An All-World Baseball Team: Pitchers and Bench

Edgar Renteria is, clearly, the best Colombian-born MLB player to date. (via Keith Allison)

Edgar Renteria is, clearly, the best Colombian-born MLB player to date. (via Keith Allison)

Earlier this offseason, I saw an online discussion about picking an All World baseball team.  The rules were simple:  put together a lineup, using anyone from baseball history, but you can only take one player from any given country.

It seems like an easy enough task.  Baseball is an increasingly global game, having flourished in Latin America, the Caribbean, and East Asia.  Over the past few decades especially, MLB has been drawing more and more talent from foreign markets, with players like Pedro Martínez, Álex Rodríguez, Albert Pujols, and Adrián Beltré among the best the game has seen over that span.

Upon closer inspection, though, baseball’s international scene is more hockey—which is largely dominated by the Big Six countries—than soccer.  Each of the players mentioned in the previous paragraph, for example, is Dominican, and A-Rod was actually born in the U.S.

While we think of baseball as being popular throughout Latin America, it is actually concentrated in a relatively small handful of countries.  Of the seven countries in the Central American isthmus between Mexico and Colombia, only one—Panama—jumps out as a major baseball country.

Outside of Venezuela, baseball remains largely on the fringes of a South American sporting culture dominated mostly by soccer.  In the Caribbean, the vast majority of MLB talent comes out of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.  There are a few smaller islands where baseball is popular, such as Aruba and Curaçao, but with a combined population roughly the size of Buffalo, NY, their impact is limited.

Similarly, most of Asia’s investment in baseball is concentrated in Japan and, to a lesser extent, South Korea.  In recent years, MLB has increased its focus on expanding to other markets, and efforts in China, India, Brazil, etc. may prove fruitful in the long run, but an overwhelming amount of baseball’s current and historical talent comes from the U.S., the Dominican Republic, Japan, Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, and Panama.

But that’s also what makes this exercise so fascinating.  You’re forced to stretch yourself to uncover those rare stars who emerge from uncommon baseball countries, and in doing so, you gain a greater appreciation for the game’s global climate.  You learn more about each individual country’s contributions to the game’s history, and more about the diverse backgrounds that make up MLB.

And what better time to explore the game’s international landscape than on the eve of the World Baseball Classic? Today, we’ll look at the pitchers and bench, and tomorrow we’ll do the starting lineup.

P – Bert Blyleven (Netherlands)

Other Dutch players considered:  ???

Blyleven, like Andruw-Jones, is a major superstar from a non-traditional baseball country.  After Blyleven, Didi Gregorious is probably already the most significant baseball player born in the Netherlands.

Nonetheless, the Netherlands is the dominant force in European baseball thanks in large part to the contributions of Aruba and Curaçao, which are constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  There is significant crossover between the baseball communities of these three countries, both in the Dutch league (which is officially called Honkbal Hoofdklasse) and on the national team, where the three (along with the occasional player from St. Maarten) form a combined team representing the entire Kingdom.

The Dutch league rivals the Italian league (which offsets the Dutch Caribbean talent by employing more foreign players) for the best in Europe, and the national team has won gold in 22 of the 34 European Baseball Championships and taken at least silver in every instance of that tournament they’ve ever entered.  They’ve also won games against the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and South Korea at the World Baseball Classic.

While the national team’s success relies heavily on importing stars from its Caribbean constituencies, the Netherlands itself is still pretty strong relative to the rest of Europe.  Most Europeans in MLB have either been immigrants from the 19th or early-20th centuries, American dual citizens born abroad, or otherwise relocated to the U.S. at a young age (this last group includes Blyleven, who was raised in California).  The Netherlands has been a rare exception that has actually produced its own MLB talent, most recently with Rick van den Hurk and Greg Halman.

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The Netherlands is also one of relatively few countries to use a word for baseball (“honkbal”) that is not simply a transliteration of “baseball”, which is somewhat ironic given that Dutch is one of the closest linguistic relatives of English.

P – Ferguson Jenkins (Canada)

Other Canadian players considered: Larry Walker, Joey Votto, Russell Martin

Canada is often overlooked as a baseball country, but it holds a unique legacy among the game’s international powers.  It has hosted the only two Major League teams based permanently outside the U.S., along with dozens of minor league teams.  It’s the reason the International League is called the International League (though there are no current IL teams in Canada).

