The Link Between MLB Teams and Specific Countries

At the Cincinnati Enquirer, C. Trent Rosencrans notes that, after Ichiro Suzuki plays his first game in a Miami Marlins uniform, the Reds will be the only of the 30 MLB teams to never employ a player born in Japan at the major-league level. (Tip of the hat to MLBTradeRumors.)

Here is a quote that Rosencrans shares from Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty:

We do have some people who do cross-checking, we don’t have a scout in Japan. It’s too costly.

I am totally befuddled by Jocketty’s sentiment here. There is an argument to be made that, compared to the cost of a marginally helpful free agent (i.e., the $4.5M buyout owed ex-Red Ryan Ludwick this season), employing a Japan-based scout provides significantly more dollar-for-dollar value for the organization.

But, to stay even more inside the box here: an MLB team does not need a Japan-based scout in order to make well-informed judgments about Japanese-born players. There is, for example, Suzuki himself, who has been on this side of the Pacific for 14 seasons and over 2,000 games before floating around for months in this winter’s free agent market.

Even more relevant to the Reds and their current roster construction: Nori Aoki, projected by Steamer for 1.5 WAR in 564 PA’s next year, was signed to a 1-year/$4M contract by the (defending World Champion) San Francisco Giants a little over a week ago. The Reds are currently projected to receive 0.2 WAR from their left fielders, including 0.5 from Marlon Byrd. Although Byrd comes with the same 2015 price tag as Aoki (the Phillies are picking up $4M of Byrd’s $8M salary, per Spotrac), the Reds had to give up prospect Ben Lively in order to get Byrd. The Reds have been able to monitor Aoki in the Majors for three full seasons now (including two seasons in their own division), which is more total games and plate appearances than you’d be able to see any prospect you’d be drafting, right? As Rosencrans points out, the Reds have employed three Korean players over the years (Shin-Soo Choo, Jung Bong, and Sun-Woo Kim), and all three of these players came to the Reds from other major league teams, not directly from Korea.

Now, I do not believe nor wish to imply that the Reds of the past or the present harbor a bizarre prejudice against Japanese people. There are all sorts of reasonable hypothetical explanations why certain deals didn’t work out. For instance: maybe the Reds pursued Aoki early in the winter, but Aoki’s asking price was too high for the Reds’ sensibilities, and so the Reds eventually find a Plan B in the Byrd trade. Meantime, Aoki finds that nobody is willing to pay his asking price, and many weeks later he settles with the Giants’ offer.

At the same time, I can’t help but think of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs won last year’s championship using a 14-man roster that included eight foreign-born players from six different countries. The Spurs have long made it an organizational priority to scour the entire globe for the best available talent, and the results are obvious in terms of both the players that the Spurs draft and also the players that the Spurs acquire from elsewhere around the league.

So! I’m curious: what will we find if we look at the number of players per country that each Major League team has employed? Are there teams who aggressively scour the globe — or maybe just aggressively scout certain corners of it? Are there any obviously conservative teams?

Using the Baseball Reference Play Index, I’m going to look at major league rosters since the 1998 season, since that was the last time the league expanded, thus giving each of the 30 teams the same amount of time to acquire international players. I’m going to look at the five non-U.S. countries who have contributed the greatest number of players — but I’m not going to consider Canada or Puerto Rico, since those players are drafted alongside Americans each June.

And now a giant caveat that this is an informal survey. Obviously there is a pretty big difference between an organization developing a player from an international academy, and then trading for a guy with an expiring contract at the trade deadline — but the numbers below will count these as one and the same:

Dominican Republic – 130 in 2014 – 618 all-time

Top Five  
Nationals 52
Royals 52
Orioles 51
Dodgers 50
Mets 49
Bottom Five  
Angels 20
A’s 20
Twins 22
Padres 24
Mariners 26

It seems totally improbable, given the ease and relatively low expense of plane travel — but could it be that the geography of an MLB team’s home stadium has an effect on international recruiting. Of the five teams who have employed the fewest Dominicans, four are in West Divisions, with the other in the Central Division. Among the five teams who have employed the most Dominicans, three are in East Divisions, with only the famously progressive Dodgers from a Western Division.

The last MLB team to not employ a Dominican player was the 2012 Arizona Diamondbacks — another West Division team.

Venezuela – 90 in 2014 – 321 all-time

Top Five  
Mariners 32
Tigers 29
Rockies 27
Padres 25
Mets 25
Rangers 25
Bottom Five  
Cardinals 8
A’s 9
Reds 13
Rays 13
Dodgers 14
Angels 14

The geographies here appear to be totally random — which, really, makes more sense. The Mariners lead the league in employing Venezuelans despite being as far from that country as an MLB team could be. Both the Angels and the A’s make another Bottom Five appearance in terms of recruiting from the two largest international pipelines of baseball talent.

Cuba – 23 in 2014 – 186 all-time

Top Five  
Yankees 9
Rays 8
Braves 8
White Sox 7
Mets 7
Bottom Five  
Astros 0
Angels 1
Indians 1
Twins 2
A’s 2
Pirates 2
Giants 2
Nationals 2

The Mets have now made all three Top Five appearances, singular in their balanced pursuit of these three most prolific international markets. The A’s and Angels are also again in the bottom five, and the Twins have now joined them two of the three times also.

The Astros have played six Cubans in their history, but with the most recent one being Oscar Zamora in 1978.

Mexico – 11 in 2014 – 114 all-time

Top Five  
Padres 14
Rockies 13
Pirates 10
Diamondbacks 9
Dodgers 9
Bottom Five  
Giants 1
Red Sox 2
White Sox 2
Rays 2
Phillies 2

Don’t know what to make of this: four of the five Top Five teams reside in the NL West, and then there’s the Giants with a single, solitary Mexican player. The Padres and Rockies have now both made two Top Fives, with the Rays and Giants in their second Bottom Five.

Japan – 13 in 2014 – 61 all-time

Top Five  
Mets 11
Red Sox 8
Mariners 8
Yankees 7
Dodgers 7
Bottom Five  
Reds 0
Marlins 0
Orioles 1
Tigers 2
Twins 2
Diamondbacks 2
Braves 2
Phillies 2
Cardinals 2

There are those Mets again! While they’re far from the first team that comes to mind in terms of progressive baseball practices, they are clearly lapping the field here in terms of both the quantity and variety of international players they’ve played.

What’s most bizarre about the Reds’ and (until now) Marlins’ lack of Japanese players is that the 61 total Japanese players includes guys who, while born in Japan, were raised in America, like Dave Roberts, or Jeff McCurry. And still none of those guys found their way to Cincinnati or Miami. (The Orioles at least made their one Japanese player count: it was Koji Uehara.)

The Reds also finished Bottom Five in Venezuelan players, and compiled no Top Fives. But, compared to the rosters in Anaheim, Oakland, and Minneapolis, the Reds have been far from homogenous.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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I often say that the Omar Minaya Mets focused too much on latino players, nice to see I was probably kind of right


Having quite a few Latin American players does not at all imply that he focused on them too much – the only problem would be if he signed too many *bad* Latin American players.