The Determinants of Foreign Talent

Why do so many Major League Baseball players come from the Dominican Republic (DR)? Why does economically strong, population-rich Japan produce so few MLB players? Why does baseball-loving Colombia have so few MLB alums (nine total)? Well, as it turns out, the answers are not so easy to find.

My previous two articles — one on East Asian talent, th’other on the relationship between height and OBP — have generated a lot of good discussion about what determines where a baseball player comes from.

In the first piece, I proposed that teams should invest in Chinese (and Indian) baseball academies to take advantage of the exceedingly large pool of athletes in those areas. However, several commentors suggested that baseball culture, not population size, determines the talent pool.

I found this a most intriguing analysis, so I went back to the ol’ opening day roster/injury list of foreign born players.

This is how it breaks out:

It does not require an electron micrometer to see the DR and Venezuela give the MLB lots o’ players. These two nations composed 17.5% of opening day rosters, but have a combined population smaller than Korea or Columbia individually.

So what does determine MLB talent sources? Well, it certainly does not appear to be population:

Japan, Mexico, and Korea, three nations which seem predisposed to giving more talent because of their greater size, have offered some of the fewest players. Only Shin-Soo Choo represented South Korea on opening day — and this is a nation which has its own, strong professional league and makes impressive showings in the World Baseball Classic.

So, I extended my study beyond population:

    VARIABLES
    Pop: Population, duh.
    LF in mil’: Labor force in millions — this helps us control for different age distributions within countries.
    GDP/captia: A sufficient, but not perfect, measure for national wealth.
    U3: The national unemployment rate.
    Baseball History: This little dandy I had to investigate myself. Basically, this is how many years the sport has been played domestically, dating back from 2011. Oddly, Canada has the first recorded baseball game. Weird.

The color coding in the table helps illustrate pretty immediately the lack of relationship between these variables and MLB players. It might be more instructive to examine multiple years — or perhaps the entirety of baseball history — but for now let’s focus on the present set of 2011 rosters.

The only mildly interesting relationship exists between the Baseball History variable and the minor players in foreign talent:

So, if we cut out the USA, the DR, and Venezula, we see an intuitively acceptable relationship between players contributed and how long the sport was domestic. But why can we cut out the DR and Venezuela? I don’t think we can.

Clearly the DR and Venezuela are an exception. Adding them back into the chart, the relationship goes haywire:

So why are the DR and Venezuela exceptions? That’s the million dollar question. They clearly do not have a timeline advantage over the other countries, but the Baseball History variable is indeed a weak proxy of baseball culture. A country can have a long and cold history of baseball (Canada) or a short and frenzied history (as we see in Venezuela).

However, I cannot help but protest to the assumption that DR baseball is somehow just so much more prolific and frenzied than that of Colombia and Panama — two nations a nation where baseball is the national sport (unlike Canada, which names lacrosse and ice hockey as its national sports) — that it will consistently out-produce these nations in baseball talent. Colombia is larger and richer than the DR and has a baseball history just as long as Venezuela.

It is far too easy to wax poetic and explain how kids in the DR grow up dreaming about becoming David Ortiz or Albert Pujols; how they play despite their economic challenges, replacing baseballs with rocks and infields with muddied streets; but this is an un-quantifiable trait, which in turn prevents us from being able to truly compare the DR and Venezuela to Colombia, Panama, or even Korea and Japan.

What does make a quantifiable difference, or at least this is my suspicion, is the presence of MLB youth academies. I unfortunately do not have data on this, but I have noticed in passing: (1) the DR has upwards of 28 MLB academies, by far more than any other country; (2) Venezuela has had academies and MLB scouts for over 20 years now, ever since the Astros began in 1989; (3) Colombia and Panama, to my knowledge, have no MLB-sponsored baseball academies; and (4) East Asia has no MLB academies, as well as having strong domestic leagues in Korea and Japan, lowering the incentive of coming to America to play (moreover, Japan and Korea have cultivated decidedly different styles of play, meaning certain players are less likely to transition directly to the MLB).

This research is still unfinished. I want to encourage the FanGraphs readership to try to fill the gaps. Please chime in if:

a) You have extensive first-hand experience in both the DR/Venezuela and Colombia/Panama. Is there is a noticeable difference between the baseball culture in these nations? (Clearly, this would be mostly anecdotal, but perhaps a sociologist or data wizard of some sort might have some ideas for quantifying this.)

b) You have or know a way to procure data on the MLB’s baseball academies abroad — specifically team-run academies.

c) You know the exact history of Colombian and Curacaoan baseball, as these represent gaps in the above dataset.

