May 5th, 1862
Cinco de Mayo
That's the first Cinco de Mayo (which translates of course, as "Fifth of May") when Mexican forces defeated a French expeditionary force to temporarily halt the invasion of Mexico by the French. It remains today a national holiday in Mexico, and in its honor, I thought I would give Mexico the same treatment I gave Italy a couple of weeks back.
Unlike Italy, which produced just six native-born Major Leaguers, Mexico has had nearly a hundred, a boundary it will probably cross with September call-ups this year. Interestingly, the two best Mexican hitters of all time are both active at this moment. The younger is Oakland's Erubiel Durazo, who at age thirty is currently hitting .258/.339/.412 for the Oakland A's. The A's are obviously hoping that Durazo can come closer to his career form of .283/.384/.492, which included an impressive 136 OPS+ (good for ninth in the league) last year. Mexico's other best hitter is thirty-seven year old Vinny Castilla. Castilla has a career .280/.324/.489 line, obviously boosted by his years at Coors Field. Castilla and Durazo make an interesting example of park effects, in that Castilla's 1998 (.319/.362/.589) was actually a lower OPS+ (which adjusts for park) than Durazo's 2004 (.321/.396/.523). Castilla actually has an OPS+ of below league average for his career, but was a valuable player during his time in Colorado and does offer exceptional defense at the hot corner. Whether he or Durazo will ultimately be remembered as the best Mexican hitter is largely a matter of how much weight one gives Castilla's defensive advantage and how much one deducts from Castilla for playing in the Colorado launching pad. At the moment, I give the nod to Durazo, but we'll see how he handles being on the wrong side of thirty.
When it comes to Mexican pitchers, there have been lots. Some of whom look like they might turn out pretty good (Oliver Perez), some who've had up-and-down careers (Esteban Loaiza), some good relievers (Aurelio Lopez) but ultimately, when it comes to Mexican pitchers, if you don’t discuss Fernando! you're just wasting your breath. Fernando Valenzuela debuted for the Dodgers as a nineteen year-old in September of 1980. He appeared in ten games--all in relief--and didn't allow a run. The next season, the Dodgers put him in the rotation and Fernandomania was born. He won his first ten starts, including shutouts in five of his first seven. Valenzuela's screwball--which he could throw at two different speeds--was devastating and his eight shutouts tied the rookie record, despite pitching in a season just 110 games long on account of the strike, and for good measure was the first rookie to win the Cy Young award. (Obviously, he won the Rookie of the Year too.) He pitched brilliantly in LA's victories over Houston and Montreal in the NLDS and NLCS, allowing just six runs in thirty one and two-thirds innings, good for a 1.70 ERA. He was slightly more mortal against the Yankees in the World Series, but threw a four-run complete game in Game 3, a crucial win for a Dodgers team down 0-2.
His performance on the field was only half the story however; Valenzuela's starts became an event in southern California. Dodger Stadium became a virtual Cinco de Mayo celebration every time he took the hill. He would continue to be exceptional for several years until the combination of his weight and the multitude of innings on his arm at a young age took their toll. Despite that, he managed to hang around until age thirty-seven and although his final numbers (173-153, 3.54) are relatively unimpressive, his Cy Young and Rookie of the Year award, not to mention six All-Star appearances in the first six years of his career testify to the talent he possessed.
So, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, Erubiel Durazo, Vinny Castilla and Fernando Valenzuela, sit back, have some chips and salsa and raise your margarita in a toast to Mexican ballplayers.