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Tango: The baseball census

It's census time in the United States, so let's take a look at the demographics of Major League Baseball. In doing so, we can see that based on the influx of foreign players over the past few decades, baseball would be better off expanding before contracting.

Of the 732 players who batted, fielded or pitched in at least 40 games in 2009, 540 were born in USA or Canada. The remaining 192 were born elsewhere. The number of USA/Canada-born players has remained constant since 1969, when MLB expanded to 24 teams. At that time, there were 485 USA/Canada-born players. And in the 40 years that followed, six teams were added to MLB, along with 183 additional jobs. Yet just 55 of those jobs were claimed domestically. The jump in foreign players occurred during the 1993 expansion; it peaked around 2002, and it has since plateaued. (See graph.)

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(Note that the drops in 1981 and 1994 in the graph are due to the reduced schedule from the work stoppages.)

What would happen if MLB contracted by four teams because the talent has supposedly been diluted too much? Well, we'd lose 4/30th (13.33 percent) of the domestic and foreign-born players, meaning we'd come down to 468 domestic players and 166 foreign-born players. But since 1969, we've never had fewer than 469 domestic players. So, those who are saying they want to handle the dilution by contracting four teams are setting the number of domestic players in MLB to a level that we haven't seen in more than 40 years.

The fact is that expansion has been a golden opportunity for foreign-born players. The same issue has occurred in the NHL as it expanded from 21 to 30 teams in less than two decades. But the number of USA/Canada-born players has remained constant in that league as well. All the new jobs were claimed by foreign-born players.

When people say that a league has expanded too much or that the talent level has been diluted too much, they are simply looking at it from a closed-talent pool perspective, rather than what really happened: More qualified players finally got the chance that was previously closed to them. Indeed, once you factor in the more than 50 percent growth in population since 1969, but realize that the USA/Canada-born players grew in MLB at only a 10 percent rate, you can reasonably make the case that we can add 40 percent more teams. That's how much talent is out there, relative to what there was in 1969.

Tom Tango writes the Inside The Book blog.