My series on The Next Market Inefficiencies has been an attempt to forecast where future inefficiencies will occur, not necessarily uncover where present ones exist. However, the more I research Colombia, Panama, and the smaller components of Latin American baseball, the more I suspect a present inefficiency exists there.




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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


57 Responses to “The Determinants of Foreign Talent”

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  1. Jonas says:

    Isn’t a very salient variable cost for procuring a player?

    It’d be interesting to look at average signing bonuses for DR/Venezuela players versus, not even Japan, but Taiwan and Korea.

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  2. Dan R says:

    You should consider Puerto Rico before and after it was included in the MLB draft — before and after academies — several PR players and few PR players, I would guess.

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  3. Telo says:

    I think this is the best, most productive of the three pieces you’ve written so far. It asks some great questions.

    Here’s my hypothesis. There are several major factors that determine whether someone will eventually play pro ball. In a way, they all seem pretty logical:

    - God given talent
    - Hours spent developing hand eye coordination at a young age (4-8ish)
    - Hours spent doing baseball specific activities (throwing/fielding/hitting)

    You don’t get anywhere without talent, that’s a non starter. Second, we know enough about learning at a young age to know that kids develop speech and other skills in a different, deeper more profound way. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I’m guessing that developing basic hand eye skills (in addition to throwing/hitting) at a young age is very important. Then third, there’s simply repetition and practice. I’m not sure that 2/3 are in any specific order. They are both important.

    It just feels like that every step of the way, kids in the DR are logging more hours playing baseball than any other kids in the world. There simply is no proxy for playing baseball 5 hours a day as a kid, every single day. They absolutely maxing their output of potential MLBers. You can’t fake practice.

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    • Thanks! Er, I think.

      I’d be intrigued to find out at what age most MLB players started playing baseball. I’ve always been told it’s a sport one cannot dive into later in life, but I’m not sure how much of that is just old school, anecdotal wisdom or if there’s some truth to it.

      I started playing baseball after high school, and though I’ve never been anything special on the diamond, I’ve never been incapable of playing either — but I’m certainly not even minor league material.

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  4. World's first openly-gay SABRist says:

    You left out race, so this is off to a pretty silly start

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    • ofMontreal says:

      How has he left out race? Considering the breadth of cultures and jurisdictions considered. Race & sexual preference issues are a byproduct of cultural bias and each country has it’s own. It would be almost impossible to account for around the world in such a study as this.

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  5. Gabriel says:

    Generally speaking, my observation is that baseball in Latin America is focused around the Caribbean, where I assume it was spread by Americans. In Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, this means that while it is played on the Caribbean coast, it is not played nearly as much elsewhere. That’s why the rest of Spanish-speaking South America, which does not have Caribbean coasts, is essentially uninterested in the sport.

    This all means that in a country like Colombia, baseball may be the favorite sport in just a limited portion of the country (the roughly 1/3 that is on the Caribbean coast). Elsewhere, soccer is the big sport. However, all of the major populated areas of Venezuela are on the coast, and baseball has always been the favorite sport.

    So, that helps explain the differentiation between Mexico/Central America/Colombia vs Venezuela. However, other explanations are needed to figure out why certain Caribbean countries end up producing many more ballplayers than others.

    Disclaimer: I’m a baseball fan who has lived in Ecuador, but only spent minimal time in the other countries mentioned here.

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    • Excellent! Thanks for the insight, Gabriel!

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      • gnomez says:

        IIRC, the first professional league in Colombia was in 1948. The first Colombian player to play in MLB was Luis Castro, who played for the As for one season in 1902. As for when the sport became mainstream (although Gabriel is largely correct about geographical distribution), I’m not really sure, but I want to say some time in the 1930s.

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    • Chrs says:

      Gabriel is correct in regards to Colombia. My wife is from Colombia. Having been there several times, I can assure you that ‘beisbol’ is very rarely thought of outside of the Caribbean Coastal regions. Yes, there are teams in Medellin and Cali and bogota, but you expect those in the major population centers. My wife’s family is from just outside of Cali, and we have never seen anyone playing baseball. She grew up there and had never seen the sport. The only time I have seen it played in Colombia is when we have vacationed on the coastal regions.

      And to correct a statement in the article….baseball is not a national sport in Colombia. The official, congressionally recognized national sport of Colombia is tejo. If you consider a national sport as the most popular played by the most people, then it is futbol by a long shot, followed by cycling.

