Rico Carty

Today that annual diversity-in-baseball study comes out. Take it with a serious grain of salt.

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Today is the day that the annual report from Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida comes out.  He’s been doing this for years, and it always gets highlighted in the media, with headlines about how the number of U.S.-born black players in baseball is declining.  Which, yes, it is.  But Lapchick’s report is also normally treated wholly uncritically, with his conclusions being parroted instead of reported, and it really grinds my gears.

It bugs me on a broad level, in that — as I’ve mentioned in this space several times — it looks at the trees but not the forest, noting that while, yes, there are fewer U.S.-born black players in baseball now than there used to, the overall diversity of baseball is up as the game becomes increasingly internationalized.

But it bugs me in a much sharper sense in that I believe the numbers Lapchick puts out are misleading.

They are misleading in that, while his current count of U.S.-born blacks in baseball seems right — he has it at 8.5% — the numbers he and others typically cite for the height of black representation in the game are usually off. He has cited as high as 27% of all players being black, and this number is often repeated as gospel, like it is in today’s USA Today story about it.

Thing is: these are apples and oranges measurements.  Back in the 70s when that 27% number came out, those numbers represented counts of all black players — or people who had sufficiently-black skin to be called “black” according to the view of those doing the counting. This included Latino players like Rico Carty, who happened to be born in the Dominican Republic. Today Carty — or, say, Aroldis Chapman or any other non-U.S.-born black player — wouldn’t be included in Lapchick’s count. Which makes sense because he’s counting only U.S.-born blacks. But he and his media surrogates freely cite the old numbers which did include Latino blacks back in the day.

Friend of mine and frequent HBT commenter Mark Armour is doing some research on this for the Society of American Baseball Research. I’ve not seen the research, but Tyler Kepner notes it in the New York Times today. Armour estimates that the actual height of U.S.-born blacks in the game came in the 1980s and peaked at 19%. See the update below for some of Mark’s additional comments on this.

No, that research does not mean that all things are wonderful. There clearly are fewer U.S.-born black players in baseball today than there were in decades past. But it’s not quite a crisis on the order of magnitude that Lapchick and others portray. And given that they’re not being particularly discerning with their numbers you have to wonder if either sloppiness or agenda-setting is taking precedence over science here.

And that’s my problem with it. Not the underlying idea — I want there to be more blacks in the game; heck, I want EVERYONE to play baseball and anything that can be done to promote it should be – but on the manner in which the problem is portrayed. A manner which seems more calculated to draw attention to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports than it does to the underlying issue.

UPDATE:  Mark Armour chimed in in the comments:

I am not exactly sure where the 27% number came from. My theory had been that the old data was from some newpaper story that counted all dark-skinned players as black, while the new data only counted US black players. However, several years ago this was explored further by the Wall Street Journal, and they determined that the old data is just … bad science. Really bad science.

The real drop in African-Americans (from 17-19% in the 1975-95 period) to half that today is significant enough without the bad data. Baseball is MORE diverse, of course, than every before.

By the way, MLB is very cooperative in the Lapchick study. In fact, they provide all of the data on opening day rosters to Lapchick every year. The writers that imply this is some sort of bigotry on the part of MLB are nuts. It is very clear that MLB is spending lots of time and money on this problem.

This is the WSJ story from 2008.

Did Tony La Russa screw Jim Edmonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy?

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Yes, that’s a somewhat provocative question. But it’s still an interesting question, the relevancy of and merits of which we’ll get to in a second. I pose it mostly so I can tell you about some neat research a friend of mine is doing and which should make Hall of Fame discussions and the general discussion of baseball history a lot of fun in the coming years. Bear with me for a moment.

There has long been a war between metrics and narrative. The folks who say that so-and-so was great because of the arc of his story and his career and those who say so-and-so was not so great or whatshisface was way, way better because of the numbers. Those views are often pitted as irreconcilable opposites. But what if they weren’t? What if there was some data which explained why some players become narrative darlings and others don’t? Some explanation for why, say, Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame while Dwight Evans isn’t despite having better numbers? An explanation, that isn’t about voters being dumb or merely playing favorites all willy-nilly? What if there was some actual quantitative reason why favorites get played in the first place?

That’s the thesis of the work of Brandon Isleib. He has just finished writing a very interesting book. It’s not yet published, but I have had the chance to read it. It sets forth the fascinating proposition that we can quantify narrative. That we can divine actual numerical values which help explain a player’s fame and public profile. Values which aren’t based on some complicated or counterintuitive formula, but which are rooted in the very thing all baseball fans see every day: games. Wins and losses. The daily standings. Values which reveal that, no, Hall of Fame voters who made odd choices in the view of the analytics crowd weren’t necessarily stupid or petty. They were merely reacting to forces and dynamics in the game which pushed them in certain ways and not others.

