Mythbusting: The International Draft Didn’t Kill Puerto Rican Baseball

In my book, the most enduring myth in baseball is that the introduction of the amateur draft in 1990 destroyed Puerto Rico as an incubator of MLB talent. People use it as an example why the international draft the MLB and MLBPA are negotiating right now is a bad idea. I’ll let you decide. Can you spot the draft-related decline in Puerto Rican MLB players after 1990?

PRDRPlayersTop

Can you spot it? I include Dominican players (the red line) to show what people are really talking about: the decline of Puerto Rico as a hotbed of baseball talent in relation to the newest non-US powerhouse: the Dominican Republic. While levels of Puerto Rican MLB players remained fairly constant, even growing a little bit, through the early aughts, Dominican baseball exploded. This does not mean that baseball on the island declined, just that it didn’t explode as much as baseball on the other island.

But yeah, there’s a slight decline over the last seven years or so. 2012 was a new low, with only 23 MLB players. Of course, this is still remarkable for an island of just over 3 million people. The only U.S. states that had more than 23 U.S. players in 2012 were California (223), Texas (112), Florida (104), Illinois (34), Pennsylvania (25), and North Carolina (25), all which have much larger populations than Puerto Rico.

But okay, what can explain the decline? Jorge Castillo, in his excellent New York Times article on the subject, takes a shot:

But not everyone says the draft is the main issue. Some, like Sandy Alderson, the general manager of the Mets and a former consultant for Major League Baseball who handled issues in Latin America, said Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic status — somewhere between the United States and the Dominican Republic — left it in a peculiar position.

“From a socioeconomic standpoint, things have changed quite a bit in Puerto Rico,” he said. “There are lots of other ways to spend your time. In the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, unfortunately, poor kids who are playing ball and who are from the lowest economic strata in that country, baseball is a way to escape, so there’s a greater concentration of players and effort. I think they’re just very different dynamics than Puerto Rico.”

So, maybe Puerto Ricans aren’t producing fewer baseball players because MLB decided to treat them like they do the rest of the United STates, but instead because they, you know, have other things to do. Let’s look at that same chart of Puerto Rican and Dominican players, but this time adding a second vertical axis showing per capita Gross National Income (GNI) for Puerto Rica, with projections for 2011-2012:

PRDRPlayers

Dominican GNI is just over $5,000, and has shown considerably less growth over the decade, although it has growth.

Since 1990, Puerto Rico has legitimately entered the ranks of the middle income world. Life there is much, much better than it is in the Dominican Republic, where even a career in the minor leagues offers a significant path out of poverty for many kids. And so, the territory is producing MLB players at *only* 4x the rate of Pennsylvania and 58x the rate of Mexico. Contrary to popular belief, Puerto Ricans might have something better to do than play baseball all day.

There’s one big reason why MLB and MLBPA are going to ruin international baseball as a pipeline for major league prospects, and its not the draft. It is entirely about the draconian caps they decided to impose on MLB teams looking to go searching for players in the latest CBA. There is zero evidence that an international draft is in itself going to shut down Latin America as a place to find MLB talent.

E.J. Fagan been blogging about Yankee baseball since 2006. He is a Ph.D. student at University of Texas at Austin.

18 thoughts on “Mythbusting: The International Draft Didn’t Kill Puerto Rican Baseball

  1. THANK YOU FOR THIS! I've been thinking about doing this study for years and I'm glad someone else came along and did it for me.

  2. Three reasons why I think your charts are misleading and conclusion incorrect:

    1) Just because the PR players were incorporated into the draft in 1989 doesn't mean the drop off would be immediate. Not only would it take time for the impact to filter through, but what you charted was total players, not debuts. As a result, it would take time for PR players who debuted in the 1980s to exit the game, something more likely to occur in 2000, not 1990.

    2) The second misleading portion is you don't account for expansion. More relevant than the number players is the percentage. Because there are more jobs in the majors (about 125 since 1989), a stagnant total would be a smaller percentage.

    3) Where is DR's GNI per capita? If your conclusion about PR is correct, we should see a similar situation in the DR, right? Well, as it turns out, GNI per capita has also been on the rise in the Dominican (see here: http://tinyurl.com/czx9wjd) as well.

    Does socio-economic status play a role? Undoubtedly. Lots of things to do. Having said that, to ignore the impact of the draft and resultant relative changes in baseball's investment in infrastructure is to be willfully blind, in my opinion. If there were more baseball academies in PR, I think there would be more players from the island. In fact, I think you could say thing about cities in the United States.

    • Chad

      I agree (although he did acknowledge your 3rd point a bit in the article). While certainly interesting, none of this really proves the conclusion that's reached. The fact that PR is still doing well compared to most US states doesn't change the fact that there's still been a decline in % of jobs filled by Puerto Ricans. I'm not well-versed enough in the issues to declare that the draft absolutely is the problem, but it certainly is not disqualified here.

    • Just to quickly address a lot of arguments:

      1) Expansion does not explain what is going on here. MLB added 15% more roster spots between the 93 and 98 expansions. Puerto Rico actually hit its peak after both were completed, and grew by more than 15% since 1990. Pressure from players from non DR/Venezuela/US+PR is also increasing.

