I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.
Who Are the Greatest MLB Players From Mexico?
Baseball has been a popular sport in Mexico for a very long time. From Mel Almada, who made his Major League debut in 1933, to more than a dozen players of Mexican descent who appeared in a game in 2020, the pipeline of baseball talent from Mexico to the United States has been a steady one. The country has, however, produced significantly more talent from the pitcher's mound than the batter's box over the years.
In this article, I'll count down the 10 best players in Major League Baseball history who were born in Mexico. I did not include players with Mexican heritage (such as Nomar Garciaparra) or players like Adrian Gonzalez, who was born in the United States but lived in Mexico for part of his childhood.
10. Ismael Valdez
- Birthplace: Ciudad Victoria
- MLB Years Played: 1994–2005
- Path to MLB: Signed by Dodgers as amateur free agent on June 14, 1991.
- Position: Starting pitcher
Ismael Valdez was a 17-year-old when the Dodgers discovered his talents in Mexico. After one season in the Los Angeles minor league system, Valdez was loaned back to the Mexican Leagues for two years of seasoning. Once back with the Dodgers, Valdez made the jump to the Majors in June 1994, and became a focal point of the rotation in 1995.
He was 28–18 with a 3.19 ERA over his first two Major League seasons, but he would only finish two other seasons of his 12-year career over .500. Valdez became well-traveled after spending his first six seasons with the Dodgers. He was traded to the Cubs in 2000, and played for five more teams before leaving the league in 2005. Prior to 2004, he used the spelling of "Valdes" for his last name.
In 2013, he made a brief comeback try with the Tigres de Quintana Roo of the Mexican League, but he was 1–1 with a 10.91 ERA in eight appearances.
9. Jorge Orta
- Birthplace: Mazatlan
- MLB Years Played: 1972–87
- Path to MLB: Purchased by White Sox on Nov. 30, 1971.
- Position: Second base/designated hitter
- Accolades: All-Star (1975 and '80), and World Series championship (1985)
In two seasons in a pair of Mexican Leagues, Jorge Orta hit a combined 23 home runs and had 104 RBI in 117 games, while recording averages of .423 and .362. That production drew the interest of the White Sox, who brought him across the border in 1971.
"He has more ability for a kid his age than anyone I've ever seen," said Johnny Sain, Chicago's pitching coach who observed Orta during the club's winter instructional league. "... He is so fluid, graceful and agile, and has that baseball sense you can't teach" (Langford, 1972).
Orta enjoyed a 16-year career and played for five teams. He hit .278 and scored 733 runs in 1,755 games. Orta was involved in one of the most memorable plays in baseball history—he was called safe at first base on a notorious missed call by umpire Don Denkinger during the 1985 World Series. He was inducted to the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.
8. Yovani Gallardo
- Birthplace: Penjamillo
- MLB Years Played: 2007–18
- Path to MLB: Drafted by Brewers in second round of 2004 MLB Draft
- Position: Starting pitcher
- Accolades: All-Star (2010) and Silver Slugger ('10)
Yovani Gallardo made a splash as a 21-year-old rookie in 2007, winning nine games for the Brewers and striking out nearly a batter per inning he pitched. A torn anterior cruciate ligament put his career on hold in 2008, but he returned to form a year later. From 2009–12, Gallardo was 60–38 with 915 strikeouts in 782 innings over 127 starts, and he held a 1.29 ERA in two starts of the 2011 National League Divisional Series against the Diamondbacks.
Gallardo left Milwaukee after the 2014 season, and played for four teams over the final four seasons of his career. One of his few highlights during that stretch of his career was a win in 2015 during the American League Divisional Series, which his Rangers lost to the Blue Jays.
He hasn't pitched since 2018, and has posted a 121–101 record with a 3.69 ERA and 1,584 strikeouts in 1,816 2/3 innings.
7. Joakim Soria
- Birthplace: Monclova
- MLB Years Played: 2007–present
- Path to MLB: Signed by the Dodgers as an amateur free agent on Oct. 21, 2001.
- Position: Relief pitcher
- Accolades: All-Star (2008 and '10)
Before becoming a premier closer in the Major Leagues, Joakim Soria was a starter who pitched a perfect game in 2006 in the Mexican Pacific Winter League. A year later, he debuted with the Royals as one of the top rookie pitchers in baseball, and by 2008, he was an All-Star with 42 saves and a 1.60 ERA. Soria had a 30-save season in 2009, and then recorded 43 saves and a 1.78 ERA in 2010—the last great season of his career.
Soria required Tommy John surgery and missed all of the 2012 season, and has played for seven teams between 2013 and '20 in a mixture of relief and closing roles.
Among Mexican-born pitchers, he has appeared in the most games (732) and recorded the most saves (223). His 791 strikeouts are the most among pitchers who strictly pitched in relief.
