Why Are There So Few Black Pitchers?
April 15, 2016, 09:02 AM
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From USA Today:

As MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson, dearth of black pitchers concern many

By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports 11:07 p.m. EDT April 14, 2016

Major League Baseball celebrates the 69th anniversary Friday of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, and while the number of African-American players on teams remain near historic low levels, there’s an alarming trend that mystifies the industry.

It’s the dearth of African-American pitchers.

While the African-American population in baseball remains flat at just 8%, according to an examination of opening-day rosters conducted by USA TODAY Sports, the scarcity of black pitchers is staggering.

Screenshot 2016-04-15 02.06.22

Here are the top 20 active pitchers in terms of Wins Above Replacement. Keep in mind that #19 on this list, Johnny Cueto, isn’t considered black (he’s “Latin”), while #1 C.C. Sabathia is considered black.

There have been black superstar pitchers from Latin America, such as Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, and Johan Santana, but they aren’t counted as black for the purposes of writing articles about baseball’s Black Lack.

So the top 20 active pitchers look like they are about 70% non-Hispanic white American, which is some kind of crisis.

Being a Major League pitcher is a really good job, one that I would recommend. You don’t even have to be in shape or young. For example, #5 on the list, Bartolo Colon, is a middle-aged fat guy and he made $11 million pitching (pretty effectively) for the Mets last year (and is off to a good start this year). Of course, the cells in Colon’s pitching arm are probably about four decades younger than the rest of him.

Of the 449 pitchers on major league opening-day rosters and the disabled list this year, just 14 were African American.

Fourteen!

Seven starters. Seven relievers.

No team has more than one black pitcher on its major league staff, and four of those starters reside in the American League East: CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees, David Price of the Boston Red Sox, Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays and Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays. …

Considering the increased emphasis on pitching depth in baseball – with every team employing 12 or 13 pitchers on their 25-man roster when 10 or 11 used to suffice – it’s clear that Major League Baseball’s efforts to diversify the makeup of American-born players will hit a ceiling without a resurgence in the number of black pitchers.

Tall white guys are excelling at pitching in this decade. The L.A. Dodgers, for example, last year had two starters — Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw — who were probably better than Koufax and Drysdale at their mid-60s peak. (They’re #3 and #4 in the picture above. Greinke is the guy with the crazy blue eyes who missed the 2006 season with social anxiety disorder and attributes his return to form to Zoloft.)

That’s probably the flip side of white Americans not playing basketball at a high level anymore.

The average height for the top 20 pitchers above is 6’4″.

But there aren’t many articles about that.

African Americans comprise just 1.6% of major league pitchers – well below their 7.9% of the general player population. Forty-two of 69 African American major leaguers – 61% – are outfielders. And when teams opt to carry a 12th or 13th pitcher on their roster, it often comes at the expense of an extra outfielder.

So the cruel reality is that the African-American baseball player – whether prodded to abandon pitching or by their own volition – is being excluded from more than half the jobs in the industry.

Anecdotally, the immediate future doesn’t look much more promising. The top 100 minor league prospects, according to rankings by MLB.com, include just four African-American pitchers – Dillon Tate, Amir Garrett, Touki Toussaint and Justus Sheffield.

… Oh, where have you gone, Bob Gibson?

Of the top 200 pitchers of all time in Wins Above Replacement, five were non-Hispanic black. I’m using that term rather than “African American” because #1, slightly ahead of Gibson, was Ferguson Jenkins from Canada. The others were C.C. Sabathia, Dwight Gooden, and Vida Blue. (Drug/alcohol problems are not uncommon on that list, but the sample size is small.)

By the way, I’m not exactly sure what Sabathia’s ancestry is, but he’s from Vallejo, CA, a small town in the San Francisco Bay area that’s been leading the country in diversity since the days of Sly & the Family Stone. It also led California cities into bankruptcy as it got taken to the cleaners by its cops and firemen, who had far more espirit de corps than the citizenry.

“When you think about it, the black pitchers have almost become extinct,” says Arizona Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart, one of only 15 black pitchers to win 20 games in a season. “There are a lot of reasons, I don’t know if any of them are valid, but it seems like a lot of teams take black pitchers and convert them to infielders or outfielders.

“I know it happened a lot in the past, so maybe it’s still happening.’’

Certainly, it’s possible ingrained patterns of stereotyping remain. Major league rosters are filled with failed position players turned pitchers – St. Louis’ Trevor Rosenthal, Oakland’s Sean Doolittle, Colorado’s Jason Motte, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Chris Hatcher and Kenley Jansen among the current crop – but rarely are they black.
Kenley Jackson is a Dutch-speaking black giant from the Caribbean island of Curacao who played catcher for the 2009 Netherlands national team. Actually, he grew up speaking:
Papiamentu is the local language of the ABC Islands – Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Papiamentu is a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, and it also has some Arawak Indian and African influences. Papiamentu is one of the few Creole Languages of the Caribbean that has survived to the present day.
Back to the USA Today article:
It’s similar with the catching position, with Canadian-born Russell Martin of the Toronto Blue Jays the lone black catcher. The last African-American everyday catcher was Charles Johnson, and he retired 11 years ago.

“Historically, pitchers and catchers did not transition from the Negro Leagues,’’ Kendrick said. “There were great arms in the Negro Leagues, and we had great catchers from Josh Gibson to Roy Campanella, but that was considered a cerebral position. And the general consensus back then was that these men weren’t smart enough to play in the major leagues.”

Other than the half-black Roy Campanella winning the National League MVP award in 1951, 1953, and 1955. (Josh Gibson drank himself to death in early 1947.) And Elston Howard winning the AL MVP in 1964. If African Americans have stopped playing catcher, it’s not from lack of historical role models.

Anyway, what’s going on with pitchers is a couple of thing:

  • Black Americans aren’t very interested in baseball anymore because they are obsessed with basketball and football, both of which also reward height the way pitching does.
  • Pitching, like catching, is a skill position. In contrast, African-Americans who choose a career in baseball over football, such as Pittsburgh Pirates MVP Andrew McCutchen, tend to get dropped into centerfield where there natural speed is most useful. Alternatively, the really big guys, like 1990s White Sox slugger Frank Thomas and the (not aptly named) Fielders, father and son, go to first base, the easiest defensive position.
Back in the days of segregation, black baseball teams needed catchers and pitchers, so they trained their own. These days, however, top black athletes (0r mixed race ones like Giancarlo Stanton) who are interested in baseball have little trouble getting scholarships from, say, Catholic high schools, unless they are extremely ghetto. And ghetto blacks have little interest in training hard at the skills of baseball, so if they do wind up in baseball, it’s at the easier positions of outfielder or first base.

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