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  6. pack says:

    You’re comparing Drafted and IFA players. The US / PR and Canada represents the largest pool of drafted players. That would make them the largest pool of cheap to develop – throw it and see what sticks to the wall – style players.

    I’d be interested in seeing age / country of origin data. I would bet there’s a spike of Japanese players around 28-31 on opening day due to the posting rules. There could also be different peak ages for different countries, fewer baseball academies resulting in players peaking later / earlier.

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  7. KK85 says:

    I’m a Venezuelan citizen and I can tell that some of the things that Gabriel wrote are true. The sport was introduced in Latin America through the Caribbean (with the exception of Mexico) and that’s where is a popular sport. The most of Colombia population is not in the coast but in The Andes where the soccer is the #1 sport. The most of Venezuelan population is in the coast and therefore baseball is the most popular sport. In the inner parts of Venezuela, soccer is a more popular sport and The Andes region doesn’t produce baseball players at all (one of the few exceptions is Johan Santana, but his father is from the coast).

    Although baseball has been the most popular sport in the last 70 years (since 1941 when the Venezuelan team won a world championship), the production of players didn’t take off until the opening of MLB academies in the early 90′s. I mean, 200 of the 260 Venezuelan players that have played in MLB, debuted since 1990, more that 75%. I think that’s the key factor that separates Venezuela and DR from the rest of the world.

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  8. Llewdor says:

    I recognise you’re specifically looking for the causes of player development is some specific tropical nations, but climate plays a significant role in baseball from country to country.

    Canada produces fewer players (and less durable putchers, arguably) because its climate reduces the time available in which young players can play. Dominican kids can play all year round. Canadian kids are limited to summer.

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    • beat_la_25 says:

      Seems like an issue not dissimilar to the amount of ballplayers from Michigan/Minnesota vs. Florida/Georgia. Warm weather makes ballplayers, largely because they have a lot more time when they can play. Leagues run longer, people practice more, etc.

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  9. Baseball is NOT Colombia’s national sport, football (soccer) is.

    The thing with Colombia is that all political power is in Bogota, which is found in the mountains in the interior of the country.

    Baseball is liked in the north of the country, which is known as the caribean region here. The pacific, the interior and the south don’t like baseball, but they manage almost all the government money and there are no incentives for baseball.

    Fortunately, MLB and Edgar Renteria have started to invest and there have been encouraging results so far.

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  10. Dylan says:

    Panama’s history with baseball is strongly associated with the presence/influence of the US government, due to the construction of the Canal in the early 20th century and its occupation of the Canal Zone until 1999. Many other countries in Central America and the Caribbean that share baseball in common have also suffered a US invasion or ‘presence’, e.g. Nicaragua (until 1928), Cuba (until Castro), Puerto Rico (until present), and the Dominican Republic (1916 -1924).
    The main correlate of baseball in Latin America is not just a geographical accident of being on the Caribbean Coast, but rather proximity to the US circle of influence. Cricket, of course, is another good example of colonials exporting a national pasttime to its colonies (eg India, Pakistan, Australia, etc.).

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    • Gabriel says:

      To be fair, the US presence in these places is generally a geographical accident in the first place. So your point is correct, but it goes back to being near the Caribbean.

      In any case, some of them there has overt military presence, while in others economic influence (I’d wager that baseball popularity in Venezuela really took off when oil was found there and Standard Oil entered).

      Still, now I’d be interested in learning about any baseball in the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and other places that have been contemporaries to the things that you mentioned. We do know that baseball in Japan ended up being a big deal.

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      • I actually played baseball with a Filipino earlier this year. He apparently played all the way through college, though he admitted it’s a sport far from the national radar.

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    • Dancin_bubs says:

      Just to back up the point of the US influence over simply geographic location on the Caribbean, I cite Costa Rica. I live in Costa Rica, and can tell you that baseball is never seen being played here. Despite being home to Rawlings MLB baseball plant, and a large a Caribbean Coast, Costa Rica has virtually no baseball because of a far less significant US presence in the country than the aforementioned ones. On visits to Nicaragua and Panama I noted stories about baseball on the news. In each of those countries people know the players that have gone to MLB, like Vincente Padilla and Mariano Rivera, and talk about them with pride.

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  11. slamcactus says:

    MLB presence, baseball’s popularity relative to other sports, and population are the three biggest factors in that order, IMO. The DR has a population of roughly 8 million, and baseball’s far and away the most popular sport (though Basketball is growing rapidly there as well), and MLB has been mining the island for talent since the ’50s. Venezuela’s population is larger, but MLB’s presence there is more recent, and unlike the DR there’s also a large portion of the population that plays soccer. Colombia has a substantial soccer presence as well, and has a large population but very little MLB presence.