6. Esteban Loaiza
- Birthplace: Tijuana
- MLB Years Played: 1995–2008
- Path to MLB: Signed by the Pirates as amateur free agent on March 21, 1991
- Position: Starting pitcher
- Accolades: All-Star (2003 and '04)
Over the first eight seasons of Esteban Loaiza's career, he was a dependable starter who finished near the .500 mark every season for three teams. When he joined the White Sox in 2003, however, it seemed to change everything for him.
Loaiza enjoyed the best season of his career that year. He started the 2003 All-Star game for the American League and led the league with 207 strikeouts. Loaiza won 21 games to match Fernando Valenzuela's single-season record for a Mexican-born pitcher and finished as the runner-up in Cy Young Award voting. He was 9–5 in the first half of 2004 before getting traded to the Yankees.
Loaiza never again repeated his Chicago success before retiring after the 2008 season. He won 126 games in the Major Leagues, second to Valenzuela among Mexican-born pitchers. He also struck out 1,382 hitters in a 14-year career.
5. Aurelio Rodriguez
- Birthplace: Cananea
- MLB Years Played: 1967–83
- Path to MLB: Purchased by the Angels on Aug. 12, 1966.
- Position: Third base
- Accolades: Gold Glove (1976)
Aurelio Rodriguez was known as one of the top defensive third basemen of his time, but only won a single Gold Glove award because Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson gobbled up most of the honors during Rodriguez's prime. Rodriguez debuted at 19 years old in 1967 and became a regular by 1969. From there, he built a solid 17-year career that saw him play more than 2,000 games.
Rodriguez came up with the Angels but spent the bulk of his career with the Tigers (9 seasons) and helped the Yankees make back-to-back postseason appearances in 1980 and '81. In the 1981 World Series, Rodriguez hit .417 but the Dodgers claimed the championship. Throughout his career, he was only a .237 hitter but a .964 fielding percentage made him a valuable asset.
Following his playing career, Rodriguez became a manager in the Mexican Leagues. He won a championship there in 1991, and was elected to the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.
4. Teddy Higuera
- Birthplace: Los Mochis
- MLB Years Played: 1985–94
- Path to MLB: Purchased by the Brewers on Sept. 13, 1983.
- Position: Starting pitcher
- Accolades: All-Star (1986)
Teddy Higuera made a name for himself as soon as he joined the Brewers, but a late start age-wise and injuries eroded what could have been a superstar career. Higuera was late to spring training in 1984 due to immigration issues at the U.S./Mexico border, but made a name for himself with a strong camp and nearly made the team. Instead, he debuted in 1985 as a 27-year-old rookie and went 15–8 to finish as the runner-up in American League Rookie of the Year voting.
Higuera went 54–30 in 100 starts over the next three seasons. That included 20 wins in 1986, when he finished second in Cy Young Award voting and made his only All-Star appearance. In that All-Star game, he was struck out by fellow countryman Fernando Valenzuela. Higuera had a career-high 240 strikeouts in 1987.
He had back surgery and ankle issues in 1989, and was never the same. A torn rotator cuff in 1991 forced him out of the entire 1992 season, and he only pitched in 25 more games before retiring after failing to secure a Major League roster spot for 1995. In nine seasons, Higuera posted a 94–64 record, and his .595 winning percentage is the best for a Mexican-born pitcher with at least 40 starts. He was inducted into the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
3. Vinny Castilla
- Birthplace: Oaxaca
- MLB Years Played: 1991–2006
- Path to MLB: Purchased by the Braves on March 19, 1990.
- Position: Third base
- Accolades: All-Star (1995 and 98), and Silver Slugger (1995, '97 and '98)
The greatest Major League slugger from Mexico is Vinny Castilla. His 320 career home runs are more than double any other Mexican-born player, and his single-season high of 46 homers actually betters the career totals of all but five players from Mexico. Castilla was one of the sluggers in Colorado's vaunted "Blake Street Bombers" and had three straight seasons with at least 40 homers from 1996 to '98. He was the best player acquired by the Rockies in the 1992 Expansion Draft.
After Castilla left Colorado in 2000, he bounced around the league. He played for the Rays (2000–01), Astros ('01), Braves (2002–03), Rockies ('04), Nationals ('05), Padres ('06) and Rockies ('06). He had a resurgence when he returned to Colorado in 2004, leading the National League with 131 RBI and hitting a career-high 43 doubles.
