The Determinants of Foreign Talent

Why do so many Major League Baseball players come from the Dominican Republic (DR)? Why does economically strong, population-rich Japan produce so few MLB players? Why does baseball-loving Colombia have so few MLB alums (nine total)? Well, as it turns out, the answers are not so easy to find.

My previous two articles — one on East Asian talent, th’other on the relationship between height and OBP — have generated a lot of good discussion about what determines where a baseball player comes from.

In the first piece, I proposed that teams should invest in Chinese (and Indian) baseball academies to take advantage of the exceedingly large pool of athletes in those areas. However, several commentors suggested that baseball culture, not population size, determines the talent pool.

I found this a most intriguing analysis, so I went back to the ol’ opening day roster/injury list of foreign born players.

This is how it breaks out:

It does not require an electron micrometer to see the DR and Venezuela give the MLB lots o’ players. These two nations composed 17.5% of opening day rosters, but have a combined population smaller than Korea or Columbia individually.

So what does determine MLB talent sources? Well, it certainly does not appear to be population:

Japan, Mexico, and Korea, three nations which seem predisposed to giving more talent because of their greater size, have offered some of the fewest players. Only Shin-Soo Choo represented South Korea on opening day — and this is a nation which has its own, strong professional league and makes impressive showings in the World Baseball Classic.

So, I extended my study beyond population:

    Pop: Population, duh.
    LF in mil’: Labor force in millions — this helps us control for different age distributions within countries.
    GDP/captia: A sufficient, but not perfect, measure for national wealth.
    U3: The national unemployment rate.
    Baseball History: This little dandy I had to investigate myself. Basically, this is how many years the sport has been played domestically, dating back from 2011. Oddly, Canada has the first recorded baseball game. Weird.

The color coding in the table helps illustrate pretty immediately the lack of relationship between these variables and MLB players. It might be more instructive to examine multiple years — or perhaps the entirety of baseball history — but for now let’s focus on the present set of 2011 rosters.

The only mildly interesting relationship exists between the Baseball History variable and the minor players in foreign talent:

So, if we cut out the USA, the DR, and Venezula, we see an intuitively acceptable relationship between players contributed and how long the sport was domestic. But why can we cut out the DR and Venezuela? I don’t think we can.

Clearly the DR and Venezuela are an exception. Adding them back into the chart, the relationship goes haywire:

So why are the DR and Venezuela exceptions? That’s the million dollar question. They clearly do not have a timeline advantage over the other countries, but the Baseball History variable is indeed a weak proxy of baseball culture. A country can have a long and cold history of baseball (Canada) or a short and frenzied history (as we see in Venezuela).

However, I cannot help but protest to the assumption that DR baseball is somehow just so much more prolific and frenzied than that of Colombia and Panama — two nations a nation where baseball is the national sport (unlike Canada, which names lacrosse and ice hockey as its national sports) — that it will consistently out-produce these nations in baseball talent. Colombia is larger and richer than the DR and has a baseball history just as long as Venezuela.

It is far too easy to wax poetic and explain how kids in the DR grow up dreaming about becoming David Ortiz or Albert Pujols; how they play despite their economic challenges, replacing baseballs with rocks and infields with muddied streets; but this is an un-quantifiable trait, which in turn prevents us from being able to truly compare the DR and Venezuela to Colombia, Panama, or even Korea and Japan.

What does make a quantifiable difference, or at least this is my suspicion, is the presence of MLB youth academies. I unfortunately do not have data on this, but I have noticed in passing: (1) the DR has upwards of 28 MLB academies, by far more than any other country; (2) Venezuela has had academies and MLB scouts for over 20 years now, ever since the Astros began in 1989; (3) Colombia and Panama, to my knowledge, have no MLB-sponsored baseball academies; and (4) East Asia has no MLB academies, as well as having strong domestic leagues in Korea and Japan, lowering the incentive of coming to America to play (moreover, Japan and Korea have cultivated decidedly different styles of play, meaning certain players are less likely to transition directly to the MLB).

This research is still unfinished. I want to encourage the FanGraphs readership to try to fill the gaps. Please chime in if:

a) You have extensive first-hand experience in both the DR/Venezuela and Colombia/Panama. Is there is a noticeable difference between the baseball culture in these nations? (Clearly, this would be mostly anecdotal, but perhaps a sociologist or data wizard of some sort might have some ideas for quantifying this.)

b) You have or know a way to procure data on the MLB’s baseball academies abroad — specifically team-run academies.

c) You know the exact history of Colombian and Curacaoan baseball, as these represent gaps in the above dataset.

My series on The Next Market Inefficiencies has been an attempt to forecast where future inefficiencies will occur, not necessarily uncover where present ones exist. However, the more I research Colombia, Panama, and the smaller components of Latin American baseball, the more I suspect a present inefficiency exists there.

Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

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Isn’t a very salient variable cost for procuring a player?

It’d be interesting to look at average signing bonuses for DR/Venezuela players versus, not even Japan, but Taiwan and Korea.