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Mexico hopes its arms are stronger than bats

Team Mexico pitcher Jacob Sanchez throws during a 2017 World Baseball Classic exhibition game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports

MEXICO CITY -- If ever there was a turning point for associating Mexico with producing quality pitchers, it is squarely around the time of Fernandomania. After the dust settled from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 1981 World Series win against the New York Yankees, the performance of 20-year-old Fernando 'El Toro' Valenzuela was on the forefront. Valenzuela took home Cy Young and Rookie of the Year honors for his spectacular first full season.

During his career in Los Angeles, and later briefly in San Diego and other stops, the pitcher captured hearts and minds as he cobbled together a long, productive career. In his native Mexico, Valenzuela inspired a generation of future professionals and seemingly, directed scouts to look for their own phenom south of the border.

“I think our Mexican and Hispanic community has always liked baseball,” Valenzuela said in a recent interview with ESPN.

A total of 121 Mexican-born players have made their way into the big leagues since Mel Almada made his debut in 1933, according to Baseball Almanac. Before El Toro came on to the scene, fewer than half of the countrymen who preceded him played his position. But between 1981 and 1990, when Valenzuela played his best baseball, all but two of the Mexican-born players who came up to the major leagues were pitchers.

It is a trend that has continued to this day, as most of Mexico’s top exports can be found on the mound. Last season, history threatened to repeat itself when young Mexican starter Julio Urias burst onto the scene for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Urias, like Valenzuela, prompted waves of anticipation at the outset of his big league career.

“Something close to Fernando is Julio Urias,” Dodgers scout Mike Brito told ESPN in September. And Brito, the man who famously scouted both Valenzuela and Urias, has seen his share of pitching talent in his decades within the game.

The idea that Mexico is a nation rife with pitching talent is not one uniquely held within the United States. As the country gears up for its fourth consecutive World Baseball Classic, Team Mexico manager Edgar Gonzalez admits that production on the mound is the least of his worries.

“Mexico has always had great pitching,” he told ESPN Mexico last month. “I think this year is no exception. If you look at our staff, almost all of them are playing in Major League Baseball.”

During a recent media tour in the country, most questions directed at Gonzalez regarding pitching were far from hard-hitting, with only questions about Urias (he is on the roster but unlikely to compete due to concerns from the Dodgers) providing a challenge. Conversely, Mexico’s lack of offensive production in key spots will be the worry as the country faces a tough group in the first round of this year’s tournament. In its past five games in the World Baseball Classic, stretching back to 2009, Mexico has failed to score more than five runs in any contest, winning just one of those games and failing to move on from its group during the last edition in 2013.

Though Mexico has produced strong hitters in the past, Gonzalez is right in saying that pitching is a constant for the country. Other than Valenzuela inspiring subsequent generations with his success, there are many theories as to why the country’s prospects have taken to the position with alacrity.

“I think among other things, it’s easier because of the physical [constitution] of Mexicans,” said Mexican-American Pedro Gutierrez, a former youth baseball player and current radio play-by-play voice of the San Diego Padres in Spanish.

History would be quick to point that size, while important, isn’t a defining factor in determining success for a hitter (Erubiel Durazo, for instance, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, had less of a career than Vinny Castilla at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds), the game has shifted toward physical specimens in the steroid era and beyond.

“Mexico doesn’t produce many players of that certain size. You can be a smaller player and find success, but it’s not easier,” Gutierrez said.

Since Valenzuela found success, it has also become commonplace for budding ballplayers to develop a preference for the mound, which in turn prompts coaches and scouts to push further instruction for pitchers.

“There’s definitely more discipline, more preparation for young pitchers that’s just not there for hitters,” Gutierrez said.

While pitching usually begins at a later age for children learning the game in the United States, Gonzalez recalled that in his earliest playing days in Tijuana, he was seeing live pitches from the age of 4, a time when most kids north of the border are playing T-ball.

Whatever the reason, whether fully influenced by the search of a potential Cy Young winner or filtered toward the mound because of genetics, Mexico’s pitching prominence has yielded a bevy of serviceable Major Leaguers in the decades after Valenzuela.

This year’s WBC roster will feature All-Stars like Yovani Gallardo (Seattle Mariners), Joakim Soria (Kansas City Royals) and Sergio Romo (Los Angeles Dodgers) headlining, while younger standouts like Roberto Osuna (Toronto Blue Jays and a finalist for the Rookie of the Year award in 2015) will also get the chance to strut their stuff on the international level. If Team Mexico needs emergency help or advances to the second round, Marco Estrada (Toronto Blue Jays) and Urias could be called upon from the waitlist. Others still, like Jaime Garcia or Jorge De La Rosa, declined to participate altogether.

Despite Gonzalez’s assertions that Mexico’s offense will be up to snuff compared to other top nations, conventional wisdom dictates that their hopes will come down, once again, to how well their staff keeps opposing bats quiet, banking on their embarrassment of riches on the pitching side of the roster.

The trend will undoubtedly continue in the future. Even though Valenzuela has long been retired, the current population of Mexican-born players in the Major Leagues speaks for itself. Of the 22 currently listed as active in the majors, 18 are pitchers, a legacy Valenzuela seems to reflect on positively.

“If what I did in my career could contribute in any way, that’s something that makes me feel very happy,” he said.