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?
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:
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.