Canada lays claim to several important historical moments, including Jackie Robinson’s transition to MLB with the Montreal Royals in 1946 and Babe Ruth’s first professional home run in 1914.  And while it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison due to racial segregation historically keeping many Latino players out of MLB, Canada has produced nearly as many major leaguers as Puerto Rico, including three MVPs (Walker, Votto, and Justin Morneau) and two Cy Young winners (Jenkins and Eric Gagne).

It shouldn’t be a surprise that baseball has a deep history in Canada.  Having developed largely in New England and the American Northeast, the game had far less ground to cover to make its way into Canada than to spread across most of the U.S.  In fact, there is some evidence that Canadian communities may have played a role in the game’s early development, including an account of a baseball game in Canada, which, if accurate, predates Doubleday’s fictitious invention of the game.

P – Fernando Valenzuela (Mexico)

Other Mexican players considered:  Héctor Espino, Bobby Ávila

To some extent, it’s puzzling that Mexico hasn’t produced more Major League star power than it has.  Mexico has a long historical connection to baseball, a long-running professional league that has remained one of the strongest and most stable leagues outside the U.S. for nearly a century, and a long history of cultural interaction with both the U.S. and Cuba.

Mexico has more than twice the population of Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico combined, yet it has produced fewer than half as many Major Leaguers as any of those countries except Cuba.  And even with the embargo, Cuba has still produced comfortably more Major Leaguers than Mexico.

This is why Fernando Valenzuela became such a cultural phenomenon.  For all its baseball heritage, Mexico had never before seen a native-born player rise to the top echelon of MLB stars. Before Valenzuela, it’s possible that Mexico’s best player didn’t even play in the majors:  Héctor Espino hit a record 484 home runs in the minor and Mexican leagues, but refused offers to play in the U.S. after a brief spell with the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate in 1964.

Mexico’s professional league is the one thing that sets it apart from other baseball powers like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Canada, but it may also be a primary factor in Mexico’s less-than-expected MLB production.  While Espino was the best player to spend his career in the Mexican league, he was likely far from the only MLB-caliber player to stay in Mexico.

Before the advent of free agency in the 1970s, MLB contracts were not nearly as lucrative as they are today, and the prospect of taking a shot in the American minors in the hopes of getting one of those jobs may not have been as enticing for Mexican players who already had jobs playing at home.  MLB teams have also been historically less active in scouting Mexico than other Latin American powers due to the likelihood of Mexican prospects contracting with a Mexican team.

This continues to be a problem, as MLB teams simply don’t want to deal with the added costs and demands involved with buying Mexican players out of their contracts with the Mexican League when they could simply invest that money in un-contracted prospects elsewhere.  As a result, Mexico ends up in a similar situation to Japan, where most of the country’s developing talent is kept in its domestic league, but without the funding and overall level of competition NPB has to consistently develop that talent to a high level.

Mexico’s talent pool does expand considerably when you include Mexican Americans or Americans with Mexican heritage.  This includes players like Nomar Garciaparra, Adrián González, Michael Young, and even Ted Williams.

P – Dennis Martínez (Nicaragua)

Other Nicaraguan players considered:  Vicente Padilla, Everth Cabrera, Marvin Benard

One of Nicaragua’s most well known connections to MLB is as the destination of Roberto Clemente’s relief supply plane in 1972, but baseball has been the country’s number one sport for at least several decades.

Nicaragua had a professional winter league in the 1960s, but by the time Dennis Martínez was emerging as a prospect in the early ‘70s, the only active leagues remaining in the country were strictly amateur.  As a teenager, Martînez helped the Nicaraguan national team win medals in the 1972 and ’73 Amateur World Series tournaments, where he and teammate Tony Chévez caught the eye of a Baltimore scout.  Following the ’73 tournament, Baltimore signed both pitchers, and a few years later the pair became the first Nicaraguans to play in the major leagues.

