Why Do American-Born Players Dominate List of Most Popular MLB Jerseys?

Kyle Koster

Yesterday the list of the best-selling Major League Baseball player jerseys this season was released. Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs was at the top, becoming the first rookie and youngest player to have the most popular jersey since MLB started tracking sales in 2010. Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants were second and third, respectively.

Here’s the full list.

One thing that jumps out is the stranglehold white, American-born players have on the top. Andrew McCutchen is the only player of color to crack the top 10. The first Latin player doesn’t appear until David Ortiz at 14. This is not reflective of Major League Baseball’s demographics.

In 2015, Latinos accounted for 29.3 of the player pool while African Americans accounted for 8.3 percent.

A surprising recent study revealing 87 percent of bench-clearing incidents in baseball over the past five years have involved players from different ethnic backgrounds led many to wonder if there’s a deep cultural gulf on the field.  This look at fans’ purchasing habits raises questions if there’s a similar disconnect between those who play the game and those who pay to watch it.

There are several factors at play here.

First, there’s general skill and star power. More people want a Mike Trout jersey than an Erick Aybar jersey. The face of a franchise is going to outsell a middle reliever. But of the top 20 hitters in WAR this season (according to baseball reference), five are minority American-born players and three are Latin. None of those eight are in the top 20 in sales. Conversely, six of the top 12 remaining American-born players in WAR are on this list.

Market size is another consideration. Seventy-five percent of players represented play in major markets (McCutchen, Josh Donaldson, Todd Frazier, Carlos Correa and Felix Hernandez are the remaining five). The New York Mets (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard) are flush with young American talent. David Wright is the captain and most popular player. The same with marquee players in Washington (Bryce Harper), Chicago (Bryant and Anthony Rizzo) and Los Angeles (Trout and Clayton Kershaw).

The question becomes: is this merely a coincidence? Or is it a byproduct of how deep-pocketed organizations acquire young talent as opposed to the way penny-pinchers like the Houston Astros go about it?

Additionally, a player’s newness to his team and likelihood to be a long-term member play a role. Bryant’s top-seller status makes sense in this light. As a rookie and perceived building block for the future he has an advantage over, say, Yadier Molina, who has been with the St. Louis Cardinals since 2004. As with David Ortiz, most Molina fans who would buy a jersey of their beloved player have already bought one. We’ve seen this same phenomenon in NFL merchandise sales, where in the past, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Robert Griffin III have been ahead of established veterans like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers for short periods of time.

Perhaps most importantly, and harder to quantify is human beings’ proclivity to identify with those who look like them. In 2013, baseball television viewership was overwhelmingly white (83 percent). Major League Baseball has allocated significant resources toward expanding the game across racial lines. It’s possible the latest jersey data shows that’s not working. It’s possible it doesn’t.

The disparity doesn’t appear as striking when you look at the past few seasons.

Last year’s top-sellers after the All-Star break looks much different, and more consistent with the overall racial makeup of MLB.

As does the first half of 2013. The breakdown for 2011, however, shows a similar trend to the one currently occurring.

Cyclical or indicative of something more, it’s hard not to notice. Especially in light of Bud Norris’ comments and the recent conversation about race in baseball.

Time will tell if there’s truly something to this or if it’s a non-story. My gut says it’s the latter — and will bear out that way  –when next year’s information comes out.