Baseball and the Olympics

Baseball is coming back to the Olympics in 2020. But just how international is baseball, particularly professional baseball? Of the big four professional sports in the US - football, basketball, hockey, and baseball - baseball has the highest representation of players born outside one country. Approximately 28 percent of MLB players are non-US-born, similar to the all-time high of international players in 2006. Only 12 or so MLB players are from Canada, though a few have dual US-Canadian citizenship, including Freddie Freeman, whose neck I assume qualifies as its own citizen. Twenty other nationalities are represented, with the Dominican Republic (123) and Venezuela (91) accounting for about 62 percent of foreign-born players. Other well-represented countries include Cuba (28), Puerto Rico (25 - part of the US, but with players competing separately at the Olympics), and Mexico (15).

Japan and Korea each have 9 players in the major leagues, and each also has pro-leagues of their own, as does Mexico. (The Mexican professional league is associated with the MLB as a AAA-tier league.) Other countries have either winter leagues or pro-leagues, further expanding the number of potential players for the Olympics.

For comparison, the NBA features 101 or so international players for around 450 roster spots, yielding a non-US-born rate of 22 percent, and a charming map about the 2014-5 season: Non-US-born NBA players are from Canada (12), France (10), Australia (8), Brazil (7), in addition to players from 33 other countries, making the NBA the most diverse big four sport in terms of countries represented. Twelve teams participated at Rio, including those countries well-represented in the NBA, with Team USA recently crushing Team Serbia in the finals for the third straight gold medal.

Hockey has a majority of non-US-born players, with 49 percent of players in the 2015-6 season hailing from Canada. About 24 percent of players were not from the US or Canada. Hockey has even less diversity in terms of countries of origin, with 18 countries represented other than Canada, including 25 percent of NHL players who are from the US. Sweden (85), Russia (41), the Czech Republic (39), and Finland (39) also contribute a large number of players to the 990 roster spots. It is worth noting that, while hockey is featured at the Winter Olympics, the upcoming World Cup of Hockey will feature a ‘Misc. Europe’ team, in addition to teams from the US, Canada, Russia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Canada has won three of the last four gold medals in men’s ice hockey at the Olympics.

NFL football is unsurprisingly overwhelmingly American, with about 97 percent of roster players born in the US. Chances are pretty low of seeing American football at the Olympics, though I would spend good money to watch a field-goal-kicking event. Or an Olympic event in explaining what scoring a safety is when you’re drunk. I really feel like we, as a nation, have trained for it.

Back to baseball: There are also questions of scheduling and participation during a long baseball season, versus during the Olympic break for hockey or the off-season for the NBA, as well as of quality of competition, should MLB players not want to participate. Since MLB players only participated for the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Olympics (and teams were limited to non-25-man-roster players), it’s a bit more difficult to predict how Olympic baseball will go.

Cuba is the historic powerhouse, winning gold in 2004 with entirely non-MLB players. It’ll also be interesting to see how, if at all, the US’s more open policy with Cuba will affect the number of Cubans in the MLB, and thus willingness to participate in the Olympics. I assume defectors like Jose Fernandez - now a US citizen - and Yasiel Puig would not represent Cuba in the Olympics. I have no inkling of whether Fernandez would play for the US either, but I feel that he and Nathan Adrian might medal in any international smiling competition they entered.

The Nationals are not a particularly international team, with only seven players on the 40-man plus DL roster born outside the US, three in Venezuela (Buffalo, Lobi, and Petit), three in the DR (Lopez, Difo, and Severino), and one in Mexico (Perez). In comparison with the rest of the NL East, Miami has 17 non-US-born players, the Mets 13, the Phillies 17, and the Braves 11. (As a note to the baseball-reference gods, listing players’ nationalities with tiny flag depictions that do not actually download to spreadsheets is no way to win friends and allies. Just sayin’.)

The last Olympics went pretty well for at least one now-National: Baby Stephen Strasburg and his nascent chin beard represented his country well as the only college player on team USA, with an ERA of 1.67, one-hitting the Netherlands and eventually winning bronze. So, even if Olympic baseball remains the domain of non-big-league players, seeing the next Strasburg might make it worth tuning in for anyway.

This was originally posted at the Resting Pitchface Tumblr.