No Latin American hitter led his league in bases on balls until David Ortiz in 2006.
This piece appears in the Oct. 2 MLB Playoff Preview issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
ESPN’s Béisbol Experience project got me thinking about a statistic that historically has gone missing from the Latin American baseball experience: bases on balls. Foreign-born Latino players have long endured a reputation for hacking away at the plate. Juan Samuel, a notoriously free-swinging hitter from the Dominican Republic who played for seven MLB teams from 1983 to 1998, put it this way: “You don’t walk off the island. You hit.”
The numbers say the walks gap between U.S.-born and Latin American players is indeed real and, almost 15 years after “Moneyball,” surprisingly persistent. Historically, Latin American hitters haven’t drawn too many walks, whether they hit for power (like Orlando Cepeda) or a high average (like Tony Oliva). From the start of integrated baseball in 1947 to 2000, 56 MLB players had careers with at least 1,000 walks. Zero were born in Latin America. No Latin American hitter led his league in bases on balls until David Ortiz in 2006. None walked 120 times in a season until Jose Bautista in 2011. And I bet you can’t name the player who retired in 2014 as the all-time leader in walks among Latin Americans. (It’s Bobby Abreu.)
To examine this phenomenon systematically, I looked at all non-pitchers who were born in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela and played in at least 1,000 MLB games between 1947 and 2016. Overall, U.S.-born players earned unintentional walks in 8.5 percent of plate appearances, a rate 25 percent higher than that of Latin Americans (6.8 percent). The probability of that difference being due to random chance is essentially zero. The gap was narrowest for Puerto Ricans, but it existed for all nationalities. And when I compared groups of players at various levels of performance (below 10 career wins above replacement, 10 to 20 WAR and so forth), the disparity showed up at each tier.
Some “analysts” cling to stereotypes of “colorful” or “passionate” Latin Americans playing simply and aggressively by nature, without any concern for sabermetric virtues like getting on base. In May, when White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone opined that statistical data confuses some players, partner Ken Harrelson specified: “Especially Latin players. They play a different game of baseball down in the islands than we play here in the United States … and they have a tremendous amount of fun!” But Hawk (and everyone else) ought to know better: It’s not something in the climate that leads Latin Americans to swing for contact, it’s economic incentives and youth. Players eager to impress professional scouts tend to show off their skills, rather than display patience. More fundamentally, young Latin American players just don’t get as many developmental at-bats as prospects born in the United States. Little League and travel teams are more common and widely regulated north of the border, and while U.S.-born players must be high school graduates to be eligible for the MLB draft, international athletes can sign with teams as early as 16. “For players from Latin America who don’t play in high school or college circuits, their evaluation time is significantly shorter compared to U.S. kids, who get seen for three to five years in scheduled tournament scenarios,” says Brian Mejia, an agent with Octagon Baseball and co-founder of the Dominican Prospect League.
As long as MLB teams didn’t really care about on-base percentage, many clubs deployed middle infielders or center fielders with good speed and decent batting averages as leadoff hitters, even if they used up a ton of outs. Latin American players commonly filled that role; from 1970 to 1982, foreign-born Latino hitters such as Omar Moreno posted six of the top 10 out-making seasons in baseball history. In this subsequent age of analytics, different skills are in demand. But exactly one Latin American player has emerged to fit the opposite profile, the slow slugger who carries a low batting average but amps his value with 100 walks a year: Dominican-born Carlos Santana of the Indians.
With All-Stars like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor and other players on the rise, Latino players are having a bigger impact on baseball than ever. But the question remains: Can MLB teams develop Latin American players who succeed because of their plate discipline, rather than in spite of it? “Walks don’t get you off the island, but once Latin American ballplayers get to the U.S., they need to learn how to be selective,” Mejia says. “Because these days, OBP gets you to the big leagues and eventually gets you paid.”