Inspired by the “magic realism” common in Latin American literature, A Day Without a Mexican is a modern fable in which all of the Hispanics in California vanish overnight. (Why not call it A Day Without an Hispanic? One of the film’s recurring jokes is that Californians think that Mexico is the only country south of the border).
Much of the story traces the effects on California’s economy. Agriculture, construction, personal services, restaurants, and more fall to pieces. Families even find their beloved nannies are missing.
The great 19th-century economist Frederic Bastiat taught economics largely through this sort of thought experiment. What would happen to the economy if we blotted out the sun? Candle-makers would hail the higher demand for artificial lights, but Bastiat objects that this makes society poorer by frittering away valuable resources to make what nature gives us for free.
A Day Without a Mexican makes the same point. Without Latin American residents – legal or not – a few special interests benefit, but society loses. Californian agriculture might implode. But even if it attracted replacement workers with higher wages, society would have to give up whatever those replacement workers used to produce. It is far better for everyone to focus on their comparative advantage: for the Ph.D. in computer science to hire a less educated but perfectly competent nanny from Guatemala to watch her kids so she can return to work.
Though Bryan may be blinded by his borderline psychotic obsession with Bastiat, I have to admit that Bryan has pretty good taste in movies, so it’s definitely a must see. But I’m not writing about this to point to a good movie. I want to apply the same principle to Major League Baseball. What would the world be like if there were no Hispanics in the game? (Aside: Latino Baseball is the central clearinghouse for information about Latinos in the game. If you’re looking for stats and history of Latin players, go there.)
To analyze the role of Hispanics in MLB I used THE Lahman Baseball Archive, which lists the birth country of every player, to identify ethnicity. I identified players as Hispanic if they were born in Mexico, Central America, and South America. First off, let’s look at the total number of Latino players in 2004:
Player Total %MLB
Postion 326 24%
Pitchers 143 21%
The percentage of Hispanic players is about the same for pitchers and position players. So about a fifth of MLB players in 2004 were Latino. However, if I limit the sample to players who received some significant playing time (200 ABs for position players and 30 IPs for pitchers) the percentage rises to 28% for non-pitchers. So, Hispanic players make up about a quarter of regulars in the leagues. But how good are these players compared to non-Hispanics? My intuition was that the average Hispanic players in the majors would be a little better than average non-Hispanic. It turns out I was wrong.
(Min 200 ABs; SD in parentheses)
There is not much difference in the distribution of Hispanics and non-Hispanics across many offensive skills. The biggest difference is in OBP, but it is still quite a small difference. This is not surprising though, because win-maximizing teams ought to evaluate playing talent without regard to ethnicity. It also calls into question the stereotype of a higher incidence of speedy defenders who can’t hit among Hispanics. It turns out there is the same percentage American “defensive specialists” out there — I’m not analyzing defense here, just making the assumption that weaker hitters are likely on MLB rosters by compensating with good defense. But, what about pitchers?
(Min 30 IP; SD in parentheses)
The pitching is a little different. Hispanics do seem to perform slightly better than non-Hispanics, but the difference is small. However, Hispanic pitchers seem to strikeout more batters. The biggest difference has to do with handedness and relief duty. The rate of Hispanic lefties is half the rate of non-Hispanics, and Hispanics have a higher percent of appearances as relievers. Why the shortage of Hispanic lefties? I certainly did not anticipate this. I wonder if it has something to do with platooning practices in Latin American leagues. Maybe lefties face a lot more righties and therefore don’t have the stats to get noticed by big-league scouts. Maybe the pay for being a LOOGY outside of MLB that young lefties concentrate more on hitting. I’m open to suggestions.
So, back to the original question. What would MLB look like if we arbitrarily removed a quarter of its talent? Obviously, the quality of the game would suffer. MLB could have the same quality of baseball by contracting 7-8 teams, dilute the quality of play with AAA talent, or a combination of both. The minors could get ugly at the low levels. Keith Lockhart might still have a job. I suspect fan interest would fall off quite a bit. But, that is not exactly what will happen. Athletes from other sports, who previously couldn’t make it given the previous required talent would also stock some of these teams. So, the talent levels of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLS would also fall.
I think there is an important lesson here. Just as a Hispanic-fee MLB would harm baseball fans, a Hispanic-free USA would harm US consumers. Immigration doesn’t just help the immigrants, it helps society as well. Bastiat’s lesson of the seen and the unseen is that it’s easy to see the immigrants working in jobs in that might be occupied by true-blue Americans, and though it’s hard to see the positive benefits to society they not only exist but swamp the costs. We tend to put too much weight on the costs we can see — immigrants replacing American workers (like Keith Lockhart) — and not enough on the benefits that are no so obvious — cheaper and better products (baseball) for Americans (fans).