November 22, 2016
MLB's Ongoing Search for Front Office Diversity
It’s Thanksgiving, which means it’s time to travel several hundred miles to have an awkward dinner with your family. It’s a season of eating too much, rehashing old family arguments that were silly to begin with and even sillier 20 years later, and dealing with Uncle Larry. You know Uncle Larry. The one who voted for that candidate whom you can’t stand and who would now like to take a few moments to describe why he did so.
We here at Baseball Prospectus know that you’ve probably come to the site to get away from it all and to think about topics that aren’t so emotionally loaded. So, as a public service, we figured we’d write about race. It’s OK, both our Uncles Larry voted for Rick Porcello too.
Last week, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that Major League Baseball is no longer working with executive search firm Korn Ferry, whom the league had retained a little more than a year ago to help teams identify racial and ethnic minorities to fill front office vacancies. When Korn Ferry was hired, there was a growing concern internally that nearly all of the top executives in the game were white, and MLB wanted to do something about it.
To bolster their efforts, MLB created an internal Diversity Pipeline Initiative, headed by former Pirates director of baseball personnel Tyrone Brooks. In the past year, though, several general managers have been politely excused from their duties and have been replaced, mostly by 30-something, statistically-savvy Caucasian guys who used to work for the Cleveland Indians.
We are fully aware that the question of whether striving for racial and ethnic diversity in the front office is a very charged one. There will be readers out there who believe that increasing diversity itself is a laudable goal. There are those who will wonder why MLB is even concerned about the idea at all. There will be those who think that no matter what happens in the back rooms, whatever happens on the field is most important. Everyone breathe for a moment.
Earlier this year, we took a look at where front office workers come from by the numbers. If you only have time for this one article today, let us, as Inigo Montoya would say, “sum up.” The vast majority of full-time front office employees come from internships, whether or not those internships were with the team that is their future full-time employer. Those internships are currently filled by a process that disproportionately favors top-tier collegiate seniors or graduates who can afford to move to another city and work for free, which then means that down the line, those executive positions are filled by a disproportionate number of top-tier college graduates who now have the connections to stay in baseball for the rest of their working lives. Nightengale pointed out that, despite Korn Ferry’s involvement this year, it seemed like most of the hiring going on was friends hiring friends.
In the modern game, there is no grand conspiracy to keep racial and ethnic minorities out of front office jobs. To a person, those who now work in MLB front offices would be horrified at the thought of actively discriminating against someone based on the color of their skin. Not only would it be illegal, it would be a bad business decision to boot--there isn’t room for legislated discrimination in the modern front office. Teams want and need the best people that they can find. Yet, for all the continual talk of simply hiring the “best people,” those best people are all suspiciously similar.
Whether you, reader, personally believe that achieving diversity in the front office is a goal that MLB should pursue, it is a goal that MLB has stated it values. With the recent firing of the firm that was supposed to help MLB achieve this goal, we think it’s an issue worth expounding on even more that before, but with the same rational approach.
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) has been issuing reports since the 1980s on the state of racial and ethnic (as well as gender) diversity in MLB’s hiring practices. (They do similarly for the NFL, NBA, and several other leagues.). Their most recent report was issued at the beginning of the 2016 season and reports back to 2004 are available online. It’s worth looking at some key indicators over time to see how things have changed.
Before we delve too deep into these numbers, there’s an elephant in the room that we need to acknowledge. Someone out there is already asking “what is the correct number?” And that is a number we can’t really provide. It isn’t a matter of saying that once we get to 7 or 8 or 10 or 30 GMs of color everything is happy. Again, we note only that MLB wishes for these numbers to be higher, as two commissioners have put into place some kind of internal documentation supporting increased front office diversity.
In 1999, former commissioner Bud Selig sent a memo to all 30 teams, the contents of which eventually became known as the “Selig Rule.” His memo politely requested that teams specifically interview at least one person from a racial or ethnic minority group when an opening came available for positions like GM, AGM, field manager, or major department directors. We can see that, from before the Selig Rule’s implementation in 1999 to the present day, there has been an increase in the number of racial/ethnic minorities in some, but not all, of baseball’s key spots.
For example, while there are more coaches of color, there are fewer managers of color than there were in 1998. This greater number of coaches of color roughly matches the percentage of players who are either African-American or Latino, though managing, the highest level of coaching, has remained largely white. In the front office, we see a different story. While people of color do make up more of the front office than they once did, there continues to be a demographic split between the players on the field and the executives who run the teams.
Why is that? Well, the data says that it’s not for a lack of theoretical candidates. In the past, there have been two major pathways into the front office. One was to be a former player. We can see above that at least 40 percent of the players active in 1998 were African-American or Latino. For the most part, they are all now former players. Surely some of them might make a decent front office worker, if they were interested.
