Pros and cons of Mexico City as the next home of an MLB team
Pros and cons of Mexico City as the next home of an MLB team
At the All-Star Game FanFest last week, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred mentioned Mexico City (along with Montreal and Charlotte) as possible long-term recipients of an expansion team, just as he had the previous spring (when he announced plans to open a Mexico City office and identified Mexico City and Montreal as “personal [front-runners]”), as well as in October 2015, when he visited Mexico and talked up its potential as a new location for the league. Manfred’s latest spoken overture to Mexico City comes on the heels of a report from earlier this month — since confirmed by executive director of the MLB Players Association Tony Clark — that the Padres and Dodgers could play a regular-season series at Estadio Fray Nano next April, which Manfred has mentioned as a crucial step on the path to a more regular presence.
Mexico City makes sense as a site for a few reasons, so it’s only logical for Manfred to keep the option alive. First, it’s enormous, with the largest metropolitan population (roughly 21 million) of any North American city, with the possible exception (according to some sources) of New York. Second, it’s a largely untapped market. As Manfred told Jayson Stark in an ESPN story last year, “a team in Mexico opens up the Mexican television market, which is significant in ways that are much broader than the arrangements that we have there now.” He also noted that a team based in Mexico would “help us improve the flow of Mexican players into Major League Baseball,” which would in turn “help us in the Hispanic market in the United States.” (Only 13 Mexican-born players have appeared in the majors this season.) And with the closest MLB team roughly 1,000 miles from Mexico City, no major league owners would be up in arms about a new club cutting into their share of local attendance.
The downsides are equally obvious, though. That great distance from the nearest MLB teams would also mean more travel. Safety would be a concern: Although the city’s official crime and murder rates aren’t out of line with domestic tallies, that could be due to rampant underreporting, and violence across Mexico (including suburbs of Mexico City) has made 2017 one of the country’s deadliest years since the peak of the government’s crackdown against the cartels. Whatever the true figures, the perception of danger could hurt a Mexico City franchise’s chances of persuading players to move south.
“The safety aspect I don’t think could be guaranteed,” says former major league pitcher Todd Coffey, who played for the Diablos Rojos for part of 2015 before, he tells me via phone, he and the team mutually decided to part ways. “And I think that would play a big mind in having your family there. Put it this way, when I played, I didn’t bring my kids, at all. I wouldn’t do it. … That would be, I think, the biggest hurdle, that I don’t see [Manfred] being able to convince the union and players that it’s a good thing.” Coffey also cites the language barrier as a disincentive for U.S. players, saying that his time in Mexico City turned the tables and gave him “a culture splash of what the Dominican players feel like when they first come over to the states and play ball.”
What’s more, although Mexico City is packed with potential ticket buyers, the route to financial success for a new team might not be as smooth as it seems. Baseball ranks behind soccer and boxing in popularity among Mexico City sports, and the Diablos Rojos, who were founded in 1940, have already earned the loyalty of local fans, who would have to divide their attention between an MLB franchise and the 16-team Mexican League, which is predominantly populated by Mexican players.
“The atmosphere for baseball is big, but I think it’s more big because it’s the local teams,” Coffey says. “I think they enjoy baseball, but I think the fact that there’s very [few] Mexican players that are in the major leagues … would definitely do a disservice for [Manfred’s] idea of expanding down there for baseball.” And while the city proper is wealthy compared with many American cities, the metro area is comparatively poor, an income inequality that could curtail the team’s effective fan base.
Compared with those problems, concerns about altitude might seem easy to surmount. From a statistical perspective, though, nothing makes Mexico City more fascinating — and, for anyone who believes that baseball is already overly reliant on dingers, potentially problematic — than the thin air that helped power the Padres’ 21-run salute. Mexico City sits 7,380 feet above sea level, more than 2,000 feet higher than Denver. If you think Coors Field inflates offense or that the league’s current record home run rate is high, the addition of a Mexico City franchise would force another recalibration of your baseball beliefs.
Physics of baseball expert Alan Nathan estimates via email that the air density in Mexico City is only 76 percent relative to sea level, compared with 82 percent at Coors. According to Nathan’s calculations — holding all else equal except altitude — a “standard long fly ball” with a 103 mph exit speed and a 27.5 degree launch angle would travel 398 feet at sea level. At Coors, it would fly 427 feet. And in Mexico City, it would cover 438 feet. “The balls fly,” Coffey confirms. “It would be the highest home run ballpark ever.”
Tadeo Varela, a statistical analyst for the Toros De Tijuana — who, like the Diablos Rojos, play in the North Division of the Mexican League — sent me the Diablos Rojos’ home/road slash lines from 2015–17, the three seasons that the team has spent at Estadio Fray Nano. Despite the symmetrical park’s wide expanses of foul territory and reasonable fence distances (325 feet to left and right, 410 to center), the Diablos Rojos have hit far better at home.
According to Varela, the team averaged 6.26 runs per game at home and 4.53 runs per game on the road over those three years, for a park factor of 1.38 (that is, the park increased scoring by 38 percent). Brian Cartwright, the creator of the Oliver projection system, sent me his three-year factors for Fray Nano relative to the rest of the Mexican League, which tell a similar story, including a 1.41 factor for home runs and a 1.29 factor for singles. One could, of course, build a ballpark with more distant fences to suppress homers, but that would only invite more balls to fall in front of outfielders.
To make matters worse, Fray Nano decreases strikeouts (.88 park factor), probably due to decreased pitch movement in the city’s thin air. Through some combination of altered movement and flat-out fear of throwing strikes, it also tends to supply more free runners who can come around to score on the inevitable home runs, posting park factors of 1.11 for walks and 1.25 for hit by pitches. These combined effects force pitchers to shy away from their strengths. “I had to do different pitches for sure,” Coffey says. “The sliders didn’t break as hard, so it’s more like a cutter. And then your sinker doesn’t sink as much, so you throw more four-seamers, which is what makes the home runs happen a lot more.”
Here’s the frightening part. All of those park factors are relative to the league — and the league itself inflates offense. The Mexican League includes six parks at elevations higher than 3,000 feet, most of them higher than 5,000 feet. That means that many of the road parks to which we’re comparing Fray Nano are themselves launching pads, which makes Fray Nano’s effect appear more modest. Sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman estimates that the Mexican League, relative to MLB, has a league factor of approximately 1.09. Multiply Fray Nano’s 1.38 park factor for runs scored by that 1.09 league factor, and you get 1.50 — Lichtman’s best guess as to what its park effect would be in MLB. By comparison, he estimates the park factor of Coors Field as between 1.30 and 1.40.