Umpires Disproportionately Eject Non-White Players

Anthony Rendon was ejected from Saturday’s game for … not contesting the strike zone. He flipped his bat down, faced away from the umpire, and did not visibly open his mouth. He was tossed by Marty Foster, for, what crew chief Joe West described incorrectly as ‘throwing equipment.’ (The pathologization of a non-white player’s actions after the fact to justify an ejection by a white ump is the subject of an entirely different set of analyses.)

After the game, Rendon actually went on record to say that umpires, like players, should be held to specific standards and demoted if they fail to meet those standards. This statement is remarkable for a couple of reasons. One, as most Nats fans know, getting Rendon to say anything, particularly anything of substance, to the media is pretty tough. He is, to forgive the pun, a pretty close-mouthed guy. For another, he points out that umpires, like players, are now doing their jobs in the Statcast era - we know, to a pretty refined degree, how well or not well they’re performing.

Read More

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. 

Pitchers Who Ding

The only thing more fun than a tater getting mashed, a dinger getting dinged, or Bob going ‘See. You. Later,’ is when a pitcher hits that kind of home run. So talk of a pitchers-only Home-Run Derby at this year’s All Star Game sparked our interest.

And we at RPFP are firmly in favor of anything that makes the All Star Game #fun for the first time, particularly given that the All Star game ranges from simply dull to soporific. (Much in the same way a position-player pitch-off or a bat flip contest would possibly liven up the game.)

There are pitchers who can rake, but getting on base and putting one over the wall are different skills. How many pitchers are honestly that good at hitting homers?

To find out, we did some digging on Play Index, looking at the most home-run-hitting pitchers of the past 20 years. (This search specified that pitchers had to appear in at least 20 games per season and have at least 10 plate appearances in any given season, and then examined home run totals per season.) After that, home runs per plate appearance were calculated as a rate, and pitchers were sorted by that rate, considering lefties and righties separately.

Among lefties, Gabe White, who hit one homer in 10 plate appearances in 2000, topped the HR/PA ratio, with a rate of .1. (As a note, he hit that as a Rocky in a Rockies-Rangers 12-6 game in Colorado.) Next on the list was former National Zach Duke who hit two home runs in 23 plate appearances with Arizona. (Neither of them was in Arizona - one in Houston and the other in Miami.)

Mike Hampton makes a pretty good case for being a pitcher who can ding some dingers, having hit 16 career homers, seven of them in the same year (2001), with an HR/PA ratio of .081. He did hit four of these in Colorado, though, and given that this was a year before the Rockies started storing their baseballs in a humidor, perhaps park conditions contributed to such a high dinger rate. (He did hit nine more homers in the remaining nine years of his career, which is respectable but perhaps not Home-Run Derby material.) Randy Keisler also hit one homer in 15 PAs, though in Cincinnati, so didn’t get the Colorado bump.

Which brings us to noted homer-hitter and bunny rescuer Madison Bumgarner. MadBum is the best home-run-hitting lefty pitcher of the past 20 years - the only lefty to exceed MadBum’s 2014 four homers is MadBum’s 2015 five homers, with a rate of .051 and .061 HR/PA respectively. (And as a note, even though he has hit homers against Colorado, he has not hit any in Colorado.)

Among righties, the picture is fairly similar: In the top five, Felipe Lira hit two homers in 21 plate appearances for the Expos; Jorge Sosa hit three in 32; and Chris Brock hit one in 11. Brooks Kieschnick hit seven in one season, but this is mired by his also having spent much of his career as a position player.

Carlos Zambrano makes a case for being the best home-run-hitting righty of the past 20 years, with 24 home runs in 12 years, none in Colorado, with a HR/PA rate of .075 in 2006 with the Cubs, better than either of MadBum’s spectacular seasons. The MLB could do worse than drafting Big Z for a return during the Home-Run Derby. (Or maybe to pitch to MadBum during the Home-Run Derby for maximum hashtag fun.)