For his 16-year career, Castilla hit .276 with 320 homers and 1,105 RBI. He is the career leader in most offensive categories among Mexican-born players. Castilla served as manager for Mexico in the 2007 Pan-American Games and the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
2. Bobby Avila
- Birthplace: Veracruz
- MLB Years Played: 1949–59
- Path to MLB: Came to Indians from Mexican League before the 1948 season
- Position: Second base
- Accolades: All-Star (1952, '54 and '55)
The first star player in the Major Leagues from Mexico was Bobby Avila, who had an 11-year career and initially drew interest from the Dodgers. Avila ultimately came to the Indians in 1948, debuted in the Majors in 1949 but didn't become a regular until 1951. He took full advantage of the starting second base job, hitting .304 and finishing 10th in that season's MVP voting. The next year, he was an All-Star for the first time and led the league in triples.
In 1954, Avila was a critical member of the American League champion Indians. He led the league with a career-high .341 average and was third in MVP voting (though he did struggle in the World Series, going just 2 for 15 in four straight losses to the New York Giants).
Throughout his career, Avila hit .281 with 80 home runs and 35 triples. He spent his first 10 seasons in Cleveland before spending parts of the 1959 season with Orioles, Red Sox and Milwaukee Braves. He was inducted into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, and after his days in MLB, he became the Mexican League President and was involved in Mexico's national legislature.
1. Fernando Valenzuela
- Birthplace: Navojoa
- MLB Years Played: 1980–87
- Path to MLB: Purchased by the Dodgers on July 6, 1979.
- Position: Starting pitcher
- Accolades: Cy Young Award (1981), Rookie of the Year ('81), All-Star (1981–86), Silver Slugger ('83), and Gold Glove ('86)
The most distinguished player to hail from Mexico is Fernando Valenzuela. An eccentric starter, Valenzuela's popularity launched "Fernandomania" when he rose to superstardom in 1981. That's when he posted complete-game victories for the Dodgers in his first eight starts (including five shutouts). The 20-year-old finished that strike-shortened season at 16–9 with a league-high eight shutouts and 180 strikeouts to become the only pitcher in history to win the Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year honors in the same season.
The left-handed phenom made six straight All-Star teams from 1981 to '86, led the league in complete games three times and established the single-season record among Mexican-born pitchers with 21 victories in 1986. In the late '80s, Valenzuela dealt with shoulder injuries that derailed his career. He was released by the Dodgers after spring training in 1991, and bounced around with five other teams until he retired after 17 seasons in 1997 (in 1992, he pitched in Mexico).
During his career, Valenzuela was 173–153 with 113 complete games (31 shutouts). He also had 2,074 strikeouts. Valenzuela was a member of the coaching staff for Team Mexico in several World Baseball Classic tournaments. He was inducted into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014, and the Mexican League retired his jersey number (34) in 2019.
Though the best Mexican-born players are featured above, here a few more worth mentioning.
Born in Agua Priet, Sid Monge was a solid reliever for 10 seasons (1975–84). Monge finished his career at 49–40 with 56 saves. He is a member of the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, and was an All-Star in 1979.
Roberto Osuna became a closer as a rookie and developed into one of the top finishers in Major League Baseball. Through his first six seasons, Osuna has 155 saves with a 2.74 ERA. He was an All-Star in 2017.
While never a superstar, Armando Reynoso provided solid pitching throughout a 12-year career. He was the ace of the inaugural Colorado Rockies in 1993, and recorded a career mark of 68–62 with a 4.74 ERA. He was inducted into the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Francisco Cordova combined with fellow-countryman Ricardo Rincon to combine for a 10-inning no-hitter in 1997. Cordova was 11–8 that season for the only winning season of his career. Over five years with Pittsburgh (1996–2000), he went 42–47 with a 4.02 ERA. He pitched in the Mexican League from 2002 to '11.
Who Was the First Mexican MLB Player?
Mel Almada was the first Mexican-born player to appear in a Major League game.
Almada was a standout for the Seattle Indians in the Pacific Coast League, and was plucked from there by Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins on July 8, 1933. Almada debuted on Sept. 8, 1933, and hit his first career home run on Sept. 23, 1933—joining Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as players to homer that day in a 16–12 Yankees victory.
Almada spent seven seasons in the Major Leagues (also with the Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns and Brooklyn Dodgers) and hit .284.
How Many MLB Players Are From Mexico?
There were 15 players from Mexico who appeared in a Major League game in 2020—including seven players who made their debut.
According to Baseball-Reference, there have been 136 players born in Mexico to appear in the Majors.
How Many Players Have Been Inducted Into Salón de la Fama del Beisbol Profesional de México?
There have been 199 players inducted into the Salón de la Fama del Beisbol Profesional de México (Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame).
The first five inductees were enshrined in 1939—Leo Najo, Fernando Barradas, Antonio Delfin, Lucas Juarez and Julio Molina—but the second class wasn't inducted until 1964.
More recently, the museum had a hiatus in inductees as the original museum closed. The inductees for the Class of 2014 were given a ceremony in 2019.
Langford, George. "White Sox, Allen Near Agreement," Chicago Tribune. Feb. 23, 1972. Page 56.
© 2021 Andrew Harner