Nicaragua was devastated by civil war from the late-1970’s through the 1980s. The effects of the war were felt in all aspects of Nicaraguan society, including baseball:  the only player born in Nicaragua between 1961 and 1974 to make it to the Major Leagues was Marvin Benard, whose family had managed to relocate to the U.S. when Benard was 12 years old.

Since the end of the war in 1990, the country’s baseball program has rebounded.  In 1999, Vicente Padilla (who was 12 when the war ended) became the first post-war Nicaraguan to make it to the majors, and they’ve produced a modest but relatively steady supply of professional prospects since.

In 2004, MLB re-opened Nicaragua’s winter league, bringing professional baseball back to Nicaragua for the first time since the 1960s. The four-team league still struggles to attract talent, however, and has yet to be admitted into the Caribbean Series.

OF – Elmer Valo (Czechoslovakia)

OF – Bobby Thomson (Scotland)

P – Jack Quinn (Austria-Hungary)

P – Tony Mullane (Ireland)

P – Moe Drabowsky (Poland)

Other European players considered: Tommy Bond (Ireland), Jim McCormick (Scotland), John Anderson (Norway), either Dutch Leonard if either one were actually from Holland (and Blyleven didn’t exist)

Remember in the Dutch blurb where I mentioned that most Europeans in MLB were childhood immigrants to the U.S.?  That’s basically this group in a nutshell.  Each of these players was living in the U.S. before his 9th birthday, and, aside from Drabowsky, whose family fled Poland in 1938 to escape the impending Nazi invasion, each arrived in the United States between 1860 and 1930.

This period coincides with an era of industrialization in the U.S., when immigration from Europe peaked as laborers arrived to fill the growing number of factory jobs.  This lasted until the 1920s, when new quota laws ground immigration to a near-halt.

Immigration steadily ticked back up over the latter half of the 20th century, and the overall number of immigrants admitted to the U.S. finally reached the industrial-era peak around the turn of the 21st century, but total immigration from Europe specifically has remained at pre-Civil-War levels.  Quota laws that originally restricted immigration almost entirely to white Europeans were rewritten during the Civil Rights Movement, which meant a far greater proportion of modern immigrants come from Asia, Africa, and the Americas than in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

None of these countries is particularly relevant in today’s game (a couple of them don’t even exist as countries anymore), but European immigrants had a significant role in the 19th-century and early-modern eras.  Additionally, first-generation Americans born to these immigrants include some of the game’s biggest stars, among whom are Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, and Joe DiMaggio.

Valo is probably the least-known of this group—while he never did have much power, he maintained a .398 OBP for his career, and his 1952 season (101 BB, 16 SO) is still a record for the fewest strikeouts by a batter in a 100-walk season.

IF – Edgar Rentería (Colombia)

C – Yan Gomes (Brazil)

Other South American players considered: Orlando Cabrera (Colombia), José Quintana (Colombia), Julio Teheran (Colombia)

Colombia, which lies between Panama and Venezuela geographically, is caught somewhere between the passion of those countries and the indifference of the rest of South America when it comes to baseball.  The country has a professional winter league which has operated, with some breaks, since the 1940s, but the league has never reached the level of play in the top Latin American leagues.

The sport is on the upswing, however.  When Rentería debuted in 1996, he was just the fourth Columbian-born major leaguer.  That number is now up to twenty, and every one of the last seventeen, starting with Rentería, has appeared in the Majors within the last twelve seasons.  Quintana and Teheran have established themselves among the new generation of talent, and both have promising futures ahead.

From Colombia, it’s a significant drop-off to Brazil as the next-biggest baseball country on the continent.  Baseball has had some presence in Brazil for much of the 20th century due to Japanese immigration—Brazil has the largest population of ethnically Japanese residents of any country outside Japan, and several players on the national team are of Japanese descent—but the sport has never taken much hold with the broader public in Brazil.

With his debut in 2012, Gomes became the first Brazilian native to play in the majors.  There have since been two others, and there are a handful of prospects currently in the minors, but the game has yet to gain much traction from their success.  The national team (which is coached by Barry Larkin) qualified for the 2013 WBC, but lost 1-run games to Israel and the UK in their 2017 qualifying group and were eliminated from the final tournament field.

