How Good Is the Mexican League? — Part I: The Hitters
For those of you who follow minor league baseball, you probably know that organized baseball, i.e., the system of minor leagues controlled by MLB, treats the Mexican League (the one that plays during the summer months) as a third AAA league. I’ve had my doubts about this rating, since I have generally considered the Mexican League to be about the equivalent of the Independent-A Atlantic League, which claims to play AAA-caliber baseball, but is almost certainly much closer to AA ball, if not A+ ball.
My reasons for so believing are that the Mexican League and the Atlantic League appear to compete for a lot of the same players (those who have been bounced out of organized baseball due to a bad year in the high minors and advancing age) and are a source of players for the lesser East Asian leagues in South Korea and Taiwan (although South Korea’s KBO has been recruiting mostly AAA players with at least a little major league experience in recent years, much like Japan’s NPB).
Also, I have always assumed that all the best young players from the Mexican League are at this point in history vacuum-sucked into organized baseball, just as all the best young players elsewhere in the Americas are (Cuba excepted).
However, the success of Michel Abreu, a 34 year old Cuban, who currently appears to be leading NPB’s Pacific League in home runs with 17 (NPB’s English language website does not provide lists of league leaders, instead only providing the stats for position players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title), after spending the three previous seasons in the Mexican League, has me re-thinking what I thought I knew about the subject.
I decided to take a look at the top players in the Mexican League in recent years based on the top ten players in terms of OPS and ERA each year, figuring that this was a reasonably reliable proxy for offensive and pitching performance, and also in terms of where the players were from and their ages, which I then compared (at least in terms of ages) to the National League in recent years.
The players with Mexican League leading OPS numbers were overwhelmingly old and not Mexican. Of the 90 players to finish in the top ten in OPS between 2005 and the present, including what has been played of the 2013 season to date, only 37% of the top offensive performers were born in Mexico. The largest number of these players at 46% came from other Latin American countries (Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama, Puerto Rico and Cuba). U.S. and Canada born players made up 14% of these players, and Sharnol Adriana of Curacao (Dutch), who played some college ball at a small school in Tennessee and has much later had a long career in Mexico, rounded out the list.
These sluggers are overwhelmingly over age 30. In fact, 82% of the 90 OPS leaders since 2005 were age 30 or older in the years they finished in the top ten, only 13% were in the prime years of 26 to 29 and only 4% were 25 or younger. By comparison, since 2008 and including 2013 so far, 25% of the NL’s OPS leaders have been 25 or younger, 47% have been between ages 26-29, and 28% have been age 30 or older. This strongly suggests that many, if not most, of the best young Mexican position players are quickly snapped up by Major League organizations and sent north to play in the U.S.
Only two players since 2005 have been in the Mexican League’s top ten in OPS under the age of 26, Japhet Amador and Jorge Vazquez, two slugging 1Bmen who each did it twice. There seem to be at least some reasons why neither has gone on to great success playing in the U.S.
Both milb.com (minor league baseball’s website) and Baseball America list Japhet Amador at an enormous 6’4″ and 315 lbs at his present age of 26. Wow!
There is some question as to Amador’s actual weight (baseball reference lists him as only as only 215 lbs). However, here is what appears to be his facebook page, and he looks pretty big. At any rate, he also appears to be pretty slow, having hit only six triples in 1,869 Mexican League plate appearances despite hitting for average and power, and he’s stolen only five bases in 12 career attempts. It’s still not clear, however, why no MLB organization tried harder to sign him after big years in 2010 and 2011 at age 23 and 24.
Jorge Vazquez is another very large player, currently listed at 5’11” and 25o lbs. He’s now 31. However, he did get an opportunity to play in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 at the ages of 28 and 29. He hit 50 HRs in 858 plate appearances mostly at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but he only walked 48 times, giving him low on-base percentages. He also struck out 269 times. Clearly, the Yankees felt he wouldn’t make contact often enough at the major league level to help them, particularly at his age. Again, it’s unclear why his shot in the U.S. didn’t come sooner.
It seems certain that many Latin American players who aren’t quite good enough to play in the major leagues and have become old for major league teams to hold at the AAA level are electing to finish their summer careers in Mexico, particularly if they don’t have any major league service time.
Players with major league service time can’t be paid less than $79,900 a year in the minor leagues as of 2013 under the current MLBPA collective bargaining agreement. This is certainly far more than players are making in the Mexican League, although it also creates an incentive for major league organizations to cut these players the moment the team thinks the player no longer has a reasonable shot at helping at the major league level in the future.
Players who never make the major leagues, however, make far less in the high minors and probably not much more than what these players can make in Mexico, where the money almost certainly goes much further. Further, many Latin players may prefer to play in a country where their native language is spoken and which has a culture more similar to their own.
At least a few of these top Mexican League sluggers look as if they could have continued to play in the International or Pacific Coast Leagues another couple of seasons, but elected to play in Mexico, possibly because their future careers would last a lot longer playing in Mexico. Quite a few players in Mexico play into their late 30’s and early 40’s, and the Mexican League, with its hot summer temperatures and numerous high elevation cities, is certainly a great league for hitters.
In Part II of this series, an analysis of Mexican League pitchers.