Major League Baseball wants more diversity in its 30 front offices, and in the main league office as well. The league has taken steps to address the issue, including hiring former Pittsburgh Pirates Director of Baseball Personnel Tyrone Brooks this winter to be the Senior Director of its Front Office and Field Staff Diversity Pipeline Program.
“Through the Pipeline Program," Brooks wrote to us, "MLB is working jointly with all 30 clubs to identify, recruit and hire minority and women candidates for entry level jobs and internships within the front office and for on-field roles. MLB is working with each Club to support their efforts as they look to engage with potential diverse audiences and talent pools, including through academic and athletic programs at colleges and universities. We are also working in cooperation with Clubs as they identify and develop talent in the pipeline, including those currently playing, as we attempt to develop long term success within the game.”
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) puts out an annual report card that grades MLB (as well as several other major sporting leagues) on how well they are increasing their racial and ethnic diversity. The report looked at the 2016 Opening Day rosters for all 30 teams and found that 38.5 percent of players were not white (28.5 percent of players were Latino, 8.3 percent were African-American, and 1.7 percent were Asian), and more than a quarter (27.5 percent) were born outside the United States. However, the C-suite is a little more monochromatic. At the beginning of the 2016 season, all but 13 percent of General Managers identified as Caucasian, and all but 19 percent of senior administrators (such as front officers at the vice presidential level).
Women were also largely absent from positions of power within MLB organizations. The report from TIDES showed that there were 74 women in positions with “president” or “vice president” in the title, but a scan through the job titles held by these women (listed in the report) showed very few in baseball operations-related departments. It is perhaps most instructive that there has never been a female General Manager in the majors. This is glaring, given that research has shown that about 40 percent of MLB fans are women. Certainly, some of those women have brilliant thoughts about how a baseball team could be better run. In an interview conducted with PBS, Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi summed things up nicely: “If I’m going to put my geek cap on, it’s a statistical impossibility that every—that the best candidate for every position in baseball is a middle-aged Caucasian male.” In our own research, we identified only a few other women in all AL front offices, out of hundreds of positions.
Lest we neglect our own part to play in all this, it’s worth pointing out that much the same can be said for the demographics of the staff of Baseball Prospectus. We are an organization that prides itself on the thought that if you have good ideas about baseball, they should be heard, and that you shouldn’t have to be an insider to have them heard. It seems that we aren’t doing a very good job of hearing all of the voices out there either.
Now, this is the Internet and we just brought up issues of race, gender, and diversity, so let's all take a moment to breathe. Perhaps all might agree that diversity of thought is an important thing for a major-league front office (or any business, really) to cultivate. Hopefully, you find someone who can look at a problem from a new angle and perhaps come up with a brilliant idea that no one else has tried before. Whether you believe that diversity of race and gender is an admirable or achievable goal unto itself, or that promoting diversity on these grounds specifically would increase the number of brilliant ideas, it’s worth asking a couple of questions. The numbers show that there are some under-represented groups in the front office. If a system seems to be screening out a particular group of people, what else is it screening out?
In an article at Baseball Prospectus published last year, Meg Rowley addressed the issue, writing shortly after the Seattle Mariners had hired Jerry Dipoto to be their new General Manager and Scott Servais to be their new field manager:
After Servais’ Mariners press conference, much was made of the rapport between the new manager and the new GM, their previous collaboration, and the importance of speaking the same language. This is a crucial phrase, nearly as troubling in the figurative meaning as if it were literal. At the heart of the push for front office and managerial diversity is the desire to expand the range of common language….
This problem isn’t caused by proactive machinations to exclude women and minorities from hiring. It’s not owners, presidents or GMs down there forfeiting wins to make some bigoted stance. The bulk of the problem is that, at some point, each hire seems to start with “Hey, these are the folks I know. And, boy, I know a lot of white men who went to Harvard or played baseball. Well, anyway!” The talent pool is strongly skewed.
