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.

Adrian Beltre cleared for extended spring training

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Adrian Beltre has been on the disabled list all year because of nagging right calf strain, but he’s about to take a big step toward getting back to action.

Beltre has been cleared to begin playing in extended spring training games. He’ll commence them tomorrow at the Rangers facility in Surprise, Arizona. After three games the team’s doctors will reevaluate him. If things go well, he’ll likely be sent off for a full minor league rehab assignment.

Joey Gallo has filled in for Beltre all season, bringing a lot of power but not much else to the table. While Beltre is 38, his all-around game would be welcomed back on the field and his leadership would be welcomed back in the Rangers clubhouse. On a personal note, Beltre is only 58 hits shy of 3,000 for his career.

Barring a setback, he’ll be back with the big club in early June and will hit the milestone eventually.

Michael Bourn opts out of his minor league deal with the Orioles

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Outfielder Michael Bourn was traded by the Diamondbacks to the Orioles late last season and hit a solid .283/.358/.435 in 55 plate appearances with them through the end of the season. While that’s not enough to outweigh the miserable season he had in Arizona, it was enough to get the O’s to give him a look in spring training with a minor league deal. They signed him to one in late February.

Then, a couple of days later, Bourn broke his finger while playing catch with a football. Unable to play, the O’s cut him. In early April, once Bourn healed, the O’s signed him again. He played 11 games for their Triple-A affiliate and went 9-for-41 with ten walks in 51 plate appearances. While that makes for a decent OBP, his lack of any sort of pop or good contact suggests that if someone throws him strikes, he can’t do much with the ball.

As such, the O’s had not called him up to Baltimore. And as a result of that, Bourn exercised his opt-out rights and became a free agent.

Someone may take a look at him given that his batting eye seems to be intact and given that, in an admittedly small sample size, he still performed last season. But if he does get a look, it’ll likely be back at the minor league level.