    One interesting one for me is Nicaragua. Baseball is the national game there to the near-exclusion of every other sport, but they see virtually no returns at the big-league level. I strongly suspect this is because MLB hasn’t put as many resources into the country as others because of the extreme amount of turmoil there in the ’80s (though there is another potential explanation: Nicaraguans are very short on average, with a national average height around 5’6″ for men).

    Cuba is also really interesting. Baseball reigns supreme to a level far, far beyond that of the D.R., and not only is their population significantly bigger, but Cubans also benefit from far superior nutrition than most Dominican kids from an early age. If Cuba were to open up I have very little doubt that we’d see significantly more Cubans than Dominicans in MLB almost instantly, and by the time the first couple waves of 16-18 year old IFA’s started arriving in the majors I think the number would almost double.

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  12. tony says:

    Naturally, baseball academies have an impact on the amount of talent from a country that makes it’s way to America.

    The largest baseball acadamy in the world is little league baseball, the DR and Venezuela are constantly in the little league world series.

    Perhaps, the younger a country’s citizens begin playing baseball the more likely they are to develop MLB talent. Maybe and another column to your research that shows how long Little League/Youth Baseball Leagues, have existed in the countries.

    And obviously the more engrained and attached to another sport, i.e. soccer or b-ball, the more reluctant the culture will be to accept a new sport such as baseball. Youth baseball leagues is the best and most efficient way to start cracking that barrior.

    Maybe?

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    • Flex0us says:

      Sorry to disagree, but the DR is not constantly in the Little League WS. In fact, the last dominicans to participate in the LLWS were the infamous Bronx Bombers that featured Danny Almonte and that team was from the states. The reason of why the DR does not have a team reaching the LLWS is because much of the young talent gets recruited by buscones at an early age and they are not centered in one program.

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  13. brentinKorea says:

    First, Korea is not scouted well to try to grab HS kids before they get indentured in the KBO. I think a lot of teams are also used to have English or Spanish speakers. Adding other languages like Korean or Japanese is a pain in the butt for teams that want to run things shoe-string.

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    • Padman Jones says:

      Excellent point about English and Spanish being the predominant languages in the game.

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    • AA says:

      If you start training kids in academies young enough, language is not going to be an issue. It also helps if you have them take intensive English classes, as opposed to the typical English learned in school. Look at how well Ichiro speaks English, and he came to MLB in his late 20s

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  14. Padman Jones says:

    Quick thought on academies: it seems to me that they’re kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in brick-and-mortar form. An organization or two probably started an academy down there because it’s geographically and the reward — cheap talent — could easily outweigh the risk, or whatever capital was expended in building and staffing the academy.

    From there, if even a couple players hit it big, other teams would be inclined to follow suit. Success is the best trendsetter, after all; why wouldn’t other teams emulate a merl that works?

    And then, voila, you’ve got a bunch of baseball academies operating in countries with small, generally poor populations. At that point, baseball becomes a very attractive option as both a pastime – since it’s so popular – and a career choice, because you have what is basically a direct forum in which MLB scouts and prospective players can interact.

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    • Chris says:

      Gonna have to agree with Padman here.

      Academies went to DR and Venezuela because there were the areas where there was already a lot of available talent. Then, the presence of academies accentuates the difference between the two nations.

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  15. bp says:

    As others have mentioned the academies have to have an impact. Columbia also has had a long and violent civil war which discouraged outside investment – like academies – there.

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  16. simon says:

    Definitely most interesting piece of the series, good work. And since this is not an international baseball site, a good exploratory post as well.

    I’m in Japan, and the situation is similar to Korea with the long years of club control before players hit free agency. And the Japanese leagues pay decently and have publicity, so top prospects coming out of Japanese HS know that they’ll get their millions and girls if they stay in Japan and perform adequately. Also, the standard of living in Japan is decent while the English education is poor (especially for elite athletes who tend to solely focus on sport at the expense of everything else). This probably discourages many top prospects from taking the Tazawa route, jumping from Japanese amateur ball to an MLB organization.

    And if you’re not a top prospect, you have even less chance of climbing up the MLB ladder. So the millions that you can still make while living comfortably in the home country starts to look even more like a sound decision. The cross Pacific player movement has increased in both directions though, and this does make things more interesting.

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  17. Flex0us says:

    Nice to see that you are asking for some insight from us readers, since that would give us Dominicans the opportunity to share our point of view from our side.