The idea that people who approached the game from an analytical point of view and prioritized looking at the numbers could break into front offices—perhaps even dominate front offices—has been hailed as a “victory.” And from the perspective of diversity of thought, it was a victory insofar that it introduced a new way of thinking that had been sorely lacking. But if the end result was simply to establish yet another good-old-boy network, then what the hell did anyone really win? Again, quoting Meg Rowley:
The problem we now face is a new iteration of an old problem: The idea that there is only one way to win the game, and only a small talent pool that can affect such an approach. In the past, it was the wise (often white) former player. Now, it’s the well-educated stathead. In the hands of analytically minded executives who claim to know better, we risk the game stagnating in a new way, succumbing to the mistaken notion so readily disproved that there is only one way to baseball successfully. That overly narrow understanding of the game raises the very real danger that we will give back the previous gains of the Selig Rule, maligning baseball progress and social progress at the same time.
In another article from this past offseason, this one coming in response to the Brewers’ hiring of David Stearns (a 30-year-old graduate of Harvard) as their new GM, Jack Moore, writing for BP Milwaukee, noted that a striking number of GMs sing the alma mater of one of the Ivy League schools, while several others attended expensive private colleges. Moore termed this phenomenon the “Ivy Invasion.” We wanted to know how deeply this ivy had taken root in baseball's front offices. Is there evidence to suggest that front offices might be in danger of stagnating due to an over-reliance on reading the name at the top of a diploma?
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
As with part one in this series, we identified the occupants of front offices in the American League. These included General Managers and director-level officers in baseball operations-related departments (player development, scouting, analytics) as well as their assistants. We did not include Special Assistants to the General Manager, due to the fact that there were a lot of them who seemed to be former players hired for ceremonial roles. It’s possible that some of them provide day-to-day guidance as well, but we weren’t able to tell who was who. What was somewhat surprising was how few former players were actually in front offices. By our count, we found 13 former major leaguers among the AL team officials we surveyed.
Through some well-placed Google searches, LinkedIn profile reading, and college alumni magazine profiles of the graduate who got hired by a real live baseball team, we were able to identify alma maters, college majors, and dates of graduation for many (though not all) of the people on our list.
Of the front officers on our list for whom we were able to find college data, we found that 16 percent had walked across the stage at an Ivy League school, although only 0.4 percent of all college students in the United States attend one of the eight Ivies. (As some point of comparison, 11 percent of front officers hailed from one of the Big 10 schools, which collectively enroll about 10 times as many students as the Ivy League does.) While 73 percent of all college students nationwide attend public and state-funded universities, only 44 percent of the occupants in front offices did. The front office isn’t over-run with ivy, but there’s a lot more in there than we would expect by random chance.
Then there were the majors. Not the major leagues—the college majors. Before we look at the numbers on this one, let’s cop to the fact that using “college major” as a proxy isn’t airtight research methodology. People are much more than what they studied in college, both on a personal level and a professional level. There are physics majors who can discuss the finer points of Bach’s symphonies and Medieval history majors who understand inverting a matrix.
Perhaps the front officers are different people now than they were in their age-20 season, when they submitted their declaration of major form to the school registrar. They’re hopefully all intellectually curious sorts who seek out different ways of thinking. Still, when one spends a good chunk of four years dedicated to understanding one area of human knowledge, it can be easy to focus on solving problems through the lens of that one area. Mechanical engineers and sociologists tend to approach problems (or even identify something as problematic) in different ways.
Among those for whom we were able to find data, the most popular college majors were:
â— Business or Sports Management (28 percent)
â— Economics/Finance (25 percent)
â— Math or Statistics (11 percent)
â— History (7 percent)
â— Political Science (7 percent)
â— Computer Science (6 percent)
â— Communications (5 percent)
â— Psychology (5 percent)
â— Engineering (4 percent)
(Note: double majors were counted in both categories, so the full list would add up to more than 100 percent.)
One interesting thing is that this distribution didn’t change appreciably among recent graduates. We limited the list to those who had graduated within the past 10 years and the list was relatively stable. The majority of front office workers come from a management or finance background, with a healthy helping of math/statistics, computer science, and engineering majors. To give credit where it’s due, the front office is not completely a liberal arts free zone. History, political science, and psychology(!) at least broke into the list.