IF – Xander Bogaerts (Aruba)

OF/1B – Chili Davis (Jamaica)

Other Caribbean players considered:  Devon White (Jamaica), Sidney Ponson (Aruba), Horace Clarke (U.S. Virgin Islands), Elrod Hendricks (U.S. Virgin Islands)

Aruba is essentially a smaller version of Curaçao.  The two share a primary language (Papiamentu, a mixture of several European, African, and Caribbean languages) and until 2010 were jointly governed as part of the Netherlands Antilles, so it’s not surprising Aruba has mirrored Curaçao’s explosion of baseball talent in recent years.  While it has yet to produce an anomalous talent on the level of Andruw Jones or Bert Blyleven, Bogaerts is off to a promising start.

The rest of the Caribbean lags well behind the islands already mentioned in baseball prowess.  Most of the former English colonies tend to favor cricket, and some have additional sports that attract most of their athletic development, such as Jamaica with track and field.

Jamaica has produced two legitimate stars, although both moved to the U.S. as children:  Devon White and Chili Davis.  I think White was actually the better of the two, but thinking about it in terms of roster construction, White’s defensive advantage would be somewhat wasted on my bench.  Davis’s offensive advantage could be more useful as a DH or a pinch hitter, or if I need to play someone out of position to back up first base (which is also why I have Davis listed as OF/1B on my roster even though he didn’t really play first base).

P – Chan Ho Park (South Korea)

Other Korean players considered:  Shin-Soo Choo, Dae-Ho Lee

Baseball became popular in Korea during the period of Japanese military occupation from 1910-45 and has continued to grow in recent decades.  The professional KBO League was founded in 1982, but even before that, South Korea had already become a factor in international events, winning gold in the 1977 Intercontinental Cup and 1982 Baseball World Cup.

While South Korea lacks the depth and star power of nearby Japan, the country has continued to experience a great deal of success in international competition.  South Korea has taken gold in four of the past five Asian Games, bronze (2006) and silver (2009) in past WBCs, and bronze (2000) and gold (2008) in the Olympics (and, given that baseball was dropped from the Olympics after 2008, they are still technically reigning champions).

This international success has an added layer of relevance:  South Korean law mandates 21-24 months of military service for all adult male citizens, but grants exemptions to athletes who win either an Olympic medal of any color or a gold medal at the Asian Games.  Without this exemption, Chan Ho Park and Shin-Soo Choo would have both had their MLB careers interrupted by military service.  Players like Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jung Ho Kang would have likely at least been delayed in coming to MLB, and many more KBO League stars would have had to put their careers on hold.

The domestic league is still the primary outlet for Korean talent.  A handful of KBO League stars, such as Ryu and Kang, get picked up by MLB teams, but relatively few make the jump over to Japan’s NPB, where Koreans count against the same roster limits on foreign players that are typically filled with American or Latin American imports.

The KBO League has similar contractual restrictions to NPB, meaning players must either be posted by their Korean team or accumulate nine years of service time before they can make the jump to MLB (or NPB).  It is still possible for Korean amateurs to sign directly with an MLB organization, as Shin-Soo Choo did, but this is rare.

P – Grant Balfour (Australia)

Other Australian players considered:  Dave Nilsson

Australia has long been a target for MLB executives hoping to expand the game. Baseball first arrived in Australia with American miners during the Victorian Gold Rush in the 1850s and ‘60s, but, despite repeated efforts, it has never been able to supplant cricket on the continent.

The first of these efforts came in 1888, when Albert Spalding led a tour of major leaguers on a series of international exhibitions which included Australia.  Several of the local cricket teams had previously experimented with baseball at that point, but it remained at best secondary competition even after Spalding’s attempts.  More recently, MLB scheduled the opening games of the 2014 season in Australia as part of an initiative to grow international interest in the game.

The majority of Australians in MLB have been pitchers, possibly because the country’s cricket expertise translates more easily to developing throwing talent than the specialized skills of hitting or fielding under baseball rules.  Still, arguably the country’s best export was catcher Dave Nilsson, who left MLB at the height of his career to be able to represent Australia at the Sydney Olympics.

