changes to show up in rosters, that seems like a pretty good explanation. I found Bill James' famous draft study from his 1984 newsletter. From James' charts, here are the proportions of draft choices who were high school players:

1965: 71% (article: 56%)
1967: 100%
1969: 88%
1971: 96%
1973: 74%
1975: 74%
1977: 80%
1979: 68%
2005: 35% (from article)

I don't know for sure why James' 1965 figure doesn't match the article's. But James used a weighted formula (so early choices counted more than late choices), and only considered the top 50 draftees, so that's probably the difference.

In any case, if the numbers are correct, the percentage of high-school players fell slowly but steadily until 1979. Then, between 1979 and 2005, it dropped in half. One thing you could do to check further, is actually count what proportion of college players are white, compared to high-school players. That would help confirm the hypothesis.

But I think this theory is pretty good ... I bet this is a big part of the answer.

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At Thursday, April 19, 2007 7:47:00 PM, Blogger D. said...

On this past week's Baseball Prospectus Radio, Dave Winfield floated this theory and implied that he discussed it at more length in his new book...I had never heard it before but it was very compelling

At Thursday, April 19, 2007 9:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I checked this once and it showed that it is a historical cycle where high school players are favored then college. It is a non-stopping trend in the baseball draft. Scouts love cycles like these (they use them to explain everything) and because of that, it should be no surprise that the data would show that.

At Friday, April 20, 2007 1:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sure that is a part of it but I wouldn't rule out the Michael Jordan effect. The NBA gained a lot of popularity during the Michael Jordan years of the 1990's which probably resulted in a lot of young black athletes choosing to play basketball over the baseball.

You can compare it to the effect the Blue Jays success in the early 1990's had on Canadian athletes choosing to play baseball which has resulted in a surge of talented young Canadian players entering the majors. Jason Bay, Justin Morneau, Jeff Francis, Rich Harden, Erik Bedard, Adam Loewen, etc. MLB has never seen a group of young talented players like that come out of Canada at the same time and all of them were in the 10-15 years of age during the Blue Jays back to back world series. Larry Walker was at his prime during that time too and baseball in Canada was as popular as ever. I am sure Michael Jordan had a similar effect on young black athletes wanting to choose the NBA over baseball.

At Friday, April 20, 2007 10:58:00 AM, Blogger Tangotiger said...

I've long supported the college/HS reason, but I like David's idea as well.

It should be easy enough to test. I suspect that most basketball players are at least 6'4", and most baseball players are 6'3" and under. If David's theory holds true, then there should be a bunch og 6'0" to 6'3" black players in basketball that is disproportionate to the pre-beLikeMike days, and similarly, the drop in black baseball players would be concentrated there.

The other theory I have is that the swing away from small ball means a reason not to have speed (Coleman-stealing and Pettis-fielding). Whether real or perceived, black players are associated with speed (and Bill James' study 20 years ago certainly leads support to this).

At Friday, April 20, 2007 11:21:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Tom: I like the speed theory a lot.

Looking back at Bill James 1987 Abstract, where he introduced speed score, 8 of the top 10 fastest NL players were black (all but Gary Redus and Lenny Dykstra), and of the slowest, all but Cecil Cooper and Ozzie Virgil were white. (Is Ozzie Virgil black?)

You need more evidence than this, of course, but I think you're on to something.

At Friday, April 20, 2007 2:15:00 PM, Blogger Tangotiger said...

In one of the James landmark studies, he should the aging curves for the black speedsters to be better than those of white speedsters. A fantastic study. I think it was in the "Yellow" abstract. Maybe the "Red" one.

At Friday, April 20, 2007 5:23:00 PM, Blogger Pizza Cutter said...

The college/HS theory doesn't seem to hold. Elite athletes in college (the ones who will be drafted) are generally on scholarship, and a lot of things are "taken care of" for them. (I teach at a D1 college...) If a kid came from difficult circumstances financially, he'd probably be in his best possible financial situation by going to college in that case. At that point, his tuition is paid, he has a guaranteed room and board, and his other option is what?

At Friday, April 20, 2007 8:39:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I would add that a lot of them don't even make it through high school. One article says "In inner cities, more than half of all Black men do not finish high (secondary) school".

And there is also prison. "Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990s and reached historic highs in the past few years, In 1995, 16 per cent of Black men in their 20s who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 per cent were incarcerated."

At Saturday, April 21, 2007 1:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NCAA study has some information on HS sports participation vs college. I don't know how multi-sport players are counted in those statistics - I assume they are counted once each. Personally I don't believe the "Michael Jordan effect" is a large part of the explanation (at least in those terms); I'd think the roots are older, with the disappearance of sandlots and the Negro leagues having more to do with a shift to basketball among urban youth and black youth.

The issue is complicated, because so many things change together, and there need not be a single decisive factor. I tend to agree that the main factors should be MLB's increasing recruitment of foreign players, in conjunction with an increased drafting of college players, which is a whiter population than the HS pool. As Patriot pointed out in a comment on The Book blog, split (partial) scholarships are likelier in baseball than football and basketball, so financial need can still be something of a barrier, even for academically qualified students. One other factor on the college scholarship front would have to be the change in freshman eligibility rules at the end of the 1980s, creating minimum standardized test scores and grades - effectively filtering somewhat those further down the socio-economic scale. (This is only second hand, but my understanding is that there is a well accepted strong correlation between parents' education and income and the educational performance of their children; the same factors correlate with race.) This change was intended to prevent exploitation of student athletes. And after all it is not the NCAA's "job" to feed talent to MLB. In a non-revenue sport like baseball it must be even harder to invest a scholarship in an ineligible player.

Here's another article on the subject.

At Wednesday, July 23, 2008 10:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article and the links. As a black man and a baseball fan I've wondered about this decline in recent years. Another factor which is part and parcel of the social plight of the black community is the lack of proper training of the kids in many fatherless homes. The kids today aren't as respectful of themselves and others (see Lastings Milledge) and many organizations would rather not have that headache when there are other viable alternatives elsewhere in the world. Bottom line though is that there is a lot of untapped baseball talent going to waste for all the wrong reasons.


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