On June 10, the evening of the MLB Draft, Commissioner Rob Manfred read a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. Each team’s general manager/president of baseball operations/head honcho held a sign on their live feed that read, “Black Lives Matter, United for Change.” Since games have resumed, players are now “permitted” to kneel in support of Black Lives Matter, and pitcher’s mounds displayed BLM emblems (before giving way to advertisements).
As Baseball Prospectus’ Shakeia Taylor wrote, MLB’s words and actions accomplish very little. “What MLB’s Black Lives Matter campaign lacks is bite. It lacks substance and effort. It lacks … a plan of action. T-shirts, pre-anthem kneeling, a suddenly ‘woke’ social media team, and a video voiced by a legendary Black actor are not actually effective in fighting systemic racism.” Instead of performance, MLB could make a more significant difference by evaluating their own practices that repress Black players.
As one of the authors of this article discovered, white players are promoted through the minors at a 3-4% higher rate than their BIPOC counterparts. To discern why this occurs, it’s important to take a more granular look at the underlying biases—specifically regarding positions on the field—that contribute to promotion bias as well as the overall dwindling participation of Black players in MLB.
In studying where players of different races end up on the field, we found three major trends. One is that Black players have been systematically locked out of the catching position to an extraordinary degree. Two, Black players everywhere else on the field tend to get pushed into the outfield, even those that start out at theoretically more valuable positions in the infield (shortstop, second base). Finally, and most depressingly, these barriers to equitable participation of Black players have not improved at all in the last decade, despite the movement towards a theoretically more objective player-evaluation methodology that should have cut through racial biases.
Before we get to the results, here are a few quick notes on our methodology. As in a previous study, we used invaluable race/ethnicity data provided by Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt. (Their data only covers players who made the majors, which is an important limitation.) They broke players down into one of four categories: African-American, Asian, Latino, and White. Racial identity is more complex than any single categorization can encompass (for example, Afro-Latino people make up a significant subset of the players in MLB), but this grouping is a first step towards understanding biases in MLB. The data set uses African-American/Canadian as separate from Latino, and Afro-Latino players are classified as Latino for the purposes of the data set and this article.
We broke down each player and season by the position they spent the majority of their defensive time at. This method flattens versatile players to their most common spot on the field. We also examined the position each player debuted at (where they spent their first season in the majors). For this study, we excluded pitchers; while there are racial biases in whether players become pitchers vs. position players, we wanted to focus only on the latter group.
Two major disparities jump out from this chart. The most glaring concerns a lack of Black catchers—there are about one-tenth as many Black catchers as there should be (~2%), based on the proportion of catchers among other races (~20%). Second is the overwhelming majority of Black outfielders. While outfielders compose about 25-40% of the player-seasons among other races, they make up about 70% of the Black players in baseball. We’ll treat these two disparities in the following sections.
Why Are There So Few Black Catchers?
On September 23, 2017, A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell knelt during the national anthem in support of Black Lives Matter. This act was somewhat more common in the NFL, albeit no less controversial, where Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid led a movement that spread to nearly all 32 teams. In MLB, though, Maxwell knelt alone. A few weeks ago, ESPN’s Howard Bryant profiled his exile from MLB. (Coincidentally, he signed with the Mets a few weeks later.)
Even without kneeling and the saga that ensued, Maxwell is unlike any of his MLB peers. According to our data, which runs through 2016, he is the only Black catcher to play in MLB who debuted after 2009, and one of only two who debuted after 1999.
The overall percentage of Black players in MLB has dwindled from 13.6-6.7% over this timeframe, but clearly there is not even representation at all positions, and Black catchers in MLB have all but disappeared.
In April, The Undefeated’s Claire Smith wrote an excellent piece exploring the absence of Black catchers. She described many potential reasons in her article, including unequal access to catching equipment, biases of both old-school and new-school scouting methods, and stereotypes about tools needed for each position.
