Friday, April 16, 2010

Three Final Points about Race Biases in Baseball

Is Jermaine Dye a decent example of a player that might have been affected by race biases in baseball? I think so, and especially so this year.

I would characterize Dye as an aging, defensively challenged corner outfielder who can still mash. This year, there were three other players on the market who have that same skill set: Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui, and Vladimir Guerrero. Let’s just quickly draw up the most relevant facts about each:

Dye – 35 years old, 793 OPS in 2009 & UZR was -20,
Abreu – 35 year old, 825 OPS in 2009 & UZR was -11 (signed for $19M/2 years)
Matsui – 35 years old, 876 OPS in 2009 & he really only played DH (signed for $6M/1 year)
Guerrero – 34 years old, 794 OPS in 2009 & her really only played DH (signed for $6.5M/1 year)

Dye has two characteristic that I thought made him more like Abreu than Matsui and Guerrero: he’s stayed healthy and he’s stayed in the outfield. The two are related, by the way. Both Matsui and Guerrero were just as shaky in the outfield as Dye, but what really moved them to DH is that they couldn’t stay healthy out there. Dye remains an option in the outfield, or at least he and his agent thought so.

But there aren’t huge differences between these guys, and I can understand and respect others opinions. I suspect it is the same in GM offices. They look at these four guys, and if they need that type of player, they give the offer to whichever one their gut tells them they like best.

Of course, that’s where an unconscious bias might play a role. “I’ve always like Guerrero’s makeup”, one assistant GM will say, and everyone else will nod. And for some reason, he didn’t say “I’ve always liked Dye’s makeup.” Not because he disliked Dye, but just because he never thought of him quite the same way as he thought of Guerrero, for whatever reason.

On the other hand, if you’re a GM, and any of those guys look good, maybe you’re willing to sign the guy that says “yes” at the price you want. There is ample evidence that guy repeatedly wasn’t Dye, so maybe he and his agent are the victims of their own bad driving. We can’t tell, but I’m personally puzzled why Dye was ultimately valued lower in the market than these other guys. And I don't think it's crazy to think an unconscious race bias could have been a subtle contributing factor.


And while we’re taking a look at the free agency market, anyone want to guess who was the top free agent second baseman in our Offseason GM Handbook? Yep. It was Orlando Hudson. But he certainly wasn’t the guy that signed the best contract. Think that might be in the back of his mind?

Orlando Hudson is a couple years younger than Placido Polanco, who signed a 3-year/ $18 million contract (compared to Hudson’s $5M/1 year deal). Of course, Polanco was able to sign that deal in part because he was moving to third base.

Mark DeRosa signed a 2-year/ $12 million deal with the Giants. He’s three years older than Hudson, had a lower OPS, doesn’t have a gold glove and was hurt a good chunk of last year. Of course, he’s also switching positions away from second base, moving to left field. So maybe in both of those cases it’s their arm strength that made them worth the extra years and millions.

The Giants also made a commitment to Freddy Sanchez, who they paid $12 million over two years to not be a free agent. He is Hudson’s age, and spent the end of last year not playing because of knee problems.

Hudson didn’t necessarily get a raw deal this year. And there was plenty of rumors that indicated that he and his agent needed to adjust their market expectations, which Dye apparently needed to do too. But I find it interesting that Hudson himself might be looking at the free agent market from last year and wonder how MLB teams were evaluating him lower than some other players. And what might have caused it.


OK, follow my math here…

According to Major League Baseball, 73% of all major leaguers are American born. And it's my understanding that 12% of the US population is black. So 12% of that 73% should be black if African-Americans are to be fairly represented by major league baseball players. 12% of 73% is 8.8%.

But according to the stories I read yesterday, 10% of major league rosters are black players. So doesn’t this mean that black are overrepresented on major league baseball rosters? Is this really a problem?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Maybe Hudson Got It Right

"We both know what it is. You’ll get it right. You’ll figure it out. I’m not gonna say it because then I’ll be in [trouble].”
- Orlando Hudson

Give the media some credit. We got it right. We figured it out. And whether Orlando Hudson said the word "racism" or not, he's in trouble. But not for the reason he should be.

The problem is not that he raised this issue. When Orlando Hudson hinted that Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield couldn’t get a job in part because of the color of their skin, he couldn’t have timed his comment much better. This week, and today of all days, the issue should be raised. Today Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, the day that Jackie Robinson first broke the color barrier. This is exactly the day and the week that we SHOULD cut some slack to those willing to take on the risks inherent in talking about race biases.

No, the problem is that Hudson didn't talk enough. By only hinting at the argument, he left it for us to interpret his thoughts. It also allowed us to construct straw dogs, easily torn to pieces. Do we really need media heads to bravely declare that there isn't some conspiracy in the higher offices in major league baseball? Is that what we really think was being suggested?

I'll give the nine-year veteran a little more credit than that.

One doesn't need a conspiracy to be affected by racism, and we have ample proof of that. The most recent sports-related proof is a study three years ago which was wildly misrepresented because of when it was reported. In 2007, Joseph Price of Cornell University & Justin Wolfers from University of Pennsylvania conducted a study on racial discrimination among NBA referees. Using game data they examined statistically whether teams of referees who were predominantly one race called more fouls on players of the opposing race. They did.

“Against these baselines, we find systematic evidence of an own-race bias. Players earn up to 4 percent fewer fouls or score up to 2½ percent more points when they are the recipients of a positive own-race bias, rather than a negative opposite-race effect.” (link)

The study was publicized during the same time period as the Tim Donaghy scandal, and so the coverage generally followed the same tack as the headline from this CBS News story: Study On Race Calls Foul On NBA Referees. The NBA scrambled to do damage control and there was lots of debate, but the main point was missed. The point of the study wasn't to prove that NBA refs were racist. It was to demonstrate that we all have our own race biases in hidden ways.