At a team level, Nationals pitchers are … not good at hitting home runs. The Expos righties had the highest rate of HR/PA in the past 20 years with .049 HR/PA, and the Nats are almost at the bottom - though above St. Louis (ha!) with a rate of .017 with righties, an eyelash above the Cards’ rate of .015. Lefties are somewhat better, with a rate of .016 that puts the Nats above the Mets, Bucs. Dodgers, Expos, and Padres. (The Nats have the lowest total sum of lefty and righty HR/PA, with a rate of .0325, almost half of the Expos rate of .063.)

Among Nats pitchers, only Livan Hernandez and Gio Gonzalez have more than one home run, with four and three, respectively. Hernandez had 10 total career, and Gio has only three, though Gio played in the AL prior to donning the Curly W. Save one homer from John Lannan, Gio is the only lefty pitcher for the Nats to ever hit a home run. (The Post dubbed him the Babe Ruth of the Nationals pitching staff.)

The only solution, of course, is #GioforHRDerby.

Want to hear more like this? Check out our podcast here and be sure to follow us on twitterThis was originally posted on the Resting Pitchface Tumblr. 

Burgeoning Spanish vs. 'Broken' English: Maybe Let’s Consider Why We’re Praising Alex Bregman

Every October I complete a ritual known as ‘caring about the AL for about a month.’ (I mean, nothing wrong with it, but have they considered letting pitchers hit?) Part of this ritual includes getting know more about various AL players, like Alex Bregman, the Astros affable, quick-handed third-baseman. (Also, the Astros won it in 7. Not saying I’m writing this to say ‘called it,’ but called it.)

So it was cool getting to know more about the Astros generally (not Gurriel), and Bregman specifically, including finding out that he’s learning Spanish to better communicate with his Spanish-speaking teammates, which includes the rest of the infield.

This New York Times piece discusses his efforts to learn the language, as well as his own overestimate of his fluency and his team’s gentle ribbing about his apparently terrible accent. It also quotes teammate Carlos Beltrán, whose advocacy was instrumental in getting the MLB to provide a Spanish-speaking staff member for each team to serve as an official translator and interpreter, saying the most important thing is that Bregman tries, even if he has odd word choices.

To its credit, the article acknowledges that Bregman chose to learn Spanish, and contrasts this with his teammates who have had to learn English to communicate with English-language media. (It also didn’t ponle acento a Beltrán.)

Other pieces also mention but don’t unpack, this contrast. In this ESPN article, Bregman’s Spanish-speaking teammates praise his hard work in learning Spanish. It also quotes Bregman, who says that he hopes one day to be bilingual, like teammate Carlos Correa, and that he sees speaking Spanish as a necessity if he wants to be a leader on a Latino-heavy team. (And if he ever needs a conversation partner, I’m told that my Resting Pitchface coconspirator Laura volunteers as tribute.)

All of this is fair coverage - but it feels somewhat incomplete.

Bregman’s efforts are absolutely praiseworthy, and I’m not writing this to be critical of him. I’m writing as someone engaged in similar efforts - learning Spanish for work and, in part, because I live in a predominantly Latino neighborhood and should be able to communicate effectively with friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Bregman seems like, for want of a better term, a good egg with a fielding percentage almost, but not quite as good, as Anthony Rendon’s. (Sorry, I had to. #anthonyismyfavoriteplayer) But praise for an English-speaking player learning Spanish - on his own time, with a high tolerance for his mistakes - buys into unstated notions about bilinguality, and praises Bregman while not extending the same praise to his teammates.

What Bregman is doing is known as elective bilingualism, or learning a second language as a foreign language. It’s generally done with the assumption that the learner will retain their fluency in their dominant language. No one thinks that Bregman will transition from speaking and writing predominantly in English to doing so in Spanish. Adding a second language is seen as a choice, worthy of New York Times-level praise, a function of his being enlightened, educated, even erudite - but ultimately an elective, individual effort. Oh, look a footnote.* 

His teammates, however, are engaging in circumstantial bilingualism, learning a second language as a second language. This is generally done with the assumption that the learner will eventually displace their primary language in order to function in the dominant social language. A learner might still speak a home language (in their case, Spanish), but for official or ‘high’ functions, they are expected to participate in their second language, such as players speaking to English-language media in English. People who are circumstantially bilingual do not expect that the society in which they function will honor or even respect their primary language. Their attempts to learn a second language will be met with a low tolerance for mistakes and limited praise for their efforts.

