Baseball makes for convenient studies of nature-nurture questions because the data is immediately available and is quite clear-cut, with little dispute over what was or wasn’t a major league baseball game. (Although they’ve added Negro Leagues stats to the major league record, but that doesn’t have much impact on career stats because Negro Leagues teams didn’t play that many league games because they’d go off and barnstorm in the middle of the season against whomever would pay to play them.)
A topic that interested me two decades ago was how big of a cultural gap was there between American batters (white and black) and Spanish-surnamed batters (including American-born ones) at accepting bases on balls.
So, nineteen years ago, I wrote for UPI:
Analysis: Baseball’s hidden ethnic bias
By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent
LOS ANGELES, July 23 (UPI) — The uproar over Chicago Cubs Manager Dusty Baker’s assertion that black and Latin American players get less worn down by the heat isn’t baseball’s only ethnic brouhaha.
A more important controversy involves the disparate impact of the ongoing revolution in how baseball teams evaluate players. Is the trend pioneered by the statistics-savvy general managers of Oakland, Calif., Toronto and Boston toward more rigorous evaluations of ballplayers’ records — such as searching out low-priced players with the unglamorous skill of being able to wheedle bases on balls from pitchers — biased in favor of white American players?
Or, when looked at from a more politically incorrect perspective, does this trend mean that previously the Anglo white-dominated baseball establishment had actually tended for decades to discriminate irrationally against Americans and in favor of more free-swinging Latin hitters, who on average weren’t quite as productive as their batting averages indicated?
This controversy can help illuminate issues of discrimination and disparate impact stretching far beyond baseball. The remarkable quantity and quality of baseball statistics allows for careful testing of theories about ethnic bias.
… There’s a revolution going on in how teams evaluate talent, and this growing sophistication is, on the whole, likely to benefit previously overlooked U.S. players at the expense of Latin Americans with flashier batting averages and stolen base totals. …
It’s not a racist conspiracy. In fact, it’s making baseball more meritocratic. Yet, this illustrates that almost any business strategy is likely to have a disparate impact on some group. …
The most undervalued trait, the numbers geeks have found, is a “sixth tool:” the ability to not swing at pitches outside the strike zone. Batting average, traditionally the most prestigious statistic, correlates less with scoring runs than does on-base percentage, which counts hits along with two less admired ways to get on base: walking (letting four bad pitches go by without swinging) and getting hit by a pitch.
Similarly, rigorous analysis shows that the stolen base is a much riskier tactic than was long thought. The cost of getting thrown out is at least twice the benefit of making it. Teams were overvaluing players who ran a lot because they were forgetting to count how often they got caught. …
Strikingly, the dispute between the baseball establishment and the sabermetricians is in essence a continuation of baseball’s first great argument over strategy, the one between Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Cobb, the greatest star of the early 20th century, believed baseball revolved around line drives and stolen bases. Ruth won the hearts of fans by bombing previously unimaginable numbers of home runs. Yet, in the minds of many baseball insiders and sportswriters, Cobb’s cunning, elegant style remained preferred over Ruth’s seemingly vulgar, showy antics.
What the elite didn’t understand, however, was that that Ruth had a second arrow in his offensive quiver. By intimidating pitchers with his power to slam out of the park balls thrown down the middle, he forced them to try to nibble at the edges of the strike zone. When they missed, he’d accept a walk, earning as many as 177 free passes in a season. Batting behind Ruth, Lou Gehrig ran up enormous RBI totals.
Although Cobb’s career batting average of .366 was the highest ever, significantly better than Ruth’s .342, Ruth’s on-base percentage of .474 substantially beat Cobb’s .433.
Ruth’s greatest disciple was Ted Williams (although the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds is now contending for that title), and he became a role model for many mid-century players. …
Then, Jackie Robinson arrived in the National League. …
In statistical retrospect, he seems the epitome of the smart percentage player (his career high in steals was 37). Indeed, African-Americans have provided many of the most patient hitters and highest percentage base stealers, such as Joe Morgan, Bonds (whose unbelievable-sounding 198 walks last year broke Ruth’s single season record), and Rickey Henderson (who broke Ruth’s career walks record). …
The percentage of African-American big leaguers has dropped sharply since about 1975, but not because of changes in how statistics are evaluated. Instead, baseball is simply losing the battle with basketball for popularity among black youths in America.
At the time, however, it was Robinson’s base running that electrified onlookers, especially New York journalists. …
By the 1960s, the fad for speed reached self-defeating proportions as more teams installed as their leadoff hitters extremely fast runners with low on-base percentages. “For a decade or more, baseball was held grip in the grip of the (Luis) Aparicio / (Maury) Wills generation of leadoff men,” Bill James wrote in 1986.
What James calls “the delusion that 40 or 50 stolen bases could compensate for a comparative inability to reach base” faded very slowly. For example, in 1984, Toronto’s speedy Dominican shortstop Alfredo Griffin walked four times in 140 games … and made the All Star Game.