    Most of the comments that I have read center on the fact that the DR produce more players because of the academies, which is certainly true, but you have to look first into the fact of why the DR has more academies than any other country. First of all you are comparing us with Colombia and is easy from your chart to see that Colombia has a much hire GDP and also a lower unemployment rate than DR. You could argue that unemployment rates do not differ much between both countries, but you would have to look at what kind of opportunities and jobs Dominicans are getting. DR minimum wage is 200 dollars a month and 90% of the employed population does not make more than 350 USD a month, so a career in baseball (although highly improbable) seems more lucrative than going to school. Also the DR locates at the bottom in investment in Public Education in Latin America, so again leaving school for a 12 or 13 year old is not so much of a difficult decision, since most of the time this kind of decision is encouraged by their parents. I do not say that culture and history of baseball do not play a role, but I’d say that you should better look at salary wages and education in countries as DR and Venezuela to see why we have so many ball players.

    If you need any other info for your future publications on DR baseball, education, academies (both formal and informal) and regulations, I’d be glad to help.

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  18. Wow! These have honestly been the most awesome FanGraphs comments I have seen in — literally — 5 years! You guys are awesome! Thanks for participating in this discussion!

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  19. jpg says:

    Bradley your answer is simple: money

    Relatively speaking america sucks at soccer….Why? Because to make big money you have to play oversees. I think that the “development of baseball skills at a young age” thing is overblown because the particpation in youth soccer amongst kids in america dwarfs that of little league baseball and other sports like pee wee football. Great athletes are generally great at every sport they play as a youth. And unless somebody has a better explanation , its fairly obvious why they stray away from soccer as they get older.

    Looking at DR and Venezuela its clear that socioeconomic conditions are the biggest reasons why MLB is flooded with their best athletes. In those places, baseball is there best chance to buy their mom a home on a paved street that has plumbing and lights. Its sad but true. I live in NY and know a LOT of Dominicans and they all say that’s the dream all their countrymen share. Heck in Venezuela, there have been multiple instances where thugs have kidnapped the relatives of MLB players to ransom them off. It just goes to show how different and desperate the socioecomic climate is elsewhere in the world.

    Look at Mexico. They produce little in the way of baseball talent. Why? Because the best Mexican athletes become soccer players or prize fighters because that’s where the money is. Mexicans, as naturally smaller people, were probably never going to get a fair shake in the eyes of MLB scouts anyway. In Mexico, you could be 5’5 and 135 lbs and be god amongst your people by knocking out other men of equal size (ie Julio Caesar Chavez).

    Likewise look at American Heavyweight boxing (not trying to turn this into Boxgraphs but..) for a sec. The division is dominated by eastern european fighters now. Why? Because the next Mike Tyson or George Foreman is playing middle linebacker or tight end in the NFL or first base in MLB because most people would probaby prefer earn their millions in ways other than getting punched in the face.

    So yeah it’s almost always about the money, or glory, or fame, or personal satisfaction amongst other things. Its why we dream of being great athletes as a kid. With all that said it circles back to money. “For the love of the game” stuff is reserved for guys like pro lacrosse players or roller hockey players. Guys who literally play because they love the game and make enough to survive with a par-time job driving a truck in the offseason.

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  20. jpg says:

    sorry for any gramatical or punctual mistakes. It’s tough doing this from a cell phone.

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  21. Ben Goldberg says:

    (I’m the guy working on a thesis in this topic, I posted in the previous one)

    Great work Brad, I did much the same thing in my my model of the same size. The one thing I notice is that you might need to work on your sample size. The number of nations with players in the MLB is too low for a reliable correlation study sadly. In all of the studies that I have read they had had to use dummy variables and other things to account for this lack of sample size. Something like 30 is supposed to the minimum for a statistically rigorous test.

    When I ran my model for states within the US and player generation I used population, GSP, and level of baseball activity, this being the number of little league teams in the state to find the causes for player development within the US. All of the other factors I found were directly tied into these.

    As I’ve progressed through my research on this topic I’ve tried to go about it much the same way you have. Trying to find economic, distance, or infrastructure factors which affect player development totals. But I think the biggest thing is the culture of baseball, which is hard to express as a statistic. You can have the number of teams, you can have the years their leagues have existed, but it is very difficult to judge the embeddedness of baseball within a country’s culture based on a statistic. One could even argue that the level of baseball academies in the country is based on the desire to play and not just simple economics.

