July 10, 2007

Bill James' All-Time Best Baseball Players by Ethnicity

Bill James' All-Time Best Baseball Players by Ethnicity: There is a sizable quantity of academic theorizing that black baseball players are found most in the outfield and a first base because of nefarious stereotyping. For example a 2006 Ph.D. dissertation with the beyond-parody title of "RACE ON FIRST, CLASS ON SECOND, GENDER ON THIRD, AND SEXUALITY UP TO BAT: INTERSECTIONALITY AND POWER IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL, 1995 - 2005" by Lisa Doris Alexander says:

A significant amount of the literature dealing with race and sports focuses on positional segregation or what is known as "stacking". Jon Loy and J.F. Elvogue’s 1970 article "Racial Segregation in American Sport" pioneered the notion of stacking when they found that black baseball players are placed predominantly in outfield positions, which are "the most peripheral and socially isolated positions in the organizational structure of a baseball team."

An alternative theory is that blacks have played these positions the most because that's what they are best at. To test that, let's look at the top 900 players ever.

Baseball statistics maven Bill James ranked the top 100 major league players at each position in his The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Here are my counts by ethnicity. I was pretty sleepy when I did these so I probably got a few wrong.

Bill James' Top 100 Baseball Players - 1875-2000
























Left field




Center field




Right field












Catching is the most physically debilitating position and that's the second whitest. Pitching is the least sure thing position for star talents because sore arms constantly end the careers of potential stars, and that's the third whitest. (The third most injury-prone position is second baseman, because of collisions with runners while pivoting to turn the double play.) So, it doesn't appear that whites are hogging all the good positions.

As you can see, African-Americans do best in the outfield, where speed matters most, and at first base, which requires the least defensive skill (other than designated hitter), and thus is a good dumping ground for big slow sluggers like Frank Thomas, followed by second basemen (perhaps the Jackie Robinson influence?)

Among outfielders, centerfielders need to be fast and they need to have good throwing arms (e.g., Willie Mays). Rightfielders need very good throwing arms and they need to be fairly fast (e.g., Hank Aaron). Leftfielders don't need good arms, and they tend to be either fast (the young Barry Bonds) or slow (the old Barry Bonds). The fastest leftfielders tend to be faster than the fastest rightfielders because if a player is both fast and has a good enough arm to play right field, they will play center (the most important outfield defensive position) instead. So, there are more top black leftfielders than rightfielders.

Hispanics are best represented at the stereotypical wiry middle-infielder positions, and at right field (perhaps the influence of Roberto Clemente?). Latin American ballplayers tended to be smaller in the past, so they often congregated in the majors at the two defensive positions in the middle of the infield (e.g., Luis Aparicio).

Whites do best at positions requiring a strong arm but not sprinting speed, such as third base, pitcher, and catcher (all at least 90 of the top 100).

Third base, the whitest position, attracted the least talented players until after WWII. During the deadball era a century ago, batters bunted constantly, so third basemen tended to be acrobatic defensive specialists. For some reason, after Babe Ruth ushered in the home run era around 1920, baseball stuck with weak-hitting third basemen. Finally, the arrival of Eddie Matthews in 1952 ushered in the modern stereotype, the slugging white guy with lightning reflexes, like Mike Schmidt. So, the white dominance at third base may be less attributable to segregation than at other positions, since 19 of the James' 25 top 3rd basemen are post WWII players.

African-Americans were prevented from playing major league baseball until 1947, so you can roughly double the black number to get the black percentage over the period when they were eligible. Spanish-surnamed stars go back at least as far as the Cuban pitcher Dolph Luque who debuted in 1914. A few more or less black Cubans quietly played for the Washington Senators beginning in the late 1930s, but Minnie Minoso was the first black Spanish-surnamed star in the 1950s.

I'm using African-American to include black Canadians like Ferguson Jenkins, but no blacks with Hispanic names (e.g., Pedro Martinez is listed as "Spanish-surnamed" rather than "African-American.") Spanish-surnamed is anybody with a Spanish-surname, with no consideration of race or origin (e.g., Babe Ruth's teammate Lefty Gomez from California is listed as Spanish-surname (plus a couple of guys like Bernie Williams who I know are from Latin America despite their names). "Whites" are non-Hispanic whites. I designated the three categories to be mutually exclusive.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


withrow said...

The way you've handled the Spanish-surnamed makes your mini-study more about culture than about inherent racial abilities (if they actually exist).

The more interesting study would be to compare Dominicans-- who come of age pretty much surrounded by others of mostly African descent-- with U.S. blacks.

Another study that might be interesting would be to compare the fist black players to hit the major leagues, those who actually played in the Negro Leagues, with black players today. There's probably not a significant sample size, but it might point to a change over time.

If you look at this wisely enough, I think you'll probably find that cultural, not physical, features are more important.

By the way, the first Asian players to venture across the Pacific were mostly pitchers, but we're seeing Asians more widely scattered around the field now.

jody said...

your system makes no sense and the results should be thrown out, just like any any other system that has confounding variables.

i'm going to start ignoring anything you write about "hispanics" or "latinos". it's all irrelevant and makes no sense, and has no bearing on reality.

Anonymous said...

Steve -- don't know where you'd find these stats, but it would be useful to look at salaries over time for each position, particularly relative to each other.

If for example, SS was about 75% average of Centerfield, for a time period, say 1980-90, well you'd know that teams themselves felt Centerfield was a more critical position.

Then look at who plays what by ethnicity for that time period. It might be interesting.

Zach said...