Among those for whom we had undergraduate data, we were able to find evidence that about a quarter (24 percent) of them held a graduate degree (many of them were MBAs).
We also (sorta) looked into the ages of the people in those front office… offices. Writing for BP last November, Dustin Palmateer found that the average age of a newly hired GM had dipped from 48 years old in the 1970s to 41 in the 2010s. It turns out that notably precocious GMs Jon Daniels and Andrew Friedman, both hired at the tender age of 28, were not unique. We weren’t able to directly collect age data for those on our list, but we were able to collect college graduation dates, which can serve as a reasonable proxy for age.
About one in five employees (19 percent) for whom we were able to find data graduated in the past five years. The median Front Office employee in our sample walked across the stage in a weird-looking hat to receive a bachelor’s degree in 2004, suggesting that the majority of front office workers are under the age of 35. (We now pause for station identification while a good chunk of our readers have an “old moment.”)
The idea that front offices are filled with grizzled old baseball veterans is largely false. The “typical” front office holder is a 20- or 30-something, and a relatively recently minted college graduate who likely (though not exclusively) majored in a quantitatively-heavy subject at a likely (though not exclusively) private college, and started out as an intern.
And yes, most of them were white guys.
Progress or Just Stagnation by a Different Name?
Now that we have the numbers, it’s time to answer the obvious question: So what? It’s not surprising to see a lot of business and finance majors in jobs that require managing people and resources. If they are the best people for the job, then why should anyone care? There are the social implications (which are probably already being debated below), although at the end of the day, baseball teams are not in the business of selling jeans or making some sort of social point. Instead, let’s look at this from the lens of naked self-interest on the part of a team.
Earlier, we quoted Meg Rowley’s warning of the dangers of believing “[t]he idea that there is only one way to win the game, and only a small talent pool that can affect such an approach.” We at Baseball Prospectus are probably as guilty as any of promoting exactly that belief. In the past decade, baseball teams have hired a small phalanx of quants—some of them are our friends—and we’ve applauded those teams for being “new age,” "progressive," or "advanced." It’s great that baseball, as an industry, has learned how to do a large-N data query rather than relying on anecdotal and small-sample data sets. There are a lot of questions where that sort of approach makes sense and that were never asked before and where the answers turned out to be very important. The problem is that not everything in the world is a problem that calls for a large-N data query.
Let’s turn this on its head. How did baseball (in the “royal we” sense) come to realize that it needed to start asking those large-N database query questions? Once a question has been asked, it’s just an engineering problem to find the answer. Anyone who knows how to work a calculator can figure out a batting average. It takes someone with critical thinking skills to notice that batting average isn’t the best available metric. The sabermetric movement likes its calculators. Get spin rates on every Clayton Kershaw curveball? Yes, please! Measure Billy Hamilton’s lead off first down to the inch? Oh yeah!
But where did the questions come from? Often, it takes someone who can see things through the lens of a different set of experiences and who wonders “Why are you looking at it that way?” When everyone in the room has been trained to look at life through a similar frame of reference, then where will that person who sees things from a slightly different angle come from?
It most certainly doesn’t have to be an “either/or” proposition. We don’t recommend firing all the analysts or shelving Statcast. Those are tools, and very powerful ones. It also wouldn’t be fair (or true) to say that there is no intellectual diversity in the average front office. But what the data do show is that a majority of the perspectives that are present in a major-league front office fit a limited demographic profile. There are only two choices here: Either 30-something white men from private colleges with the financial means to take low-paid internships are better at running a baseball team than everybody else, or clubs are relying on a system that isn't fully optimized to fill their front offices.
If the system that’s been built, whether through design or neglect, is mostly selecting for these characteristics, what is it not selecting for? We’ve reached a question that we don’t have the ability to answer using the available data, but the question is worth asking anyway: Is the system, as it exists now, providing a broad enough base of thought to promote the wealth of questions that a front office needs to stay ahead of the competition?
 Again, there’s nothing special about the AL. We simply needed a convenient line of demarcation.