Last week, Jorge Arangure wrote a nice piece on the lack of plate patience among Domican hitters. The article was helpful in illustrating the conditions that reinforce the oft-cited Dominican baseball adage that “you can’t walk off of the island.” It also inspired me to take a little look at the historical numbers among Dominican-born players to see if there’s been any change in walk rates over the years.
Ben Lindbergh wrote a helpful companion piece running some plate-discipline-related numbers for Dominican players in 2012. What I wanted to examine, though, was if anything changed over the years, and to speculate what might have caused the change.
In comparing the walk rates of Dominican major-league hitters relative to everyone else, I ran into one obvious problem: the initial sample was incredibly small. Back in 1956, Dominican-born hitters had 12 plate appearances in the major leagues, all from the Giants’ Ozzie Virgil, Sr., the first Dominican to play in the majors (incidentally, in 1958, he was traded to Detroit and broke the color barrier for the Tigers). Virgil also was the full sample (241 plate appearances) of Dominican hitters in 1957. In 1958, there were two Dominican-born hitters in the majors, but in 1959, it was one again. In 1960, there were four Dominican hitters in the league.
Without going year-by-year, you get the idea: early on, the samples were very small. I try not to give the illusion that I am terribly sophisticated statistically, so, somewhat arbitrarily, I began with 1964. That’s the first season in which at least 10 Dominican-born hitters (I excluded pitchers’ hitting from this study) got plate appearances in the major leagues. Still, even 10 players is a very small sample. That was about 2.7% of all major league plate appearances by non-pitchers in 1964 — up from about 1.5% the previous season. We have to start somewhere, though. There has been a general increase in numbers of Dominican-born players and plate appearances by them since then.
While a numbers of things make up a good plate approach, for the sake of simplicity and sticking with the overall tenor of discussions around this issue, I restricted the survey to walk rate. Here is a graph of the walk rates of Dominican-born hitters since 1964, compared to non-Dominican-born hitters:
While both lines have fluctuations, the overall trend is pretty clear: the walk rate for Dominican-born hitters has been catching up to that of non-Dominicans. Comparing the walk rates of 1964 and 2012, the non-Dominican walk rate is almost the same; it has increased by 0.6%. The walk rate of Dominican-born hitters, in contrast, is about 48% higher in 2012 than in 1964.
By itself, of course, this does not tell us much. Many things have changed since Ozzie Virgil’s debut. The number of Dominicans in the majors leagues and major-league presence there and elsewhere internationally is obviously far greater now than it was 50 years ago. In 1964, only 10 non-pitcher Dominicans got major-league plate appearances. By the early ’00s, the seasonal number is more than 50 — usually around 10% of plate appearances by non-pitchers. That in itself is enough to indicate great changes that would have far-reaching effects. Which of those are most germane with respect to walk rates. That is something for a future piece. There are a number of factors that would have to be considered. Here is a short list of possible considerations. It is not meant to be exhaustive, nor are these possibilities mutually exclusive.
*Qualification: This search is based on the easily-available criterion of birthplace, so the grouping is done by whether a player is born in the Dominican Republic. However, the issue of Arangure’s piece is Dominican youth baseball culture, not birthplace. That is not to say that birthplace is not a decent stand-in for a quick query like this, but it’s simply to note that there is a difference. Players such as Manny Ramirez and Jose Bautista were born in the Dominican but, in Ramirez’s case, he grew up in the United States.; in Bautista’s case, he went to college in the U.S. They did not have a traditional route for Dominican players. I don’t think it makes the graph useless, but it’s worth noting that it might skew things given the issue of Arangure’s piece was early baseball instruction in the Dominican Republic. One cause of the increase on the chart might be that more Domican-born players are being raised in the U.S.
*One obvious hypothesis for the improvement might be that Dominican baseball instruction is more friendly to walks than before. This might be the case, although the tone of Arangure’s piece tends to make it seem otherwise. Morever, there are other possibilities.
*Remember that this survey is just of those Dominican-born players who actually make the majors. Increased major-league attention to Latin America in the past half-century has likely enabled them to scout and select Dominican players with better plate approaches.
*Along the same lines, there might be better minor-league instruction generally, and/or for Dominican players specifically.
To repeat, these are just some suggestions that are neither exhaustive nor exclusive. One thing is clear, though: whatever they were taught as youngsters, those Dominican hitters who make the major leagues have been catching up with the rest of the league in their ability to draw walks. The reasons why are matters for further research.
[Many thanks to Bill Petti for making the graph presentable.]