NBA referees were studied precisely because it is so ludicrous to suggest that their group is racist. They work in a highly integrated environment with differing races working together every day. They are constantly scrutinized in public, making even the slightest tendency obvious. They are rewarded and penalized based on their fairness and objectivity. You would be hard-pressed to find another group of people who could be held as a higher example of NOT having a same-race bias.

It would be almost impossible to show anecdotally that NBA referees have any race bias. But it was unquestionable when done statistically. In the split-second in which a referee must make a decision about whether a foul was committed, they are slightly more likely to make a call against a player of an opposing race.

(By the way, the study did not differentiate between the races. The abstract clearly states Our results do not distinguish whether the bias stems from the actions of white or black referees.”)

What is important about this study isn't that the NBA refs have a race bias. What is important is that they display a same-race bias that isn't – and really couldn’t be - conscious. It doesn't affect all fouls - just the marginal ones. It can’t be proven anecdotally, only statistically. It’s there, it’s real, and it’s almost impossible to put your finger on.

Does something similar exist in the major league baseball free agency market that only affects fairly marginal players, like Dye? I can’t find any study that says so, but there has been a similar study done for the NBA and was referenced in the Price and Wolfers’ study. It was conducted by Lawrence Kahn of Cornell and Malav Shah of Emory University. (link) The abstract notes:

“We study race and pay in the NBA for 2001-2002. For players who were neither free agents nor on rookie scale contracts, there were large, statistically significant ceteris paribus nonwhite shortfalls in salary, total compensation, and contract duration. But for players under the rookie salary scale (first-round draft picks) and free agents, race effects were small and insignificant. These results suggest discrimination against marginal nonwhite players.”

The Price and Wolfers study is a good place for the MLB free agency discussion to begin. We know that same-race biases exist in sports and we know that they are not easily erased, even given the best efforts of leagues. Would it really surprise us if a similar problem existed within the highly charged free agent market? If it did, would a couple of aging, defensively challenged ballplayers of African-American heritage like Dye and Sheffield be adversely affected? (Especially, if like Dye, the player reportedly erred in turning down some fairly substantial contract offers a few months ago?)

It’s legitimate to debate the degree which race bias might play when predominantly white front offices evaluate free agents like Dye and Sheffield. It may be significant, or maybe it isn’t. But before that conversation takes place, we need to welcome people, ballplayers included, that raise the issue. We need to recognize that biases exist, and not construct straw dogs that can be easily torn down. We may not get to the truth, but we’ll at least raise some awareness, and on this day, sports fans should be all about awareness.

That’s how we figure it out. That’s how we get it right.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Peeking Ahead

Q: What is the most exciting part about the Twins fast start?
A: That it could be have just as easily gone exactly the other way.

Start with a west coast road trip to the 97-win Los Angeles Angels, followed by road games at the division rival's ballpark. Add in a brutal travel schedule that included flights from Florida to Minnesota to Los Angeles to Chicago and back to Minneapolis. It also didn't include a getaway day prior to Chicago, and then there was no break before the home opener.

It's conceivable that the Twins could've taken just one game in Anaheim and one game in Chicago, then laid an egg in the emotional and distracted home opener. That would have been a 2-6 start, and it still would've been hard to be too critical, given the other challenges. Instead they're 6-2 with two games coming up against the Red Sox and then....

Well, then is when it gets interesting, because the Twins play their next 18 games versus their division. KC and Cleveland come to the new ballpark, then the Twins travel to Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland, before coming back to face Detroit, Baltimore and finally a pair of game versus the White Sox. Unless you have a high opinion of the Tigers (and I don't) that stretch looks mighty inviting.

Things get tough again in mid-May. The Twins travel to Yankee Stadium, to Toronto, and then to Boston. They come home to face the Brewers and then then Yankees again. So by May 27th, the Twins are completely done with the Yankees and Red Sox and only have three games left against the Angels, and those are at home.

Not that there aren't other challenges. The interleague schedule includes a visit to Philadelphia and Milwaukee, as well as a home series against the Braves and Rockies. The Twins also have eight games against that other AL East team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And if the Mariners and Rangers fufill the promise that many see in them, the Twins will need to navigate through 20 games with those two teams.

But still, by the end of May, the Twins will be almost done with last year's American League playoff teams. They'll have had a chance to put some distance between themselves and most of the rest of the division. And now, because of a hot start, they get to start that stretch already near the top of the division.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Phoning It In: Twins Geek's Official Stadium Position

On February 2nd, 2002, drafted our official position on public funding of an outdoor stadium. Here (link) it was:

I CAN state that I want a new outdoor stadium. I understand the arguments against it, and philosophically I generally side against it. But philosophically, I side against anyone paying close to $2000 to have a 51" HDTV-compatible big screen TV when they could spend it on educational opportunities for their kids - and then I sit in front of my Panasonic PT-51HX41 and thank god I didn't let some stupid philosophy get in the way of buying that TV.

I want an outdoor stadium because going to a baseball game in the summer in Minnesota
outside ROCKS. And because going to a baseball game in the summer in Minnesota inside SUCKS. And I want that 'ROCKS' thing to happen about a dozen times every summer for my family, my friends and for ME.

And in a similar vein, it is WAY too nice to be writing tonight. Minnesota in spring ROCKS and sitting inside SUCKS, and I want that "ROCKS" thing to happen tonight so TVOR and I are heading somewhere to eat outside now.

Tomorrow, we'll be enjoying the stadium, and I would encourage you all to have a beer and celebrate the day with us. I hope to be tweeting regularly about the day, and if it is as great as I hope, there is almost no chance for a proper writeup. So, please follow the tweets and we'll most likely talk to you again on Wednesday.