Any discussion of the best Mexican-born pitchers in Major League history starts with Fernando Valenzuela.
The left-hander’s numbers speak for themselves: Valenzuela is the all-time leader among Mexican-born hurlers, and by a healthy margin, in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games, shutouts and pitchers’ WAR (Baseball-Reference). He’s the only one of his countrymen to win a BBWAA year-end award, capturing both NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young honors in 1981 as a Dodger, the year of “Fernandomania” in Los Angeles and beyond.
1) Fernando Valenzuela (1980-97)
Career highlights: Cy Young winner, Rookie of the Year winner, six-time All-Star, World Series champion
After having his contract with Leones de Yucatán of the Mexican League purchased by the Dodgers on the recommendation of legendary scout Mike Brito, Valenzuela set the baseball world on fire in 1981, when he won his first eight decisions, including five shutouts. One of his main weapons was a screwball, taught to him as a Minor Leaguer by then-teammate Bobby Castillo.
Valenzuela finished his first season (a strike-shortened campaign) with a 13-7 record in 25 starts and led the league with 180 strikeouts and eight shutouts. His impact that year went beyond the numbers, as he galvanized the Dodgers’ fan base in Los Angeles with the phenomenon of “Fernandomania.”
“I don’t think there has been a player that I remember that has energized a community like Fernando, and not just the Latino community,” said Ford C. Frick Award winner Jaime Jarrín, the longtime Dodgers Spanish-language radio announcer who was at Valenzuela’s side as an interpreter during that memorable ‘81 season. “It was a phenomenon that was not just here in Los Angeles. Fernando extended an interest in baseball from Southern California to the whole nation.”
That October, the Dodgers defeated the Astros, Expos and the Yankees to win the World Series. Valenzuela provided three key performances in that playoff run.
“He never got nervous. I never saw him nervous,” Brito said. “That’s what always impressed me. I said, ‘That kid has ice in his veins.’”
In a 17-year career with the Dodgers and five other clubs, Valenzuela had a record of 173-153 and a 3.54 ERA over 453 games (424 starts). He made six consecutive All-Star Game appearances from 1981-86 and is the only Mexican-born pitcher with more than 2,000 strikeouts (2,074). His 113 complete games are the most among his countrymen, as is his 37.4 WAR.
“It was a great honor to represent my country,” Valenzuela said. “If that helped for there to be more pitchers and Mexican players [in MLB], I’m happy about that.”
2) Teodoro “Teddy” Higuera (1985-91, ’93-94)
Career highlights: 1986 All-Star, runner-up for Rookie of the Year, runner-up for Cy Young
Higuera, signed out of Mexico by the Brewers in 1983, was one of the most consistent starters in the American League from 1985-88. During that stretch, the left-hander was 69-38 with a 3.25 ERA and an ERA+ of 132. In ‘86, he and Valenzuela became the first Mexican-born pitchers to win 20 games in a season. That year, Higuera was named to his only All-Star Game and finished second in the AL Cy Young Award vote.
Injuries began to take their toll in 1989, after which Higuera would start more than 25 games in a season just once. In a nine-year career, Higuera posted a record of 94-64, a 3.61 ERA for a 117 ERA+ and a pitching WAR of 30.3.
3. Joakim Soria (2007-11, ’13-current)
Career highlights: Two-time All-Star, twice achieved 42-plus saves in a season
Among Mexican-born relief pitchers to appear in MLB, Soria has forged the most impressive career so far. He leads his countrymen in saves (223), good for fourth among active pitchers.
After pitching a perfect game for Yaquis de Obregón in the Mexican Pacific Winter League, Soria was selected by the Royals from the Padres organization in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft. He recorded 17 saves in 2007 and established himself as Kansas City’s closer.
With stints as a setup man and closer for seven clubs, the current A’s reliever has appeared in more games (730) than any other Mexican-born pitcher.
4) Yovani Gallardo (2007-18)
Career highlights: All-Star, Silver Slugger winner
From 2009-15, Gallardo compiled a 93-70 record for the Brewers and Rangers, topping the 200-strikeout mark four years in a row and playing a key role Milwaukee’s 2011 NL Central championship club.
Among Mexican-born hurlers, Gallardo is second in strikeouts to Valenzuela with 1,584. He’s third in wins (121), third in games started (307) and fourth in innings pitched (1,816 2/3). Gallardo’s cumulative WAR of 19.1 ranks him fifth among his countrymen.
5) Ismael Valdez (1994-2005)
Career highlights: Five seasons with double-digit wins
Also signed by Brito for the Dodgers, Valdez is third behind Valenzuela and Higuera with a career WAR of 24.5. His 104 victories tie him with Jorge De La Rosa for fourth place among Mexican-born pitchers. From 1995-98, Valdez reached double-digits in wins. During that stretch he posted an ERA of 3.23 and an ERA+ of 120.
Esteban Loaiza is second all-time among his countrymen with 126 wins and one of only two Mexican-born pitchers with more than 2,000 innings pitched. … De La Rosa is tied with Valdez for fourth on the all-time wins (104) list among Mexican-born pitchers and finished a 15-year career with 1,273 strikeouts. … Oliver Pérez is currently second among Mexican-born pitchers in total appearances and pitching in his 18th MLB season.