While all 30 MLB organizations share some blame for the dearth of Black catchers, the problem has roots that reach into collegiate, high school, and even youth leagues. Plenty of players transition off of catching in the minors, but very few switch to catcher from other positions. More than likely, if a player isn’t drafted or signed as a catcher, they’re never going to become one (with a few exceptions such as Robinson Chirinos and Isiah Kiner-Falefa). Major League Baseball teams may be less likely to draft Black catchers for several of Smith’s aforementioned reasons, but a big part of the problem is that many Black players don’t reach draft eligibility as catchers in the first place. To foster real, genuine change, MLB will not only have to address their own scouting, drafting, and development systems, but also work with their feeder leagues– including the NCAA, Little League, and showcase circuit promoters– to encourage better positional representation at all levels.
Athletic Black Players Are Funneled Into The Outfield
The flipside of the nearly-complete absence of Black catchers is an overabundance of players in the outfield. That comports with stereotypes of Black players expressed in scouting reports and evaluations: mainly that they are “speedy” but “raw,” and thus perhaps unsuitable for the infield.
Black players are especially prevalent in center field. Considering the athleticism required to play there, there ought to be many more Black shortstops than there are, but instead they are significantly under-represented at that position.
Black players are significantly more likely to debut in the infield than they are to stick there. It’s normal for players to move towards the outfield as they get older, slower and less defensively proficient, but the proportion of white outfielders remains basically the same in debut seasons and full careers. Black players, by contrast, are significantly more likely to begin at second base and shortstop and then later get moved out to center or left field.
The skew towards outfielders has other implications for Black players in the league. As Cameron Maybin observed in an interview with Howard Bryant, “if a guy shows any athleticism, he gets pushed to the outfield, so we’re really competing against each other for the same jobs.” Concentrating all the players of one race into a handful of positions limits their opportunities. Because two-thirds of outfield positions are not especially defensively valuable, the practice also limits wages. A great shortstop is in line for a significantly larger payday than a great left fielder.
And since players tend to move down the defensive spectrum as they get older, the bias towards the outfield may also limit Black players’ longevity in the league. A player who starts at shortstop can move to third base before transitioning into a corner outfield spot or first base. But a player who starts in left or right field has nowhere left to go, so without a standout bat, they may end up out of the league altogether.
You might expect that these positional disparities would have started to disappear in recent years. With the rise of sabermetrics and a focus on data over ill-defined and empirically-unsupported stereotypes, Black shortstops (for example) should have ceased being unjustly shifted into the outfield.
Unfortunately, the statistics show that biases against Black catchers and towards Black outfielders have persisted. In the last 10 seasons (2010-2019), there were fewer Black player-seasons at backstop than in the 10 years prior (2000-2009). The same regression appears for the outfield: Black players spent more time in the three outfield spots in the last 10 years than in the decade before.
To some extent, racial biases in positions occur before front offices ever get involved. Racist decisions made when future major leaguers are children may push them onto athletic tracks that result in their shunting to specific positions. But that does not absolve front offices of a responsibility to combat those decisions. If the game is to improve its representation and eliminate racism, it has to start with decision-makers taking small and large steps alike, from asking why a Black prospect shouldn’t try their hand at catching to encouraging feeder leagues (like the NCAA) to take on their own racial biases.
There is also a performance-based argument for front offices to take on racism (although that shouldn’t be nearly as persuasive as the moral imperative). It’s undoubtedly the case that plenty of Black outfielders would have made more valuable shortstops, catchers, or second basemen (or pitchers, for that matter). By never allowing them that chance, teams have gravely misallocated their talent and likely wasted the abilities of some of their best players.
Some of baseball’s more pernicious racial disparities ultimately stem from these positional imbalances. For example, managers are overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of former catchers, so decisions about where on the field to put a promising prospect can manifest decades later as a severe paucity of Black coaches and skippers. The only way to solve this issue and others is to correct the problem at the source: when Black players are funneled away from their natural positions on the diamond and into the outfield. That’s a job teams, front offices, scouts, and coaches at all levels ought to take seriously, for the good of the game.
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