The other pathway to a front office is to be someone with a lot of quantitative/business skills, usually who entered the baseball workforce pool through a major-league internship. When we looked at the most popular college majors for front office workers, we found that business and management degrees were the most common. We also know that members of all racial and ethnic groups major in business at about the same rate. There should be plenty of candidates, no matter which route a team chooses to take.
Maybe part of the answer can be illustrated through the fact that baseball is a game played in two languages. We know that there are brilliant baseball players out there on the field--we know this from the successes of Billy Beane and the many minor-league players who transition into a scouting or front office role after retiring. Yet, very few of those successful front office transitions come from native Spanish-speaking players, an odd note in a game that is growing ever greater thanks to players from Central and South America.
One thing that might be happening is that these players are being tracked into jobs like director of Latin American operations, a job where their skill in speaking Spanish is a job prerequisite. Given that only 11 percent of non-Hispanic adults in the United States speak Spanish, they might be among the only people already in the organization who can do that job.
But what happens when an AGM or director of player development job is open and the director of Latin American operations is interested? Let’s say he’s doing a great job in his current role. Is he passed over for being “too valuable to lose” in that role? If he’s doing a good job, it means he’s in charge of (and succeeding) in an area that can produce a lot of value for a team. Is he being passed over because of the fact that most adults in the United States are monolingual? Is it the wrong to assume that just because he doesn’t have the title AGM that the organization doesn’t realize how insanely valuable he is? It’s a complicated question.
But if we are focusing on the GM role, we need to appreciate that there is an institutionalized language barrier. MLB welcomes players from a host of other countries, including Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, and Panama, all of which have Spanish as their primary language. Some of those players are really, really smart and some day might make great baseball executives. (There are also some incredibly smart, statistically-savvy business school graduates in those countries.) But because 29 of the 30 teams in MLB are based in the United States where the lingua franca is English, there’s an additional hurdle placed in front of players from Spanish-speaking countries.
If you were born in Peoria, you just need to have the makings of a brilliant baseball executive to become a GM. If you were born in Santo Domingo, you need to have those skills and learn a new language fluently enough to engage in business in it. There are people who do it, but that extra requirement is going to cut down the field.
It’s interesting that in baseball, it’s acceptable that when a player who has recently arrived from another country is interviewed, he might have a translator there to help him. If he can hit the ball 500 feet, we don’t really care what language he speaks and we’re willing to make accommodations around that language barrier. Now imagine a GM--a legitimately brilliant guy who knows baseball inside and out--doing an interview for the local radio station about the new utility infielder the team just signed. With an interpreter.
That threw you for a loop, didn’t it?
This doesn’t even have to be a case where the GM is a bad communicator. He might be amazing at communication in his native language, and with the interpreter at his side, he can explain the rationale behind the one-year, $2 million deal that they just inked. He might have picked an amazing utility infielder. He might have won the offseason right there. But ...
There are a lot of things in life that people will say don’t matter, but evidence shows they actually do. Evidence shows that CEOs of companies tend to be taller than average. Human height is mostly genetic and there’s no reason to believe that tall people have better business skills than short people. There are hundreds of things that shape people’s behavior of which they are largely unaware. They aren’t conscious choices and when people are made aware of them, they might even say “well, that’s silly.”
These are things that can operate at the margins, but a small effect over a large sample size can make a real difference in the aggregate, and those percentage-point differences represent real people. And while people may find those little influences silly when made aware of them, how often are people made aware of them or take the time to be self-reflective about them?
It’s silly that we would think less of a GM who needed an interpreter--particularly if he were making amazing moves or running an organization at peak efficiency. But if the idea threw you for a loop and you weren’t entirely sure why, then it’s worth asking what other biases are out there, shaping your own views or the views of the people who are hiring folks into front offices.
Baseball isn’t the only sport where the split between the demographics of the players and the demographics of the front office appears. Here is data from the TIDES report for MLB in 2016, repeated from above, set next to the equivalent data from the reports on the NFL and NBA. The NFL even has the “Rooney Rule” which is analogous to the Selig Rule.
This is an issue that’s bigger than baseball. It’s bigger than sports in general. No one set out for things to be this way, but the data shows that it happened. Now to figure out what to do about it.
It’s not reasonable to expect baseball to completely fix what is a larger social issue. It’s easy to say “hire the best person available,” and in a perfect world, that would be all you need. It doesn’t help that in baseball, there remains no really good way to pin down objectively which GM is a good one, even once we see them in action. The evidence suggests that a lot of the time, he’s effectively guessing. So, who is that “best person”? Is it simply the person who best conforms to a societal bias on things that have nothing to do with actual GM-ing talent? That’s the kind of question that we are not able to answer, and that can really only be answered with some honest soul-searching, the kind where there is no policy that can be made to force it.