      2) This is a long data set, and there's no reason to believe that the variable contributing to the slow post-2002 decline has anything to do with the international draft, besides anecdotal evidence. The conditions which existed before the 1990 draft changes clearly did not create any kind Puerto Rican MLB boom. There might be other variables at play, but if you ran a correlation on those two variables, you'd find a pretty strong negative relationship, based on that graph.

      3) There are both demand effects and supply effects. My argument is that the demand side grew weaker in Puerto Rico as the island underwent remarkably ($5.5k to ~$18k per capita, versus $3k to $5k per capita in the DR, your link is PPP-adjusted GNI, not the same) fantastic economic growth. This is much more plausible than any kind of supply side argument (that investment unique to a not-draft from MLB teams is a more significant driver of MLB talent coming out of Puerto Rico), which relies on an answer to the question: Why wasn't Puerto Rican baseball booming before 1990?

      • But, at least there is anecdotal evidence to suggest the draft has harmed PR's baseball culture. The opposite position doesn't even have circumstantial backing. The idea that GNI growth is responsible for declining baseball participation fails when applied to other countries (you keep trying to dismiss this, but the numbers speak for themselves: http://tinyurl.com/cb4tgzd).

        Why wasn't there a boom in PR baseball before 1990? Well, for starters, most PR people agree that the local league was much more vibrant. Still, at that time, baseball wasn't as interested in finding foreign talent, so there weren't as many players brought to the majors. When salaries started to sky rocket, teams started looking for cheaper labor, which in turn led teams to invest heavily in baseball infrastructure. Had PR players remained exempt from the draft, I believe the island would have enjoyed some of that investment (most others involved in PR baseball believe the same). Instead, it was funneled to DR and Venezuela, and since then, players from those countries have grown significantly.

        The real question is why hasn't PR participated in the Caribbean baseball boon, when DR and Venezuela have? I think the answer is clear: investment in the latter has been much greater, which is undeniable. That's a direct tangible link between MLB and foreign talent.

  3. Also, where did you get your data on player origins from? I don't think DR players have topped out above 200, but maybe the data source I have been using is incorrect.

    • Baseball Almanac

      • Even BA doesn't spit out a 200 figure for DR players. It doesn't alter the point, but it looks like the data presented in the chart above is inaccurate.

        • Which year spits out 200 players from DR? The range indicated in the chart above doesn't come close.

  4. lazlosother

    I have to agree with William regarding the lack of DR GNI per capita info. Without this no conclusions can be drawn, let alone the conclusion that the draft hasn't and won't affect the number of players from DR or PI drafted.

    Another piece of crucial information that is missing is the number of baseball academies in the DR, as opposed to PR. MLB pours vast sums of $ into these in the DR. In PR, not so much. The draft system doesn't encourage this type of operation from a MLB team's perspective How would instituting a draft impact investment in developing talent in the DR? It isn't likely the money would continue to pour in if getting a player you have spent $ developing is a crapshoot.

    This isn't a statement on the ethical worthiness of the current DR system, just an observation that more effort is spent developing players there, and this needs to be taken into account in your analysis.

    • GNI per capita for DR started at about 3k and ended at about 5k. I didn't include it because I had to grab it from a World Bank graph by hand, which took awhile. DR is still very, very poor, while Puerto Rico has climbed out from the cellar.

      • lazlosother

        That is a big difference, & I'm sure it has an impact. It would be interesting to revisit this in a few years if the draft goes international.

  5. Chad

    Another consideration, when it comes to percentage of jobs filled by any given country, would be the relative influx of Asian players in the past 15 years.

    • Yeah, the complexity of starting to figure all of that in is a bit much for a quick blog post. Especially since the data isn't particularly well compiled, so I'm doing all of this by hand.

    • Baseball's talent pool is expanding, so competition for jobs will be greater going forward, which is a GREAT thing. That aside, the issue here is really more simple and specific. At a time when baseball teams were starting to embrace foreign talent and, importantly, pumping dollars into infrastructure, PR players were incorporated into the draft, leaving places like DR and Venezuela better comparative investments. As a result, academies bloomed there, while PR's system wilted. Everyone but Alderson, an agent of MLB, attested to that in the article linked above.

      Is PR richer? Yes (although my quick glance shows a higher growth rate in DR since 2000). Is there more international competition for jobs? Yes. However, DR is flourishing and PR is floundering, and the giant elephant is the Rule IV draft.

  6. Brian

    During a period in which masive gains occurred in telecommunications and other digital technologies, the process of scouting has become easier and more streamlined. Physical travel has also become more cost effective over the past 25 years. It is a reasonable expectation that international scouting would get a major boost by this, which is what we see with the DR? The flatness of the PR involvement appears in and of itself to be an indictment. Per capita GNI has grown in many places (including the U?S?) during the past 25 years. Some of this has to do with inflation (which should have been adjusted for) and some of this has to do with a greater concentration of wealth in the upper echelons of the socioeconomic strata. These factors would suggestbthat there has not been the massive improvement in basic needs and quality of life for the majority of the PR population – as it seems to be suggested. Use of the % of households w/ children living at or below the nationally adjusted poverty line would have been a more effctive metric by which to make this arguement. It's not clear whether that data would actually show such a change.

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