    As I stated previously and some people have stated in the comments I think a major factor is colonization by the United States. All these major baseball producers have that in common. Puerto Rico, Cuba, DR, and Japan were all under US influence at one point.

    I can’t predict where the next place baseball players are going to come from yet, but I would be willing to be that its a place with strong historical ties to the US, ie Panama.

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  22. jpg says:

    Flex0us so yeah I didn’t read your post before I posted my legthy comment but you are 100% correct.

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  23. Bob Witmer says:

    I’ve lived in Japan for nearly 35 years (still playing baseball, mostly nanshiki). Baseball is the most popular team sport in Japan, and many kids play it in elementary school. Probably due to lack of space, however, you almost never see kids playing a pick-up game. They’ll play catch, but, except for organized ball, there is no opportunity for kids to discover the GAME on their own.

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  24. cs3 says:

    I think the first poster is on to something when he suggested that cost is a very important factor.

    I would guess that MLB teams can sign Dominican and Venezuelan kids much much cheaper than they can in countries like Canada, Japan, Taiwan, even Mexico. A signing bonus that MLB teams consider negligible, can in fact be life changing money for these kids and their entire families. So teams can afford to make lots of speculative signings of very young players, develop them cheaply, and still get a good return on those few that do pan out.

    Also college/secondary education is not a realistic option for the majority of kids in the first group. So they have much more incentive to pursue baseball for the reward of a relatively modest amount of money

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  25. RollingWave says:

    For East Asia, here’s a simplish explaination.

    First, the population that actually participate in baseball activity is considerablly lower in these countries then in the USA, where as the vast majority of sub-urban boys probably played in little leagues in the US, only a fraction of boys of comparible age in East Asia have ever actually played on teams. Most teams are based in schools, and a school of over 1000-2000 pupil (6 grade) usually have just 1 team, at mot 30+ kids from 3rd – 6th grade. And the % of schools that have teams are actually very small. For Taiwan, competitive highschool teams number no more than 30-40 (and most kids with professional ambitions choose from a even smaller pool than that.) across a country of 23 million , aka roughly the same # as Texas.

    Japan has a better developed community baseball then the other two area, but similar problem remains. it is actually fairly uncommon for a kid to actually know the ins and out of baseball. here.

    Culture is also a issue, for most parents unless they see their kids have obvious gifts they’ll almost never bother to try to get them onto sports teams. the opportunity to do so is also very limited anyway.

    It is not a huge secret that Taiwan’s baseball circle is very small, most professional players known each other since elementary / junior high. many are related to other professional players.

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  26. Lexington says:

    The China market has more potential than Japan in that 1. it has lots of very rich people and lots of very poor people. 2. the Chinese are not as xenophobic as the Japanese.

    Establish some academies in the inland part of China(i.e. dirt poor area) to farm some star and play them in MLB. The rich part of China would goes crazy and get MLB a lot of revenues.

    Yao Ming totally rocketed basketball’s popularity in China, baseball can do something alike.

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    • valerio says:

      This comment strikes me as rather biased and not well thought out.

      It is a matter of opinion on your part to say one nation is particularly xenophobic, and I feel it doesn’t require much explanation on my part when I state that this notion of yours has no merit at all whatsoever. This seems to point to a lack of understanding of either of these cultures on your part.

      Yao ming was developed by a rigorous national athletics program. As the Chinese government doesn’t seem to have interest in developing baseball nationally, I don’t think it’s a valid comparison. I have serious doubts on whether privately funded “grass roots” development of baseball by foreign parties will ever prove fruitful.

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  27. Aren says:

    Another major issue with Korea is the draft, something we saw a little bit of with the Shin-Soo Choo situation. For those not aware, he got his draft requirement waived or delayed for helping Korea win the Asian Cup. The requirement is that you begin service sometime before age 28. (Wiki says 35, but I believe that an exemption is required for the later age.)

    A prospect that attempts to serve before playing professionally will lose a lot of value, since he would go from being an 18 year old to being a 20 year old who has been (essentially) out of baseball for two years. If that player waits, he stands a good chance of having to leave during the prime of his career, or becoming a draft dodger, something which is not looked on kindly by Korean society. I believe that we will see a replay of the Choo situation played out with Hak-Ju Lee in a few years.

    If the MLB wants to open up Korea, it may be necessary to attempt to convince the parliament that Korean players in MLB are a Good Thing, and that some kind of standard delay process for professional sportsmen should be enacted. An employment-based exemption (or delay) is not totally without precedent, since certain craftsmen are exempt because their service to the nation’s culture as a craftsman is deemed more important than serving as a soldier.