If baseball really does want to increase the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in key positions, then the data does have a few insights to offer. It’s probably not reasonable to expect that changes will be seen immediately at the GM level. Most GMs are former assistant GMs, who are mostly former department directors/coordinators, who are mostly former interns. Teams like to hire known quantities and like a lot of businesses, the way to the top is to climb the ladder once you get in. Because so much of the pipeline into the front office runs through the internship process (which we have critiqued before), it’s going to have to start there. (Rob Manfred himself made a similar case last year.)
We have previously made the case that because internships essentially require someone to move to another city and live on some very low wages, they limit the pool of candidates mostly to those who have a family that can pick up the balance. Because those spots are so highly competitive, sometimes having a friend in the right place to put in “a good word” helps. To the extent that race and class are correlated in the United States and to the extent that social networks in United States culture still remain largely racially segregated, that’s going to affect the identities of the people who end up in those critical internships and in the GMs that they become in 10 years.
Teams may also want to look into where they are doing their recruiting. We found earlier that only 44 percent of front office workers (in our AL-only sample) had attended a public or state-funded college, compared to 73 percent of students nationally who attend those colleges (whether that reflects specific recruiting or something else is unclear). We know that students at private, not-for-profit schools are 73 percent white, while those at state-funded public colleges are 65 percent white. If there is a subtle bias toward those who attended private schools, then it will again skew the applicant pool. This is where programs like the MLB Diversity Pipeline Program come in handy, identifying candidates who are interested and talented, and introducing them to teams.
Nightengale’s reporting makes much of the Indians' “tree” that has formed over the past few years, with multiple GMs able to trace their lineage back to their time at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario in downtown Cleveland. I don’t know that there’s anything that can actually be done about that. In the absence of data, it’s reasonable to look at people who have spent time in what is widely regarded as a well-run organization. But if everyone is picking fruit from the same tree, then everyone’s going to end up with the same flavor of jelly, and we’re not ready for that.
We have previously argued that one possible way teams can stagnate is through not encouraging diversity of thought. Maybe a good policy--one that would be completely unenforceable, but it could be a voluntary measure--could be a rule that teams would commit to interviewing someone who was well outside their own comfort zone thought-wise. It’s an exercise in thinking critically about where that comfort zone is and whether it’s a good zone. Does that zone rule anyone else out, including ruling people out by race, even if unintentionally? If it’s ruling out someone based on race, is it also ruling out people who would bring good ideas to the team?
Building a Business Case
What it really comes down to, though, is why should they care? In many cases, the style of hiring that teams are used to has had decent-to-great results, with the best-case scenario being the two front offices that just made the World Series. As we discussed in our previous work, there are studies that suggest in the “outside” business world, increased diversity in the workplace does lead to higher success for the company, but there have been no such studies in the small and rarefied world of baseball. However, it’s hard to believe that baseball would be some sort of weird exception.
As it is, that’s the case we have to make. We recognize that there are people reading this article who have many different opinions on the concept of what is commonly called “affirmative action.” When you start talking about race and who gets hired for what job, it’s bound to open up a rather large can of worms. The thing about baseball is that the league has no ability to mandate that the teams hire anyone. So, if MLB (or any of the readers out there) want to make the case that increasing the number of racial and ethnic minorities in the front office is a good goal, they’ll have to make the case that it’s a good business decision. Maybe that was the entire point of the Selig Rule: to nudge people out of their comfort zone a little bit.
There isn’t an easy answer that goes with this one, and that’s not a cop out. These are really complex issues. We can see that the Selig Rule “worked” to at least a small degree, but past that, there’s not a lot that MLB can actively do on the matter, and if we’re talking about GMs, then the effects of whatever they do come up with might not be felt for another decade. As frustrating as a conclusion as that might be, that’s the way things are right now. But it’s also an opportunity.
To echo a point we made in our previous work, if a team’s hiring practices are (unintentionally) screening people out based on demographics, are they also systematically screening people out who have brilliant ideas? More than anything, I think that’s the argument that would win the day.
 The irony is not lost on us that one of the authors of this article is a 30-something, statistically-savvy, Caucasian guy who used to work for the Indians.
 Sadly, in baseball’s history, there once was.
 Data here are gathered from the appendix of the 2016 Report
 This includes now-former Diamondbacks General Manager Dave Stewart, who was fired at the end of the 2016 season.
 According to the report, this included Assistant GMs, Department Directors, as well as officers such as the chief legal counsel and CFO.
 The earliest available data on this was from 2001, when 15% of senior administrators were people of color.
 Teams generally disclose whom they interview for major positions, and anecdotally, we see that most do follow the Selig Rule. Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated his support for continuing the practice.
 It feels wrong to consign the gender divide to a footnote, but much of the criticism we’ve levied at Major League Baseball over racial diversity also applies to increasing gender diversity in the halls of power. Women hold so miniscule a number of important positions in major league front offices that it’s easy to forget that there are any of them, and that’s not exactly a great thing. While those recruiters are looking outside their Caucasian, business-school box, they should also be considering qualified, not-male, candidates.
Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @pizzacutter4