The racism charge was certainly true through the 60s. But to say that the reason blacks are mainly in the outfield in the 90s and today is because of racism is laughable. If that were the case, sabermatricians would notice and more importantly so would GMs. They would scoop up underutilized backup black outfielders and move them to shortstop or catcher.
This is the same counter-thought experiment to women getting paid less for the same work. If that were true, then a firm should only hire women and it would automatically boost its profits. Soon, other firms would follow and men would be unemployed, or take a pay cut. In such a scrutinized free market as contemporary baseball, there is no way that stereotyping is causing GMs to waste talent.

Taylor said...

You know Pakistani has an obsession with cricket that might prepare their players to be good at baseball as well. Classifying them as Caucasians seems to be too all-encompasing.

Asian, btw, is supposed to be genetically linked to American Indian so what you say about South American ball players can probably be generalized to them - assuming similar physical characteristics, brain organization, etc.

There are so many different ways to categorize...

Toadal said...

Out of curiosity I read the first three paragraphs of Lisa Doris Alexander's philosophical dissertation.

Ms Alexander is certainly a glutton for mental self punishment.

Her dissertation reveals a rich vein of current feminist emotional abstractions readily available for psychological analysis, but we can leave that to a future generation.

Guys, please be kind to your daughters ...

Karl said...

Is the point of this article that blacks are encouraged into the outfield and first base not because of nefarious stereotyping but because of benevolent stereotyping; that is, the belief in their superior speed? Is the point that there could be no reason for nefarious stereotyping? But, what if black players display, on average, more nefarious qualities. Won’t such qualities have an effect on team morale and wins and losses? Why should we not expect a savvy manager to stick a problem player out in the outfield somewhere where he can do the least harm? For example, if anyone has ever had Gary Sheffield on their team, they know that, in spite of his ability to sometimes put up gaudy numbers, he is always a threat to scuttle a team with his lackadaisical play and poor attitude. It is no accident, then, that teams place him out in right field where he can brood alone and where his dropped balls and overthrows cause the least damage. He isn’t there because somehow he’s the perfect specimen of a right fielder. I guess the question is: even if he could somehow occupy the body of Roy Campanella, would you want a Gary Sheffield doing your team’s catching?

Steve Sailer said...

I think it's more common to dump problem players and head cases in left field and at first base (or DH in the American League) than in right. Dick Allen, for instance, moved from third to the outfield to first. On the other hand, you don't put a slacker in center, the position requiring the most running. And that's the blackest position.

Steve Sailer said...

By the way, a reader suggests that integration of baseball in 1947 impelled white players who would have otherwise played right field or first base to third base, which is why we start getting slugging third basemen after WWII. The big flood of fast blacks into the outfield and huge blacks to first base persuaded a bunch of white guys that they better got take extra fielding practice so they can play third base.

ricpic said...

A slight quibble about first base not being an important defensive position. Maybe I'm prejudiced because I grew up watching the great Gil Hodges. I can say confidently that his skill defending the first base line, going into the hole between first and second, turning the first to second to first double play and fielding erratic throws from short and third made a difference of at least five, maybe ten games in the win column for those fabulous fifties Dodger teams.

Jedster said...

Steve you really should leave baseball alone. It seems that after the demise of your silly and discredited "Freeswinging Latins" theory you're looking for something new...but not finding it.

By the way, it's astonishing that you used the time frame of 1875-2000 instead of 1947-2000.

Moreover, your headline implies Bill James' endorsement of your list. Probably not unethical, but certainly polemical. And not at all intellectual.

Finally, baseball, like all other things, changes.

For example, in the 1980s, 47% of all at-bats by players with Hispanic surnames were by middle infielders (2b or ss). From 2001-2006, that number dropped to 37% -- not because there are fewer Hispanic shortstops or second basemen (there are more of both) -- but because more Hispanics are playing more positions.

By the way, players with Hispanic surnames have had marginally better OBP and OPS statistics than all other players combined since at least around 2000, if not before.

Part of the reason for this? Because Hispanic players are no longer concentrated so heavily on weaker-hitting positions.

If memory serves, 4 of the top 10 current career OPS leaders were born in or lived in Latin America (not just Hispanic surname). I think 2 of the top 10 all-time career OPS leaders are Hispanic, which is somewhat remarkable given that Hispanic players didn't hit the 20% threshold until the 1990s -- and already 2 are in the top 10 all-time.

Lenny Dykstra sure was nails though in 1986. One of my fondest memories is of Ray Knight scoring the winning run as Mookie Wilson hit the ball through Bill Buckner's legs (Kevin Mitchell scored the tying run and Gary Carter got them within one).

Vin Scully's call was great: "So the winning run is at second base, with two outs, three and two to Mookie Wilson. (A) little roller up along first... behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it!"

But even better was the impact on cinema. A bit over a decade later, in Rounders, Matt Damon uttered one of my favorite lines ever as he returned to KGB's place to settle his debt over a game of poker:

"I felt like Buckner walking back into Shea."

Ah, baseball. What a great game. As George Will noted when the Blue Jays won their World Series: It's an American game being played in Canada and a lot of the players are from Latin America. Except he said it more elegantly than that.

Steve Sailer said...

Latin American players may well be bigger than they used to be, perhaps partly due to better diets and public health in Latin America, perhaps partly due to the easy availability off steroids.

Anonymous said...

To do this study correctly, you must break down the hispanics into groups as well, example black-David Ortiz, white-Luis Gonzalez, and natives-Rodrigo Lopez.