Familiar scouting jargon flows freely during baseball’s amateur draft, accolades poured upon the players whose selections mark the beginning of their professional journeys. Players are heralded as “athletes,” praised as “grinders,” lauded for “high baseball IQs,” and distinguished as possessing “raw talent” or “polished games.”
Yet behind such widely employed terms may lie forms of unconscious bias, examples of coded language that draw on and amplify stereotypes based on race, nationality, or both.
“The scouting community has its vocabulary,” said Del Matthews, a former White Sox assistant director of player development and scouting who now works as vice president of baseball development for Major League Baseball. "It has its jargon that it uses to paint the picture.
"If you’re African-American, if you’re attuned to language, you can read a report and nine times out of 10 you can tell if the player is African-American, a minority, or not.
“I don’t think it’s anything where there’s an intent to be racist per se. Scouts are trying to the best of their abilities to describe what they see. [But] some intrinsic bias is going to come with that at the end of the day.”
Disclaimers apply. Plenty of scouts work hard to avoid lapsing into stereotypes, and individual reports may not show bias. But concern exists that at organizational and perhaps even industry levels, biases may contribute to systemic inequalities.
On rare occasions, the issue of bias in player evaluation has been thrown into a spotlight. Last spring, former Pirates general manager Neal Huntington ripped the language used by an unnamed scout in an article criticizing the work ethic and motivation of two of his players, Josh Bell (who is Black) and Francisco Cervelli (who hails from Venezuela), as well as other coded language the scout used about players of color.
“The archaic, racist stereotype does not have a place,'' Huntington said this week. "We need to work to be better than that. It’s the system that we’ve been raised in as white people, the advantages we have and the privilege we have. We don’t recognize things we’re saying, things we’re feeling, things we’re doing to people of color or about people of color or toward people of color.
“I probably have said some of those things over the years, defaulting to the ‘little white gamer,’ the ‘grinder,’ the ‘overachiever.’ It’s easy to fall into positive and negative stereotypes and it’s easy to perpetuate those if you’re not conscious of it and aware of it.”
It’s fairly rare for baseball’s top executives to speak openly about the concerns, even though there is some statistical evidence of bias in scouting at a broader level.
Journalist and data-science consultant Rob Arthur reviewed 70,000 Cincinnati Reds scouting reports from 1991-2003. He found that terms employed by scouts revealed more frequent applications of positive physical attributes (“large,” "strong,” “good build”) to white players than Black players, who were more likely to be described as “athletic” but also “weak.”
Leadership and competitiveness were more often associated with white players. Players of color were more often described as “raw” and “unpolished.”
“The disparate uses of these terms in a strong way suggests a racial bias,” Arthur said in an interview. “I think these differences are kind of a known quantity. Other analysts within front offices have studied their reports and come to similar conclusions.
“The default assumption of most people is that racism isn’t there, even though it’s widely known in baseball that there’s a lot of coded language that’s applied to people of different races. These scouting reports surfaced something that I think is known and has been known within the baseball community for a long time — that the way they talk about white players and non-white players is different.”
Multiple executives noted that while unconscious bias is an issue that baseball needs to confront, the sport faces a larger issue of systemic racism in terms of the opportunities afforded to Black players, particularly those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Frequently invoked stereotypes of Black players as “athletic” but possessing skills that are “crude,” “raw,” or “green” are a reflection of often-unequal playing backgrounds.
“When you have a private hitting instructor, private pitching instructor, you work at a facility since you’re 13, you’re going to be more advanced and have an advantage to be more polished over some other guys who don’t,” said a National League executive who, like others interviewed, declined to be named in order avoid speaking on behalf of their organizations.
“[Black players] may come from places where they don’t get the opportunity to play year-round with the expensive travel ball teams and things of that nature where there are guys polishing their skills year-round, as well as maybe they’re spending time playing other sports and it doesn’t allow them to be as polished at baseball.”
The problem of disparate amateur development opportunities is exacerbated by the startling lack of diversity in college baseball programs. According to the NCAA Demographics Database, 89 percent of Division 1 baseball head coaches and assistant coaches in 2019 were white, and 76 percent of players were white. Even as the percentage of nonwhite players in Division 1 programs has increased steadily since 2012 (the first available year of the database) from 18 to 24 percent, including an increase of Black players from 5.0 to 6.2 percent, the broader landscape is hard to ignore.
