March 20, 2014
Where Are All the Australian Position Players?
As the Dodgers and Diamondbacks embark on their mission to go Fightin’ Around the World and bring baseball to a new frontier in Australia, the challenge they face isn’t as enormous as the setting of their showdown—a cricket ground—would lead you to believe.
No, baseball doesn’t rank highly in the hierarchy of sports on the smallest continent. Cricket laps it in popularity among bat sports. There’s also soccer, which they have generally called “soccer,” and their own kind of football.
But this mission isn’t exactly bringing baseball to China, which will be an enormous undertaking that you can expect in the near future (as Ben Lindbergh wrote in his recap of the SABR Analytics Conference). Australia, despite late entry to the game, has already produced more than a full roster of baseball players: 28 major leaguers to be precise, and many more who never reached the big leagues.
But the job of bringing baseball to Australia is only halfway done, you could argue. The pitchers have arrived. The hitters have not.
Australia, which has produced 19 pitchers and only nine position players, is among the many smaller incubators of baseball talent that are imbalanced in one way or the other. The pitcher percentage (67.9 percent) doesn’t look all that out of whack, but in the land of Grant Balfour, Graeme Lloyd, Peter Moylan and current Diamondback Ryan Rowland-Smith, there’s been only one position player of any note. The rest have had such little impact that former Brewers catcher Dave Nilsson actually has 121 percent of the BWARP of the country. The rest combined to be negative.
The gap has been even wider this decade. Since 2010, Trent Oeltjen and Luke Hughes—neither a big leaguer in 2013—have been the only Australian position players in the majors, while nine pitchers have taken the mound.
Still, it’s hardly the most pitcher-heavy country. That honor in raw totals actually belongs to South Korea, but the two Korean position players—Hee-Sop Choi and Shin-Soo Choo—have outWARPed its 13 pitchers.
Here’s the breakdown of the pitching countries, the hitting countries, and those in the middle, with exclusions from the list being any country producing single-digit players, countries with lots of moving parts and unclear labeling like Curacao/Aruba/Netherlands, and countries like the UK and Ireland whose contributions mostly came in the game’s early days when position players ruled the rosters.
**Excludes Puerto Rico, includes Florida
At first glance, this looks a little law-of-large-numbers-y, and that’s definitely true to an extent. It’s a little easier for South Korea to be so imbalanced at 15 players and not so easy for the United States to be at 15,000. However, there’s definitely an East-West thing going on here. Latin America is producing the hitters, and Asian countries are producing the pitchers as a cluster.
What’s a little strange, then, is where Australia falls. Geographically, sure as it’s bedtime in Adelaide as the sun rises in Abilene, it’s the East. This doesn’t belong in the same category as Japan, though. There is no great baseball tradition, no Triple-A-like professional leagues to be taking the best pitchers out of, and certainly no cultural similarities to the stereotype of the pitch-’til-they-drop East Asian arms. Major-league clubs are grabbing them at 16-18 like they are with the Latin Americans.
It is much more difficult to find competition there, and that—not anything about how pitching resembles cricket—is the origin of the split, according to interviews with multiple scouts familiar with the international landscape.
“Throwing a ball is a closed skill, and thus can be developed to a certain degree independently of the
And those quality pitches might not be coming. The country is not a hotbed for academies like Latin America, but the wide scholastic baseball system doesn’t exist either. Baseball is played in local club teams that play very short seasons—total games for one team often number in the teens—and receive volunteer coaching that leaves much to fill in later.
So when you do hear of success stories on the position player side, like that of Jack Barrie, who was signed by the Twins for roughly $250,000, they are really a product of faith until they see some real competition. With position players, you can’t read a number on a gun. You can watch mechanics, but you don’t really know how they’ll play when the pitchers aren’t tossing in the 70s.
So the Twins had to watch Barrie against better competition in the Dominican Republic before they would agree to sign him. Ditto Todd McDonald, who received a reported $475,000 from the Rangers as the hitting side has begun to come around in the two years.
Those looks are important because in far-afield markets, hitters can be not only a tough scout, but also a tough sell.
According to another scout, “it's much more difficult to slap your name and reputation to an Australian position player that will virtually always be absurdly raw, … likely did not receive sound fundamental training throughout his formative years and probably has faced only 3-4 'real' pitchers throughout his teen career.”
For a country in which baseball ranks so low in the consciousness and with less than 2/3 the population of California, in some ways it’s been fairly remarkable to see how much baseball talent it has produced. And there’s more coming, with Twins Gulf Coast Leaguer Lewis Thorpe cracking Jason Parks’ Top 101 prospect list in the final spot. Thorpe, a left-handed pitcher, will try to fill in what’s been a little bit of a void in starting pitching from his home country. But even before Clayton Kershaw’s plane touched down, this was clearly a pitching-oriented country.