So, going back to baseball terms: Bregman can make mistakes and be seen as hard-working because he’s ‘chosen’ to learn a second language. Beltrán, who is now functionally bilingual but has spoken about his early attempts to learn English as difficult and isolating, would be seen as ‘inarticulate’ for having a limited vocabulary and phraseology in English. One is choosing to learn a second language as an addition to his first, a sign of ‘leadership’ because he’s doing something that isn’t strictly necessary; the other is obligated to do so, quickly, and with limited tolerance for mistakes. Bregman’s Spanish is burgeoning; Beltrán’s English was ‘broken.’

This contrast - Spanish-speaking players have to learn English while English speakers can choose to do so - is largely unstated in articles about Bregman. Would the Times publish a piece on José Altuve’s fluency in English? No, because it’s the ‘dog bites man’ of baseball’s approach to language acquisition.

Players come to the United States (or Toronto), learn English rapidly, either via teammates or language classes in the minors, because they have to, and aren’t generally given much attention for meeting this expectation. Wilmer Difo walked up to ‘Unchained Melody’ for much of the season, a song he discovered in his attempts to improve his English. That he was walking up to a sentimental ‘oldie’ was newsworthy; that he listening to music to learn English wasn’t.

Last year, the Houston Chronicle came under rightful criticism after quoting Carlos Gómez verbatim in ‘broken’ English. Japanese-speaking players like Yu Darvish and Ichiro - whose social English is fine but who have expressed concerns over being seen as inarticulate or being misunderstood - retain interpreters as intercessors between the media and themselves.

The campaign to ‘ponle acento’ and the provision of official Spanish-speaking interpreters to MLB teams are good, though hard-won, first steps, both a long time coming in a sport that’s now 25 percent Latino and about 30 percent non-US-born. Teams have Spanish-language broadcasts and social media, including LasMayores and the Nationals more anemic efforts, and the Ponle Acento campaign in September brought awareness to the issue of misspelling players’ names.

Nationals-side note: Many teams have Spanish-language radio broadcasts, but the Nats don’t, which seems like a major oversight in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, where people who speak Spanish at home make up about 6 percent of each entity’s population (DC - still not a state!), but about three-quarters of a million people, total, and about 50 percent of non-English-speakers, according to American Community Survey data.

Things are improving, but slowly, incrementally, and aimed at fixing issues with Latino players such as media relations and name Anglicization, rather than designing a more inclusive environment by having English-speaking players learn Spanish, and supporting and encouraging bilingual reporting.

So, while Bregman is doing something extraordinary, praise for his efforts should also acknowledge the more difficult ‘ordinary’ efforts of his teammates. And if what he’s doing is truly exemplary, then MLB should use it as an example and provide more sustained, systematic approaches to bridging the linguistic divide in clubhouses. The League has largely been reactive in issues of concerning language equity. Perhaps it’s time for some leadership beyond just praising and elevating an individual effort.

* These come from two great reads: ‘English Language Learners and the New Standards: Developing Language, Content Knowledge, and Analytical Practices in the Classroom,’ published in 2015, which cites Guadalupe Valdes’s ‘Bilingual Minorities and Language Issues in Writing: Toward Profession-Wide Responses to a New Challenge,’ published in 1992.

To the MLB on the event of this Players' Weekend

I’m sitting on my couch watching the first Nats game of Players’ Weekend. Anthony Rendon has his hair, which is similar in texture to mine, combed out, and he’s wearing two different color high socks. I am delighted. The fact that we’re losing 1-0 at the moment of this writing to the (LOL) Mets is less delightful, but that’s baseball, and if it weren’t an emotional sine wave between the peak of delight and the trough of disappointment … well, it’d be a different sport altogether.

