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July 6, 2005

Lies, Damned Lies

Forecasting the Future: Internationalization

by Nate Silver

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My Forecasting the Future column from two weeks ago drew more e-mail replies than anything I've written here in the past eighteen months. I appreciate all of that, and I'll take that as sufficient evidence that you guys enjoy these sort of non-traditional articles. Let's continue on with the next installment in the series.

Trend: Major League Baseball is becoming more internationalized.

Is it likely to continue? Almost certainly.

As you'll know if you've read my column for some time, one of the things I'm fond of is pointing out trends that are so obvious that nobody seems to have noticed. One of these trends is the rapidly increasing number of Latin American players in the game. Just fifteen years ago, in 1990, players born in Latin America or the Caribbean were responsible for 12.0 percent of major league playing time--a simple average of at bats and innings pitched. (These figures, by the way, do not account for the substantial number of native-born Latinos; I'm not going to try and play guessing games based on surnames. They do, however, include players from Puerto Rico.) Last year? The figure had increased to 24.4 percent, or more than twice as many. It's not like these guys are scrubs, either; more than a third of the rosters for next week's All-Star Game are composed of foreign-born Latinos.

Maybe some of you were aware of this. I certainly wasn't. I assumed that there had been a steady or perhaps slightly rising percentage of Latin American players ever since the game became fully integrated in the late 50s. Obviously Latin Americans play a very prominent role in today's game. But I had no idea that they played so much more prominent a role than they did only a handful of years ago.

It might be helpful to visualize this sort of thing:

chart

This is an area chart describing the percentage of major league playing time accumulated by natives of different regions of the world. I've cut off the area below 60% on the vertical axis, all of it occupied by US-born players, in order to make the trends more clear.

There has certainly been a lot of attention paid to Asian-born players who have migrated to the Majors in recent years. Indeed it's exciting to have players as good as Ichiro Suzuki or as quirky as Shingo Takatsu in the game. But they still make up a very small percentage of the sport's demographic--only about 1.7 percent of at bats and 2.9 percent of innings pitched in 2004. It's also my hunch that the influx of players from Asia is going to grow more slowly from here on out. Most of the elite players from Japan have been picked off, and baseball still has an awfully long way to go on the Chinese mainland.

The yellow area labeled "A/C/E" refers to players native to Australia, Canada, and Europe. This group was actually larger at the turn of the twentieth century, when there were a much larger number of zero-generation European-born immigrants in the country, and has held roughly steady since 1960 or so at about 1.5 percent of the playing pool. Baseball is perhaps becoming a little bit better established in Australia in particular, but fundamentally Australia is too small a country to make much of a difference.

In other words, it's the Latin Americans that have made all the difference, and are going to continue to make all the difference. The presence of Latinos in the game has gone through about three distinct cycles:

  • 1947-1965. Steady, linear increase as the game becomes fully integrated; 'black-looking' Latinos are allowed to play and become targets of scouting and development efforts.
  • 1965-1985. Percentage of Latin American natives holds roughly steady at slightly less than 10 percent of the player pool.
  • 1985-present. Exponential increase. Fraction of Latin American-born players has risen from 9.8 percent in 1985 to 24.4 percent last year.

So what happened on or about 1985? Did Luis Aparicio's Hall of Fame selection induce every kid from Caracas to Tijuana to take to the baseball diamond? Did major league teams, looking for cheap sources of talent with player salaries on the rise, increase their scouting efforts in these nations?

Actually, neither of these things should be dismissed completely. I don't know much--well, anything really--about the cultural legacy of baseball in Latin America. I also don't know anything about the history of international scouting efforts. It's clear that major league teams began scouting in Latin America just as soon as the integration question was resolved; it's possible that free agency or something else caused those efforts to increase in force on or about 1980, but I don't know.

The most important explanation for the increase in the number of Latin American players, however, is much less mysterious. There are more Latin American ballplayers today because there are more Latin Americans.

What we're really interested in isn't what happened in 1985--it's what happened in 1960 or 1965, when those players entering the major league game were born. As this article makes clear the 1960s were a time of tremendous population growth in the developing world, particularly Latin America. To summarize in a few sentences something that could fill an entire textbook, there are basically three stages in a country's population growth rate:

  1. Undeveloped economy. Both infant and adult mortality are high. The economy can only feed so many mouths and mothers generally reproduce to sustenance level, with zero or very slow population growth over time.

  2. Developing economy. Medical care improves as a result of some surplus wealth, reducing mortality rates, sometimes markedly. Advances in production and agriculture allow for larger population densities. Children may come to be regarded as economic assets, rather than economic liabilities. Population increases rapidly.

  3. Developed economy. Child labor becomes less useful as economic specialization increases, and the country becomes able to import goods from abroad. Birth control may become more common, and having children comes to be seen as a quality-of-life decision, rather than an economic decision. Lower birth rates 'catch up' to lower mortality rates, resulting in slowed down population growth.

Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s was at the height of its population boom--in the middle of stage #2. The exponential growth we've seen in Latin American ballplayers since 1985 is a mirror of the exponential growth in populations of those countries during that period. At the risk of sounding a bit crude, more Latin American babies means more Latin American shortstops.

Of course, Latin American economies are far from fully developed, and their fertility and population growth rates, while somewhat off their peak, are still substantially higher than in the United States. Here are 2005 birth rates for some prominent, baseball-player producing countries (all of this data is taken from InfoPlease):

  • Dominican Republic: 23.3 births yearly/1000 population
  • Mexico: 21.1/1000
  • Panama: 20.0 /1000
  • Venezuela: 18.9/1000
  • Cuba: 12.0/1000
  • Puerto Rico: 13.9/1000
  • United States: 14.1/1000
These figures themselves are fairly interesting. Birth rates aren't any higher in Cuba than in the US--in fact they're a bit lower--because birth rates are really an economic phenomenon, rather than a 'cultural' phenomenon, and it's unappealing to have children in a backward, Communist state that sharply curtails emigration. Birth rates are also not any higher in Puerto Rico than in the US mainland, because of Puerto Rico's access to the US mainland's economy. But birth rates in places like Mexico and the Dominican Republic are more than 50 percent higher than in the United States.

And so, it's almost certain that the number of Latin American born players in the Major Leagues is going to continue to increase over the next 15-25 years. Remember, population growth is exponential: the Latin American babies of the 1960 and 1970s are not only becoming baseball players--they're also having babies themselves. My guess is that, by 2020 or 2025, there will be as many Latin Americans and first-generation Latino immigrants in major league baseball as there are US-born European-Americans and African-Americans. Indeed, just a cursory glance at typical Rookie-league roster--typically at least one-third of the players are Latin American--should give you some idea of where the demographics of the game are headed.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

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