P –Chief Bender (Ojibwe Nation)

If the nationality of dual-nationals like A-Rod is complicated, for Native Americans it can be even more so: while it is clear that tribal members within the United States, including those living on reservations, are U.S. citizens, they also comprise their own self-governed societies with their own distinct histories and cultures.  Still, most people probably wouldn’t think twice about classifying players like Jacoby Ellsbury or Kyle Lohse as American players.

The issue gets much more complicated if you go back to Chief Bender’s time, though.  Bender was born in the 1880s, when most Native Americans were still not considered citizens.  Legal scholars of the 19th century excluded native populations from the 14th Amendment, going so far as to argue that “degrading” citizenship to include Native Americans presented a national danger.

It wasn’t until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 that Native Americans were guaranteed U.S. citizenship, and even then it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all states granted them the right to vote.  Individual treaties between the U.S. government and specific tribes created opportunities for some land-owning Native Americans to become citizens before that, but Bender, who grew up in poverty on the White Earth Ojibwe (sometimes called Chippewa in English) reservation in Minnesota, would have had no such access.

Bender learned baseball from boarding schools designed to assimilate Native American children into Anglo-American culture.  After graduating from such a school in Pennsylvania, he joined a local team and was spotted by scouts for Connie Mack’s Athletics.  Bender is best known for his career as a starter, but he did also hold the season saves record (along with Mordecai Brown) for eleven years until the great Firpo Marberry put up his nigh-untouchable mark of 22 saves in 1926.

P – Ed Porray (Atlantic Ocean)

Other Maritime players considered:  Mike Trout, probably

Be it the uneven, rocky soil and infields littered with pebbles that honed Andrelton Simmons’ reflexes growing up in Curaçao, or the makeshift baseballs stitched together from socks that Dennis Martinez played with on the sandlots of Granada, many players have overcome difficult conditions to excel at the game.  However, I think it is safe to say that none of them was born into a less ideal baseball environment than Ed Porray, who was born at sea on December 5, 1888.

Perhaps catching a glimpse of Spalding’s passing ship as his contingent returned home, Porray was nonetheless inspired to take up baseball, eventually getting good enough to pitch three games in the major(ish) Federal League.

References & Resources


Adam Dorhauer grew up a third-generation Cardinals fan in Missouri, and now lives in Ohio. His writing on baseball focuses on the history of the game, as well as statistical concepts as they apply to baseball. Visit his website, 3-D Baseball.
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Bobr
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Bobr

Did you consider Graeme Lloyd from Australia? I agree that Balfour had a better career, but when I did this exercise for Joe Posnanski’s blog, I used Lloyd because I thought my team needed a lefty reliever. (I did spell his name incorrectly though-Graham.)

Adam Dorhauer
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Adam Dorhauer
I looked some at both Lloyd and Peter Moylan (though Moylan’s not LH) but went with Balfour since I felt like he was the clear standout of the group. I didn’t really worry about balancing LH/RH for the lineup or bullpen, although I suppose if I went with Chili Davis over Devon White for lineup-construction reasons, maybe I should have tried to get some LH relief as well. One reason I didn’t worry about LH relief was that a 19th-century pitcher (Mullane) who began his career before overhand pitching was allowed and spent almost his whole career before the pitching… Read more »
Paul G.
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Paul G.

I’m surprised that the Japan representative is not a pitcher.

I’m also surprised that Chien-Ming Wang (Taiwan) wasn’t here, especially compared to Ed Porray. Ed Porray is an neat piece of trivia though.

Adam Dorhauer
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Adam Dorhauer
Japan does have some really good pitching options. I mention a few of them in Japan’s section in part 2 since pitching is sort of a defining role for Japan’s baseball legacy, but ended up going with one of their non-pitching stars. Wang was one of the pitchers I considered, and if I didn’t include Porray as a throw-in for the final roster spot just because I thought it was interesting that he was born at sea, Wang and Alex Wilson (born in Saudi Arabia where he father worked as a geologist for an oil company, but then raised in… Read more »
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Maybe I have had one too many scotches, but what about Manny Mota (DR) coming off the bench or as a utility outfielder?

Adam Dorhauer
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Adam Dorhauer

Mota was a good player and would be a good option from most countries, but the Dominican Republic has too many good players who deserve a starting spot to look that deep for their representative.

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