Players’ Weekend is fun, the kind of officially endorsed fun rarely seen in a sport that seems to sometimes have a fun deficiency. Bright colors and goofy nicknames, all meant to harken back to Little League games. Players get paid millions to play a kids’ game, as they’re fond of saying, and it’s nice that the sport, for once, seems to agree.

But the weekend is meant to evoke a very specific type of memory for a fairly specific type of kid - and adult. Namely, male ones. I get MLBShop emails to about three different email addresses, so I was pretty excited to open this one to buy a player’s jersey.

The thing is: I have a lot of merch. I have, conservatively, a shirsey problem. I use shirseys the way that geologists use stratigraphic layers, a means of reconstructing Nats’ history done in red and blue layers on top of my dresser. (Excepting the framed signed-by-Drew-Storen Tyler Clippard shirsey that’s hanging, no joke, next to my wedding picture.) With few exceptions, these shirseys are Youth cuts, because my desire to spend my money outpaces the Nats slim-but-growing assortment of shirts in a Women’s cut. It’s fine. Ish.

But I was legitimately waiting to buy a player’s Player’s Weekend jersey. I had visions of Koda Glover’s ‘Bear’ jersey, or Michael A. Taylor’s ‘Mikey T’ jersey, or any of a dozen possible jersey options. I assumed there would be some fraction of the men’s offerings, but at the very least I could get a Rendon jersey because, like Trea, Anthony Is My Favorite Player.

But there weren’t any in Women’s. None. Zero. Which the MLB promised to have by the time the jerseys rolled out.

As problems go, the MLB’s tenuous relationship with offering women’s merch is about the level of realizing you have dental floss stuck between your back teeth during a job interview. Not the end of the world, but pretty freaking annoying and, once you realize it’s there, you can’t un-realize it.

For the Nationals, there are only two women’s shirseys - Harper and Scherzer - but two kids’ jerseys (Harper, who is, fittingly, ‘Big Kid;’ and Trea, who sources tell me can legally drink), as well as a kid’s Scherzer T-shirt.

Women get told that we’re not a market, that merch beyond a limited selection won’t sell … and yet we’re not marketed to. We have to get our jerseys customed because we can’t get jerseys with our favorite players on them that fit. I have a women’s blue patriotic series Rendon jersey that was obtained through mumble mumble mumble, because it is literally not a thing I could get otherwise.

And yeah, the fact that there are zero women’s offerings for either Rendon (who has the third best WAR in baseball among position players, because I do go to Fangraphs, bro), or Gio, who’s in the Cy Young conversation, is basically the Nats saying they don’t want my money. Also, it’s not like they’re unmarketable players, or terrible face-wise. Surely, let us have the pleasure of a women’s jersey that says ‘Ant’ on the back because, as I drunkenly shouted at the Ant-Man movie: The useful ants are female.

Moreover, there are only white players as options for women’s T-shirts and kids’ jerseys. Trea’s been out with his wrist for a while, but he and Michael A. haven’t put up dissimilar numbers this season. Trea’s hitting .279 with a 91 OPS+, and Mikey is at .263 with a 97 OPS+. They both tend to make spectacular, gif-worthy plays; they’re both young, likeable guys who the team should be invested in marketing. But one has a shirt and one doesn’t. This is a team in DC that decided that only adult men can buy a non-white players’ merch. Considering their fanbase, that is, at the very least, a gross marketing oversight.

We had the opportunity to talk with members of the DC Force, which is the DC girls’ baseball team, on the last podcast: These are girls who love the game, who should be the future of the game, who should get to rep their favorite players just as much as their male counterparts. But all the nostalgia that Players’ weekend is meant to evoke is not for them - or for me, it seems.

MLB is clearly trying to grow the game among young women. It has to: The fanbase is old and getting older. The League hyped the Trailblazer series. It worked with Pitch (even if the show itself erred on the side of explaining the Show to Ginny, who would, you know, understand the trade deadline). They want young women’s eyes on the game - and the dollars that accompany those eyes. So give us something to spend it on.