Digging deeper into the decline of African-Americans in major league baseball

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Last month we had a series of posts about how fewer African-Americans are playing major league baseball than they used to.  The context of all of this was the annual report in which Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida releases numbers which purport to show the decline.

Mark Armour, friend of HBT and baseball researcher extraordinaire, had done some research on this back in the day and was quoted in the New York Times and other places noting that Lapchick’s study overstated the decline because it was counting apples and oranges. Specifically, Lapchick was using data which lumped together U.S.-born blacks and black Latino players to represent overall black participation in the 1960s through the 1980s but excluding black Latino players from today’s game. That’s some bad science, my friend.

Well, Mark has gone back and re-done his research in order to (a) bring it up to date; and (b) control for some various variables. His report can be read at the SABR website today, and it’s absolutely fascinating, regardless of what you think about black participation in baseball.  The two key takeaways:

  • The percentage of African-Americans held steady between 16% and 19% between 1972 and 1996, but has since decreased by more than half. This is still obviously a sharp decline, but nothing approaching the 27% figure Lapchick usually cites; and
  • A non-trivial part of the decline can be attributed to the fact that the two positions which are least-commonly filled by black players — pitcher and catcher — now take up a greater number of roster spots than before due to changing pitcher usage patterns.

The second bit doesn’t change the overall thrust — there are still fewer black players and this is so for reason other than roster changes — but it’s really, really neat and I had not thought about it before.

I highly recommend Mark’s very readable and very insightful article. Both for its own sake and because it throws some actual research into an area that is so often polluted with politics.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.