“Systemic racism is real and it affects every facet of our society," said an American League evaluator. "In the tiny sliver of baseball, there are effects there as well. The percentage of minorities playing college baseball is minuscule, and it’s embarrassing. At a college baseball game, half the time it feels like you’re watching a baseball game in the 1930s.”
MLB has attempted to counteract the disparity by developing diversity-focused youth programs, including MLB Youth Academies and the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program — with several alums who have been selected at or near the top of the first round in recent years. Other independent entities, including The BASE in Boston, have likewise tried to address a void for area high school players, with an increasing number of alums either getting drafted or receiving college scholarships.
Baseball also lacks diversity in several key leadership and player-evaluation positions. According to MLB, as of Dec. 31, 67 percent of full-time scouts were white, 20 percent were Hispanic/Latino, and just 7 percent were Black. Those demographics likewise affect how players are scouted and assessed, and make it easier for systemic bias to creep into evaluations.
“The more scouts you have, the more diversity of thought you have, the more diversity of perspective you have, the better grasp of the picture you’re going to have on a particular player,'' said Matthews. “When you interact with a player, you may develop a certain opinion of a player based on your own upbringing, things you do like and didn’t like.
"At the end of the day, that’s why I think it’s important to have diverse opinions — and when I say diverse, there are more people of color, African-Americans and minorities, who are in position to give their opinions about players so that it’s not biased.''
Effects on players’ careers
One AL executive was alarmed by an internal study on how his team judged the makeup — baseball shorthand for personality traits — of its own players.
The vast majority of players deemed to have the best makeup were white. The vast majority of players viewed as having the worst makeup were nonwhite. The tilt of the field was too dramatic to be random, and likely affected how those players were allowed to advance through the organization, as well as how they were coached and developed.
“The findings were disturbing," said the executive. "Every team talks about makeup. I think that’s where the biases come in, more than the pure talent evaluations.
"We’re talking through a player, a white kid at Duke, and no one says a peep. When there’s a Black high school kid, someone asks, ‘What do we know about the makeup of this guy?’ Just the mere assumption that that’s a question is an inherent bias in my mind.”
Stereotyping and unconscious bias can affect every aspect of a player’s career, from the likelihood that he’s drafted (or where in the draft he’s taken) to the coaching attention and playing opportunities he receives while moving through a farm system.
Moreover, Black players are drastically underrepresented as starting pitchers and catchers because of what Huntington and others see as the same sort of bias that for years limited opportunities for Black quarterbacks in the NFL.
“Entry of players, development of players, players’ opportunities may be negatively impacted because of things well beyond their control,'' said Huntington. "That’s where systemic racism comes in. There’s nothing they can do. It’s the system.
"That’s heartbreaking, to think a player might not be given the same attention, the same compassion because of things that are well beyond their control, because of implicit biases.”
In a recent podcast, Keith Law — author of “The Inside Game,” an exploration of decision-making biases seen in baseball — talked with Stanford professor of psychology Claude Steele about studies demonstrating that athletes’ awareness of negative stereotypes can lead them to underperform their true talent levels.
“There’s some disagreement over the strength of the effect, but the fact that it exists at all is pretty stunning and should be enough to make us rethink the language that we use,” said Law.
There is a sense that baseball is making progress regarding the issue of unconscious bias. Matthews, who is Black, recalled instances when he was able to speak up in meetings with White Sox talent evaluators to offer a different perspective on makeup questions. Arthur said he is aware of efforts by analytics departments to “de-bias” player evaluations.
Meanwhile, the frequency of informal conversations about unconscious bias has also increased, though few teams have addressed it in any organized fashion.
“I don’t think it is what it was 10 years ago,'' said the AL executive. "I think it’s better. I don’t think it’s good, but it’s better. I think the honest and unfortunate truth is that [improvement has] been more organic than organized. I don’t want to come off as believing that organic improvement is enough. It’s not.”
In a meeting of their amateur scouting department in January 2019, Red Sox scouts listened to a presentation on unconscious bias in scouts’ everyday and professional lives that included a reflection on the language employed in their field.
The session concluded with everyone in attendance identifying at least one action step they could take to change their behaviors. That session has resonated for some of those present while reflecting on the prevalence of broader systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Many inside the game see a need for more organized training of those in baseball, more de-biasing of not just player evaluations but also broader employment opportunities, more efforts to create pathways into the game for Black players, coaches, executives (including mental skills staffs that play a prominent part in makeup evaluation), and scouts who can help challenge the stereotyping and coded language that have contributed to an uneven field.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.