“But wait!” you interject. “Jim Rice and Dwight Evans played on the same dang team! How does Brandon distinguish that?” I won’t give away all the details of it but it makes sense if you break down how the Red Sox did in certain years and how that corresponded with Rice’s and Evans’ best years. There were competitive narratives in play in 1975, 1978 or 1986 that weren’t in play in 1981 or 1987. From those competitive narratives come player narratives which are pretty understandable. When you weight it all based on how competitive a team was on a day-to-day basis based on how far out of first place they were, etc., a picture starts to come together which explains why “fame” works the way it does.

From this, you start to realize why certain players, no matter how good, never got much Hall of Fame consideration. And why others’ consideration seemed disproportionate compared to their actual performance. All of which, again, is based on numbers, not on the sort of bomb-throwing media criticism in which jerks like me have come to engage.

Like I said, the book won’t be out for a bit — Brandon just finished it — but in the meantime he has a website where he has been and, increasingly will be, talking about his quantification of narrative stuff, writing short articles posing some of the questions his book and his research addresses.

Today’s entry — which is what my headline is based on — isn’t really numbers-based. It’s more talking about the broader phenomenon Brandon’s work gets at in terms of trying to figure out which players are credited for their performance and which are not so credited and why. Specifically, it talks about how Tony La Russa, more than most managers, gets the credit for his success and his players probably get somewhat less than they deserve. In this way La Russa is kind of viewed as a football coach figure and his players are, I dunno, system quarterbacks. It’s something that is unfair, I think, to guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and will, eventually, likely be unfair to players like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday.

It’s fascinating stuff which gets to the heart of player reputation and how history comes together. It reminds us that, in the end, the reporters and the analysts who argue about all of these things are secondary players, even if we make the most noise. It’s the figures in the game — the players and the managers — who shape it all. The rest of us are just observers and scribes.

Corey Seager tops Keith Law’s top-100 prospect list

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager warms up before Game 1 of baseball's National League Division Series against the New York Mets, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
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Yesterday it was the top farm systems, today it’s the top-100 prospects from ESPN’s Keith Law.

As Law notes, there’s a HUGE amount of turnover on the list from last year, given how many top prospects were promoted to the bigs in 2015. Kris Bryant seems like a grizzled old veteran now. Carlos Correa too. Eleven of the top 20 from last year’s list have graduated into the bigs. Are we sure it’s only been a year?

So, obviously, there’s a new number one. It’s Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ infielder. Not that everything has changed. Byron Buxton is still number two. This will obviously be his last year on the list. If you want to see and read about the other 98, go check out Keith’s excellent work.

And yes, like yesterday’s farm system rankings, it’s Insider subscription only. There were comments about how much you all hate that and I am sure there will be many more of them today. I get that. No one likes to pay for content. I was somewhat amused, however, by comments that said things like “hey, maybe if we don’t click it, they’ll have to give it to us for free!” Maybe! Or, more likely, the content simply will cease to exist!

It’s good stuff, folks. There aren’t many paid sites I say that about.

Ozzie Guillen to manage again. In Venezuela

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With Dusty Baker getting back into action with the Nationals and with there being at least some moderate sense that, maybe, inexperienced dudes might not be the best choice to manage big league clubs, I sorta hoped that someone would give Ozzie Guillen another look. Nah. Not happening.

Not that I’m shocked or anything. I can imagine that, under the best of circumstances, a guy like Guillen is hard to have around. He tends to find controversy pretty easily and, unlike some other old hands, Guillen never claimed to be any kind of master tactician. He famously said that he was bored during games until the sixth or seventh inning when he had to start thinking about pitching changes. Refreshing honesty, yes, but maybe not the sort of dude you bring on to, say, be a bench coach or to mentor your younger coaches or to show your hand-picked manager the ropes. Nope, it seemed like Guillen was destined to stay in broadcasting with ESPN Deportes or someone and that his days in uniform were over.

But they’re not over! Guillen was hired yesterday to manage the La Guaira Sharks of the Venezuelan Winter League next offseason. It’s not the bigs, but it is is first on-field gig since he was canned by the Marlins in 2012.

 

Guillen managed the White Sox from 2004-11 and was voted AL Manager of the Year in 2005, when Chicago won the World Series. He may be a bit of a throwback now, but he knows what he’s doing. While I can’t really say that a major league team would be wise to hire the guy — I get it, I really do — a selfish part of me really wants him back in the bigs. He was fun.

Angels ink Javy Guerra to minor league deal

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Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times reports that the Angels have agreed to terms on a minor league contract with right-handed reliever Javy Guerra. The deal includes an invitation to major league spring training.

Guerra was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball last July after testing positive for a drug of abuse. That suspension is now over, though Guerra is probably ticketed for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate to begin the 2016 season.

The 30-year-old made just three major league appearances in 2015 for the White Sox before getting outrighted off Chicago’s 40-man roster. He does own a 2.87 ERA in 150 1/3 career innings, but it has come with bouts of inconsistency and unreliability.

Maybe he can get everything going in the right direction with Anaheim.