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Sara’s Diary, Day 112 without baseball: Prospects and racism

A new look at data surrounding player performance, race and MLB promotion provides a disturbing look at how racism impacts who makes it to the majors.

Javier Báez blows a bubble during a plate appearance against the Rockies
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend about covering the minor leagues and some of his favorite memories. He described the first time he got to sit down with Cubs shortstop Javier Báez and how taken back he was by Javy’s humility and thoughtfulness. Everything he’d read about Javy prior to that interview had prepared him for a player with a lot more bravado. I don’t think I said anything at the time, but I filed it away in the category of hundreds (thousands?) of anecdotes I’ve encountered in baseball and elsewhere where peoples’ preconceived notions of a player were off because of racial stereotypes.

Let me be clear, I don’t think my friend held those biases, or if he does they weren’t on display in his telling of the story. But the scouting reports he’d read, the authors who were covering Javy as he came up through the system and the perceptions of others had led him to believe something that just didn’t align with the actual person he met. I don’t have a database where I track all these stories or anything, but as a person who encounters stereotypes about myself and my family frequently I always just make a mental note about those events. I can recall them easily, just like I can recall the name of the store in my home town we never shopped at because of the way the owner once treated my dad.

Earlier today Baseball Prospectus’ Rob Arthur published a disheartening, but not at all shocking, look at how those stereotypes impact non-white baseball players and their eventual promotion to the major leagues. Spoiler alert: white players are promoted 0.6 years earlier, on average, than similarly talented counterparts. Specifically, each year there is a roughly three percent greater chance that a white player will be promoted than his non-white counterpart:

A three to four percent difference may seem small, but bear in mind a few factors. First, most true major-league talents will be so glaringly obvious that even if their race is held against them, it won’t be enough to stop them from making the majors. (Likewise, most players of all races simply aren’t good enough to play major league baseball and bias won’t make the difference for someone with a 0.01 percent chance of getting to MLB anyway). A scout may issue a racist report on Barry Bonds, but comments on his earrings aren’t going to be enough to stop his general manager from calling him up anyways.

Second, the three percent impact is per player-year, which means that the cumulative impact over the course of a career is much larger. To illustrate this, consider two cohorts of White and BIPOC players with exactly equivalent starting abilities, both starting in Low-A in the same year. The BIPOC players have a 19 percent chance per year to move on to the next level, while the White players have a 22 percent chance. After five years, roughly 6.7 percent of the White players will have made MLB, while only ~4.3 percent of the BIPOC players will have. The cumulative impact of that three percent bias multiplies over time. Overall, in the data I have, BIPOC players take about 0.6 years longer to go from MiLB to MLB. Considering the economics of MLB and the relatively small timeframe players have to get paid, losing a half-season or more of prime playing ability is a high price to pay for being BIPOC.

For those of you who prefer graphics to numbers, he tweeted out this graph derived from the data he studied that clearly shows this bias as it relates to Black baseball players:

This isn’t Arthur’s first time looking at the impact race has on baseball. Today’s piece built off a piece Baseball Prospectus published in June that included a look at the way baseball video games and models exhibit bias in how they assign player characteristics. He also utilized data from a 2019 analysis of Reds scouting reports he completed with Ben Lindbergh at the Ringer. This word cloud shows the subtle, yet meaningful ways scouting reports can impact players’ careers:

Frequent player descriptions in scouting reports by race
Baseball Prospectus

This is clearly not a problem that is unique to the Reds. They just happened to be the team that took the unprecedented step of releasing years of scouting reports for analysis. But while they may not want it publicly available other teams would do well to take a similar internal look at their scouting team and possible biases. As Arthur wrote in June:

As a side note, the negative sentiments expressed against nonwhite prospects were wholly unpredictive of a player’s subsequent success in the league. In fact, in re-analyzing the data I found that Black prospects were systematically underrated relative to their white peers, at the rate of ~1 WAR per player. There’s a significant opportunity for a less racist front office to exploit a more racist one by trading for their undervalued and underappreciated nonwhite stars. Anti-racism can be a potent market inefficiency.

I strongly recommend you read both Baseball Prospectus pieces in their entirety, and as baseball returns here’s hoping scouts, front offices, and yes, even fans, challenge their preconceived notions of players. Systemic racism has a long legacy in America and in the nation’s pastime. All of us need to be diligent about checking its impact to move forward.