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  28. Nathan says:

    I think you need a justification for including Puerto Rico separately from the United States (as it’s part of the US and it’s including in the draft). I’m sure there are several good ones, but I’d like to know why.

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  29. Mick says:

    Like any other industry, a big investment in R&D (baseball academies) eventually pays off. Another poster raised a very good point about getting kids interested in baseball as early as possible, through Little League or youth leagues. The baseball academies would be more effective if the products going into the schools have good fundamentals and skills already, rather than trying to develop them while in the academies. The World Baseball Classic may have helped to increase interest in the sport across the globe, but it might serve a team or group of teams well to have “Good Will Tours” in countries like China, India and Russia. It’s a lot to ask of players in the off-season though. Perhaps recruiting some minor league players, even mid level prospects, who will not be playing winter ball might help.

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  30. Eduardo says:

    Dear Mr Woodrum,

    I like your interest in the subject, but for Christ sake, you need to do A LOT of homework before publishing something like this¡

    Baseball is not the main sport in Colombia, soccer is. And it has always been like that. Yes, Castro was colombian, but that’s just anecdotical. They never had a important league. In fact, they dont belong to the Caribean Baseball Confederation.

    In Venezuela, in the other hand, baseball have been an important sport since the start of the past century. There are reports of scouts going there in the early 1930′s. And when Venezuela won the 1941 World Baseball Championship, it became forever the national pastime.

    Are the bigleague academies and extensive scouting that begun in the early 1990′s the main reason for the explosion of players that Venezuela have now? Yes. But it is not the only reason. There was a lot of talent down there already.

    With all due respect, go to Amazon and buy some books about baseball in Latin America. Milton Jamail, for example. It will be a good start…

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  31. DanK says:

    Don’t ignore the influence that steroids play in Latin America.

    Having said that I agree that culture plays a key role. Asia and Latin America are both poor places with hungry populations. In Asia many of the ambitous people are going into business. Even if you are talented in baseball, trying to take that route is risky and many people in those cultures take safer more secure paths in business. Even in a relatively rich country like Japan, they have been in recession for almost 30 years and the emphasis is on security.

    IN Latin America it is often baseball or bust. If they don’t make it in the big leagues they are in for a harsh life.

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  32. Annie says:

    Most of what I would have said has already been mentioned in the comments (i.e. without much data to throw out there, I also think the academies are a self-fulfilling prophecy, as someone said, and building academies in places like Panama could make a big difference) but I just wanted to say I’ve been really enjoying this series and look forward to seeing more.

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  33. OzzieGuillen says:

    I played youth baseball in both the US and in Canada. The difference was incredible. The coaching/instruction in the US was far better, even at the basic levels. When I moved to Canada, no one knew how to back up throws, how to pick out pitch types, among other things. People are always saying that climate is the main issue, but I think lack of quality instruction is a bigger determinant. How are you supposed to get good at something if your coach knows nothing?

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  34. Chris says:

    I think the most interesting country here is South Korea. They are a baseball obsessed country with a developed economy. They can pour money into programs (and do), develop national teams that beat Japan and compete well in the WBC, but why haven’t they been successful in playing in the MLB.

    I think a similar analogy is the U.S in soccer. Though its not our main sport by any stretch of the imagination, the larger population size and the amount of money and focus we put on sports makes soccer in the U.S. on par with baseball in South Korea. Though the U.S. is not a ‘premier’ soccer team at the national level, they still do respectable (2010 world cup, 2009 gold cup). The thing I am most interested in is that besides our goal keepers, we haven’t created any stars in the European leagues (contrast this to similar quality south american teams…colombia, venezuela, mexico, etc. or smaller countries in europe, serbia, czech, etc.)

    My argument would be inherently cultural. Their must be a significant disadvantage to playing sports in an unfamiliar country and society. There are significant struggles for many players from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, etc. in coming over to the u.s. and excelling. (Watch the movie Sugar for a Latin American take). So the players can play significantly better in their home country. Now, some can excel even away from their home culture, either because the cultural distance doesn’t matter to them (Ichiro) or their skill is so good that even if its slightly decreased by the distance they can still excel (Matsui)

    I look at the EPL. The EPL is from top to bottom the best soccer league in the world. They have players from all over the world, but England still supplies a gigantic portion of the players (even though their national team consistently struggles) because its inherently easier for players to excel in their home cultures.

