Frankly, it’s not an issue that I’ve been particularly interested in for a number of reasons, primarily a belief that as long as there are not systemic barriers to participation – and there are not – then it doesn’t matter whether or not blacks are playing baseball or basketball or perhaps better still sitting in anonymous cubes wasting away their work day reading about baseball (or basketball) on the web. This year, possibly because more online writers have addressed it and done so in a more substantive way, the issue has had a little more staying power. Here are a few links:
JC Bradbury wrote a thoughtful data driven post on some possible underlying causes. The first graph - the decline of black players from 1991 and on - is particularly relevant because those are the players I’ll be focused on.
Unfortunately, the next two are BP subscriber articles.
Joe Sheehan making the “it doesn’t matter” case:
David Laurila’s interview with Orlando Hudson focuses on the issue from a player’s perspective:
Of course, I’m interested in the issue from a draft perspective. That’s a good place to start because that is the mechanism through which black players enter professional baseball. But more specifically what drew me to this topic is the idea that a changing mix of black and white players might help to explain some things that I had noticed in the late 1980s and 1990s drafts that I’ve studied. Superficially, it had seemed that black college players were much more prevalent in the 1980s. Would that hold up to greater scrutiny and if so would that help explain why the college advantage of the 1980s evaporated in the 1990s?
When I compiled position specific data I noticed how black college outfielders dominated that position. At about that time, I read a BA draft preview article lamenting the lousy 2008 class of college outfielders. It featured a picture of two disappointing – and white – college outfielders. While BA made those two kids the poster boys for the down year, was the real reason that college outfielders have slipped because there just aren’t very many good black ones anymore? I don’t want to wade too far into the “blacks are fast and therefore better in the outfield” stereotypes, but it is a stereotype with a basis in truth. Since integration black players have dominated speed categories (SB and triples) and from Mays to Griffey have often been the iconic five tool centerfielder.
Anyway, let’s just dive into the data and see what kind of trends we can find.
Here are the black college players from the 1987-1996 drafts (note: I set a 20 WARP minimum as that’s a good low end cutoff for a useful career as a regular).
Looking at the position column you can see that these players were predominantly outfielders - 13 out of 17 with a couple slugging 1B/DHs, a shortstop and a catcher.
A little over half exceeded my 40 WARP threshold for “good” players. Six of those eight players, including some truly great ones, were drafted in just the three drafts from the late 1980s. The players drafted in the 1990s tended to be more in the useful 20-ish WARP category and rarer overall – nine players in these seven drafts vs eight players in the previous three drafts.
It does seem that colleges did more routinely produce great black players in the 1980s and the decline in black college players may have played a significant role in the overall decline in college productivity seen in the 1990s.
(Note: I “one dropped” Dave Roberts who is multiracial/multiethnic. Right or wrong (or really wrong), you just can’t broach this topic without “one dropping” people. It’s another reason I’ve steered clear of the topic in the past. I can sort my data by school, position, team, etc, but – and this isn’t a bad thing – you can’t sort by race/ethnicity. So Dave Roberts is “black”.)
Here’s another quick table to summarize these findings and look at the per draft averages for 1987-1989 and 1990-1996.
On average, the number of black players who exceeded 20 WARP dropped by about 50% from 2.7/draft to 1.3/draft. Interestingly, the relative quality of those players also dramatically changed. Almost all of the black players from the 1980s were good to great whereas almost all of the black players from the 1990s were more useful to solid. As a result there is a huge per draft drop in black college production from 160 WARP/draft to 35 WARP/draft.
There aren’t enough black JC players to establish much of a pattern, but for completeness sake let’s look at those players as well.
Black JC players come in pairs? There were three very good black JC players drafted in these ten drafts. All three were outfielders and two were from the late 1980s which exacerbated the notions that black players tend to be outfielders and that the late 1980s were very, very productive in terms of non-HS black players.
There isn’t much new to see here, but here is the JC summary table:
Next we’ll move on to the HS players looking to see if the decrease in black college players was offset by an increase in black HS players.
Again a majority of these players are outfielders (fourteen out of twenty-six), but there is more positional diversity in this group with six middle infielders, two 1B and four pitchers (there were no C pitchers).
There does seem to be a trend towards more good to very good black HS players in the 1990s although it’s not a consistently strong one. There was a very strong group in 1990 and 1991 and absolutely nobody in 1994 and 1995. It’s probably easier to see in a summary table.
In any given year the number of players jumps around from 0 to 3-4 to 5-6. You can see in the per draft average rows at the bottom that overall number of players and WARP is very similar, except at the very high end – the 60+ WARP players – where there was just Ken Griffey in the three late 1980s draft and there have been four so far in the 1990s with Rollins and Bradley likely to reach that plateau as well. The overall per draft average is spot on between the two periods although the good more recent players are still productive. In the end we may see a small increase from ~110/draft to ~125/draft or something like that.
That small improvement – and perhaps deceptively small because the key elite group is much stronger in the later period – combines with the large college decrease to create a substantial C/HS change amongst blacks. In the 1987-1989 drafts the college advantage was 160 to 110 WARP (roughly a 60/40 split). In the 1990-1996 drafts the HS advantage will be about 125 to 35 WARP (roughly a 80/20 split the opposite direction). Where black players used to provide the overall college ranks with a 50 WARP/draft advantage there is now a 90 WARP/draft disadvantage. That’s a swing of ~140 WARP/draft.
That swing is large enough to account for about 25% of the difference between the two periods – a significant factor, but not a prime driver. So while it is true that colleges abruptly stopped producing elite black players, it’s important to remember that the number of white college players dropped just as significantly. It’s just that since there were more whites to start with the drop isn’t quite so dramatic as to fall so close to zero.
Here is the complete summary table including all school types.
In the total column you can see that from 1987-1992 there were 6-8 black players who exceeded 20 WARP per draft except for 1989. We’ll look at more recent drafts in a bit but from 1993-1996 there were 1-4. In terms of elite 60+ WARP players though you can see that 1987 – thanks in part to the very unusual presence to two very good JC players – really stands out. It’s hard to know what to make of this since I’m catching the decline in black players well past the mid-1970s peak. If you really wanted to track this phenomenon you’d want to see how those players who made up that peak came into the game in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Are the 1987/88 drafts which had black players produce ~400 WARP/draft a blip, part of a decline that was already gathering steam in the 1980s or the end of a solid plateau before things really started to decline more rapidly? It’s hard to say without a fuller data set.
Regardless of how these data fit a larger historical pattern, I’m interested in that drop from ~325 WARP/draft in the late 1980s to ~150 WARP/draft in the 1990s. There is a very noticeable decline in total WARP production from the 1987-1989 to the 1990-1996 drafts. Just looking at the first eleven post-draft years the 1987-1989 average is 1406 WARP vs an 1125 WARP average from 1990-1996. And there’s no overlap – the lowest draft in the 1980 interval is higher than the highest draft from the 1990s. I had initially attributed that to increasing international competition faced by the more recent draftees, but this suggests that perhaps as much as 50% of that difference comes from a decrease in black players. When people express concern with the declining participation of blacks in baseball this is that decline – two players per draft including one very good 60+ WARP player – from levels that had already been declining.
That’s an interesting and novel way to look at the relative shift in draft production from a strong college orientation in the 1980s towards C:HS balance in the 1990s, but has this pattern continued into the 2000s? Let’s take a subjective look at the 1997-2007 drafts. I’ll split this interval into two smaller chunks – 1997-2001 (enough time for players to establish themselves) and 2002-2007 (more speculative and prospect based).