The first Jamesian general manager was Oakland’s Billy Beane, appointed in 1997. He’s the protagonist of Michael Lewis’ recent bestseller “Moneyball.”…
The reason that scientific general managers like Ricciardi are modestly more likely to sign more white players than traditional general managers is because the old, less logical norms for evaluating ballplayers tend to slightly overrate Latin Americans.
For example, players with Spanish names (lumping both foreign and American-born Latinos together) were on average 15 percent more likely to steal bases per plate appearance than everyone else in baseball. Yet, because both groups were successful 68 percent of the time, it’s not clear how many more runs, if any, all that extra stealing contributed.
More importantly, although they are slowly improving, Hispanic players are on average less likely to accept walks than whites or African-Americans. “It’s not easy for a Latin player to take 100 walks,” said Sammy Sosa early in his famous 1998 season.
In 2002, Hispanics had a combined batting average of .264, while everyone else together hit .260. On the other hand, the Hispanic “walk average” was 0.060, while the non-Hispanics’ bases on balls ratio was 0.069, a significant 14 percent higher, leaving the non-Latinos with a better on-base percentage.
The patience gap has declined somewhat, from 16 percent in 1992 and 19 percent in 1982, probably because Latinos have largely closed the power gap. Twenty years ago, non-Hispanics hit home runs 42 percent more often than Hispanics, but that difference was 4 percent last year. …
Nobody is sure why this inequality exists, but it’s been around for decades. American Negro Leaguers playing winter ball in the islands back in the 1930s were amazed at the kind of pitches at which their hosts would swing.
Latin culture tends to emphasize excitement while African-American culture valorizes coolness. Granted, it’s hard to imagine Miles Davis playing baseball, but it’s even harder to imagine him swinging at bad pitches he was unlikely to hit.
In the past, Latinos tended to cluster at the positions where fielding was more important than power, but that does not fully account for the patience gap. In one of the few sabermetric studies ever done of the discipline disparity, David Marasco looked at American League hitters during 1994-1996. He found that American-born “glovemen” (shortstops, second basemen and catchers) were 24 percent more likely to walk than Latin American-born glovemen, while at the more offense-minded positions the gap was 7 percent.
This may be a rational response to what big league scouts look for in a prospect. Dominican youths have a saying: “You can’t walk to America.”
… Nevertheless, because the Latin tendency toward not walking is clearly not a racial difference (Latin ballplayers come in all colors), their free swinging may change in the future. For example, if Latin players are failing to get walks merely because they lack role models at an impressionable age, that’s not set in stone.
ESPN followed up on my findings 14 years later:
No Latin American hitter led his league in bases on balls until David Ortiz in 2006. Denis Poroy/Getty Images
Sep 16, 2017
ESPN Senior Writer
… Foreign-born Latino players have long endured a reputation for hacking away at the plate. Juan Samuel, a notoriously free-swinging hitter from the Dominican Republic who played for seven MLB teams from 1983 to 1998, put it this way: “You don’t walk off the island. You hit.”
The numbers say the walks gap between U.S.-born and Latin American players is indeed real and, almost 15 years after “Moneyball,” surprisingly persistent. Historically, Latin American hitters haven’t drawn too many walks, whether they hit for power (like Orlando Cepeda) or a high average (like Tony Oliva). From the start of integrated baseball in 1947 to 2000, 56 MLB players had careers with at least 1,000 walks. Zero were born in Latin America. No Latin American hitter led his league in bases on balls until David Ortiz in 2006. None walked 120 times in a season until Jose Bautista in 2011. And I bet you can’t name the player who retired in 2014 as the all-time leader in walks among Latin Americans. (It’s Bobby Abreu.)
To examine this phenomenon systematically, I looked at all non-pitchers who were born in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela and played in at least 1,000 MLB games between 1947 and 2016. Overall, U.S.-born players earned unintentional walks in 8.5 percent of plate appearances, a rate 25 percent higher than that of Latin Americans (6.8 percent).
Following the 2022 season, I looked up how many Spanish surnamed players were among the top 100 active hitters for career bases on balls (33 of 100) vs. how many are in the top 100 for plate appearances (44). So there is still a gap, but it’s pretty subtle by this point, whereas it was obvious (at least to me) when I wrote my article in 2003.
I counted 15 African-Americans in the top 100 in walks and 15 in the top 100 in plate appearances. So, whites are about 50 out of the top 100 in walks and about 40 out of the top 100 in plate appearances.
A couple of methodological points: there are more players these days with one Hispanic parent, so I just counted players with a Spanish surname (e.g., Evan Longoria and Anthony Rendon) as Hispanic but not players with a non-Spanish surname (e.g., Eric Hosmer and the quarter Puerto Rican Giancarlo Stanton).
There are increasing numbers of Caribbean players from old Dutch colonies like Aruba and Curacao, such as Jurickson Profar. I counted them as non-Hispanic.