Families in the Dominican Republic are now swapping identities in an effort to disguise the ages of Major League Baseball prospects, according to Baseball America’s Ben Badler. This latest passage in the game of birthday hide-and-seek between baseball and Latin American players comes in response to MLB’s having begun to test the DNA of some prospects to verify their identities, which was a response to players having started trading birth records and life stories with other men to shave a year or two off their ages. (That trick lead to some strange headlines as fans learned, for instance, that “Fausto Carmona is Not Fausto Carmona.”) If baseball teams want to see a DNA match between mother and son, the players have concluded, we’ll show them a match.
It’s a rational move. By appearing a year or two younger, a player stands to gain millions in a signing bonus. It’s also a desperate move. It’s hard to imagine even the most zealous Little League mom in the U.S. forfeiting any public claim to her son.
In the four decades since the Los Angeles Dodgers sent Ralph Avila to scour the Dominican Republic for talent, grooming players has grown into a $125 million industry and signing bonuses have reached as high as $5 million. Baseball is now searching for a way to protect that investment from systemic fraud. But how do you know how old someone is when you can’t trust the public record? And how much is it worth to find out?
Baseball is not alone in struggling with the problem. Olympic competitors, for instance, have ducked age minimums. And historians and forensic investigators have long searched for a reliable way to test for age. But while we can map an entire human genome for $5,000, there still is no precise test for age. The difficulty, says David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is that “we age at different rates and there is no standard clock in our bodies that would just tell you.” The best available method involves looking at the color, wear, and gum retraction of teeth. “If you can pull out a tooth, look at the color of the root,” says Sinclair, “but I don’t think that’s likely.” And that method, he says, gets you only within 2.4 years. The simplest test, by the way, is to pinch the skin on the back of your hand. If it snaps back instantly, you are a baby. If it takes a half-second or so, you are middle aged. And if it hangs there for a bit, you’re old.
If human growth and decay don’t follow the calendar, could we just throw out the calendar and measure how much growing and decaying a person has done some other way? Isn’t that what baseball teams really want to know anyway—how much juice a guy has left in the tank? This, says Sinclair, can be easily done. “To measure somebody’s biological abilities, look at the activity of the battery packs in their cells, their mitochondria,” he says. Testing this requires a tiny sample of skin or muscle and, in a matter of days, returns results that “are probably more valuable than real age” for assessing fitness and predicting how much energy someone has. Problem solved: Test every player. Give each a standardized score. Call it the Baseball Battery Pack. And never get fooled again.
Not so fast, says J.C. Bradbury, an economist, associate professor at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University, and bona fide stathead. In a 2009 study in the Journal of Sports Science, Bradbury found that professional baseball players peak at about age 29. (Conventional wisdom, going back to work by Bill James, had said 27.) More important for the problem of evaluating prospects, Bradbury described the typical arc of a player’s career. “Think of it as an inverted U, like going over a rounded mountain,” he says. The slope is steeper toward the beginning, which means a team can expect more improvement to happen over the two years from 16 to 18 than from 18 to 20; that means expectations for players aged 16 and 18 with identical capabilities differ dramatically.
Bradbury can trace this path because so many have followed it. His study includes players going back to 1921. But while we know that Mickey Mantle was 29 during his 1961 season, we have no idea what his mitochondria looked like. So proxies for age won’t help a scout locate a player on his trip over the mountain. And this is a key factor in assigning value. What a team wants to know is when a player is likely to be major league ready. The earlier he arrives, the better the expected production. Since players can’t become free agents until they have played for six seasons, that first production comes cheapest, at a fixed cost of about $500,000 a year.
Bradbury has sorted in dollars what teams can expect from players, based on when they arrive at different stops through the minor leagues. The number reflects the marginal revenue a player brings to a team by contributing to its win total. “If you’re in triple A and you’re 24 years old, your expected value as a player over your career is around $700,000. But if you are 23, you are worth about $1.5 million. If you’re 22, you’re worth over $2 million,” he says. “And if you’re 20 years old, you’re probably looking at a $4.5 million player.” These are the numbers teams consider when they calculate signing bonuses, and it’s the source of the huge incentive for players to lie about their age.
Beyond DNA testing, MLB has tried to contain the problem by assigning Sandy Alderson (who has since moved on to a different mess in Queens) to reform the buscones, or street agents, who control most of the talent in Latin America. It has also added a tax for teams that spend more than $3 million to sign international free agents and is also working on instituting a draft for international players—like the one that covers players from the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico—with the aim of cutting down on indiscriminate spending by wealthy teams. The problem with blanket cost-cutting measures, however, is that they may cut down on the number of young men willing to put in the time to get good. When Puerto Rico was added to the draft, the number of players emerging from the island plummeted. The Dominican Republic currently supplies 10 percent of major leaguers, with Venezuela kicking in seven percent.
“Really, the solution is for some of these poorer Latin American countries to become wealthy so they keep better records,” says Bradbury. In the meantime, the age of any Latin American player is open to suspicion. At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past year, a panel of six baseball insiders and experts were asked to anonymously guess the age of Dominican-born Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols. All but one pegged Pujols’s age as something other than his listed age of 32.