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  35. Joe Kehoskie says:

    Interesting article/series. I’m currently living in Mexico, and I’ve spent a lot of time in many of the countries listed (D.R., Venezuela, Panama, etc.). Some thoughts, some of which were touched on by people above:

    – Climate is undoubtedly a factor. The ability of players in places like the D.R. and Cuba (and Florida, Texas, California, etc.) to play year-round can’t be overstated.

    – Another big factor is the degree to which there’s an emphasis on education in any given country. In the D.R., parents (unfortunately) don’t think twice about pulling 12-year-old kids out of school so they can focus on playing baseball, and the government doesn’t make much of an effort to keep kids in school. On the other end of the spectrum, if a baseball scout/coach/agent went into a home in Japan or Korea and suggested to a parent that a kid should be pulled out of school to focus on baseball, the scout/coach/agent would be laughed out of the house.

    – While there might not be a correlation between baseball timeline and number of MLB players, a formula that factors baseball timeline + climate + economy/education almost assuredly would yield a correlation. (And while it might be risky business in these P.C. times, adding some sort of anthropological factor would probably make the correlation even stronger. As others noted, people in Asia and in a lot of Latin American countries simply are much smaller than the average American, Canadian, Cuban, etc., and we’d be kidding ourselves to pretend it doesn’t influence the numbers.)

    – With regards to the D.R. specifically, a confluence of factors exists: Aside from the strong passion for baseball, the poverty and weak economy, and the lack of emphasis on education, the fact that the D.R. is on an island adds an extra degree of urgency. The old baseball joke about players not being able to “walk off the island” is also literally true: Unlike people in Mexico and throughout Central and South America who can cross borders relatively easily, there aren’t any easy ways off Hispaniola for people with little education and little money. Signing bonuses get most of the attention, but the allure and value of a U.S. visa also motivate a lot of players as well.

    – As several others have noted, baseball is only popular in a relatively small part of Colombia, in the region around Cartagena. By population, I’m guessing this area is smaller than even Panama, but I’m not positive about that. (I haven’t been to Colombia. I’m afraid that if I go there, I’ll come back married, like the guy above.)

    – I don’t see any comparison at all between the baseball scene in the D.R. and Panama, despite the U.S.’s heavy influence on Panamanian life. Baseball is popular in Panama but not played at anywhere near the same level as in the D.R. About half of Panama’s population lives in the Panama City region, and aside from one old and one new baseball stadium, there’s not a lot of quality baseball infrastructure in the city. (Actually, in that sense, there is a similarity between Panama and the D.R.: Like Panama City, Santo Domingo also lags when it comes to quality baseball infrastructure, especially at the youth level.)

    – Lastly, I agree the MLB academies have had an accelerator effect in the D.R. and VZ, but it’s important to remember that the academies followed talent and not vice versa. The D.R. was producing MLB players long before MLB teams were investing big money on infrastructure in the D.R. Old scouts like Howie Haak were signing quality players by the planeload many decades before the word “academy” entered the baseball vernacular. More recently, Andres Reiner did a masterful job cornering the VZ market for the Astros 20 years ago (though the Astros squandered most of their early advantage), but he harvested talent rather than produce it. That is, Reiner didn’t pull Johan Santana and Bobby Abreu off the street and teach them how to play baseball; he simply brought them into a more structured baseball environment. In that sense, the Rays’ recent investment in Brazil is an interesting experiment. As detailed by Jorge Arangure in an early-2011 ESPN.com article, the Rays are investing in Brazil despite there being no real MiLB-ready talent pool there. It will be interesting to see if the Rays can flip the usual cause/effect relationship between academies and talent.

    Also, in reply to the person who said “[y]ou should consider Puerto Rico before and after it was included in the MLB draft,” I believe the effect of the draft on P.R. has been overstated. Likely owing to P.R. being a U.S. territory, life in P.R. has become much more Americanized over the past 25 years. Life in P.R. for the average teenage boy probably looks a lot more like that of his U.S. counterparts (school, cars, girlfriends, video games, other sports, etc.) than it does that of the average D.R. kid. There are people who will vehemently disagree with this assessment, at least as it pertains to the draft’s effect, but this is how I see it.

    This ended up way longer than anticipated, but it’s an interesting topic. Look forward to future installments in the series.

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  36. Hurtlocker says:

    European Basketball teams are full of American players because basketball is part of our culture. The Phillipines also has a very strong basketball culture but has not produced an NBA player that I am aware of? Difference?? Genetic height differences I suspect. There is also a big difference bewteen countries that have a culture of kicking versus throwing.

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    • AA says:

      It is surprising that the Philippines doesn’t produce more guards, especially point guards, where size isn’t as important.

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