Younger Is Not Always Better in the Dominican

Age falsification continues to be a thorn in Major League Baseball’s collective side. Cleveland Indians’ right-hander Fausto Carmona was taken into custody in the Dominican Republic last week for using a false identity. Reports state that he is 31 years old (three years older than advertised) and that his real name is Roberto Hernandez Heredia.

This latest arrest not only dredges up questions regarding the effectiveness of the current system of international free agency, but also whether or not organizations are prudently investing money in young, high-risk Dominican teenagers. Melissa Segura of Sports Illustrated explains that, since 2003, 16-year-olds out of the D.R. have been given 50% more in bonuses than 17-year-old players.

Segura goes on to argue that organizations are mistakenly placing a premium on youth in the Dominican because only six players that were signed at age 16 made big league debuts between 2008-2011, while 17-year-old signees had 23 debuts and 18-year-old signees had 24 debuts.

Organizations do not sign Dominican teenagers to six-figure deals merely to have them scratch the big leagues, though. They wish to exploit the perceived inefficiencies of the Latin American market and buy premium talent at a fraction of the market value.

Keep in mind an important caveat to this discussion of “value” in regards to Dominican prospects. The lavish bonuses dished out to 16-year-old players are not always directly tied to their skill level. Teams sometimes need to vastly overpay if their connections with the local buscones (or trainers) are not well-established. These buscones also serve as the young players’ agents, drumming up interest and creating an auction-like atmosphere of unfettered capitalism that drives up asking prices.

Still, whatever the reason, teams are pouring money into 16-year-olds coming out of the Dominican Republic. Are teams garnering more value by investing more money these younger players?

Looking at players signed as free agents out of the Dominican Republic that have made their big league debuts since 2005, it appears that dumping more money into 16-year-old players has largely not translated into more value on the diamond.

Age Number of Players Average Career WAR
16 32 2.6
17 40 1.8
18 33 2.2
19 23 -0.2
20 16 2.4
21 1 0.6
22 2 -0.4
23 1 0.3

No significant correlation exists between a player’s age at which he signs and his ultimate value to an organization. A Dominican ballplayer who signs at 16 is not statistically likely to be more valuable throughout his career than a Dominican ballplayer who signs at 17 or 18. Heck, even the 20-year-old signees have, on average, been worth roughly as many wins in the past seven seasons as the high-upside 16-year-olds.

To be fair, the 16-year-old group features some of the brightest young prospects in the game. Michael Pineda, Starlin Castro, and Arodys Vizcaino are poised to add quite a few wins to their career WAR totals in the coming seasons. The best young players coming out of the Dominican Republic were not all signed at 16, though. Neftali Feliz, Wilin Rosario, Ivan Nova, and Al Alburquerque all were signed at age 17, while Carlos Santana and Rubby De La Rosa were 18 when they inked contracts with their respective teams.

So, yet again, more evidence points to the fact that spending 50% more dollars on a 16-year-old than a 17-year-old in the Dominican Republic does not guarantee results on the field.

It is not that black and white, though.

While it appears that age is not a determining factor in big league success, useful position players do not slip through the cracks very often. They are signed young. Successful players — such as Hanley Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, Erick Aybar, Willy Aybar, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Starlin Castro, and Carlos Santana — all signed when they were 16, 17, or 18. Only one position player signed out of the Dominican Republic after his 19th birthday has contributed a positive WAR throughout his career in the big leagues, debuting since 2005. That is Eugenio Velez.

Pitchers that become successful in the big leagues, on the other hand, appear to be signed at varying ages. Michael Pineda signed with the Seattle Mariners when he was 16-years-old. Ubaldo Jimenez signed with the Colorado Rockies when he was 17. Johnny Cueto signed when he was 18; Wandy Rodriguez when he was 20; Antonio Bastardo when he was 20; and even Esmailin Caridad when he was 23.

Thus, while the numbers suggest teams have not gained more value from signing younger, they also indicate that position players should be signed young to receive positive return on the investment and that pitchers are much more flexible in terms of their signing age. So, the next time your favorite team signs a 20-year-old outfielder from the Dominican Republic, recent history informs us that you should not expect him to do anything of significance at the big league level. You can, however, still hold out hope on that 20-year-old pitcher.

Despite evidence in recent years that investing more money into the Dominican market on younger talent does not translate into more value on the baseball field, teams will likely not change their philosophies any time soon. They still want to get a 16-year-old player into their organization to ensure that he is receiving quality coaching and development from professionals as soon as possible. Not only that, but 16-year-old kids are also nowhere near physical maturity, which means scouts and GMs can really dream on guys and what they can ultimately become.

This article is not attempting to suggest that teams should not invest money into 16-year-old Dominican ballplayers. This article is suggesting, however, that the numbers over the past seven seasons tell us that 16-year-old signees are not vastly more valuable than 17- or 18-year-old signees, so the disparity in bonus money doled out has not been worth it for organizations.

J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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Edwin Encarnacion was not signed as a free agent — he was drafted by the Rangers out of high school in Puerto Rico.