When the Marlins announced their opening day rotation, there was one shocking last minute addition: 20-year-old Jose Fernandez. One of the top pitching prospects in baseball, there had been no talk about carrying him on the Opening Day roster, and he was one of the Marlins first cuts earlier in spring training. While he’s an intriguing talent, he also hasn’t yet pitched above A-ball, and the Marlins are rushing him to the big leagues in a season that is almost certainly not going to result in contention. So, why did they abruptly promote Fernandez to the big leagues?
One idea that has been kicked around is marketing. There is no franchise in professional sports with a bigger image problem than the Miami Marlins, and the second year of the team’s new stadium is expected to be filled with empty seats. The roster has been gutted and filled with replacement level journeyman grasping on to the last legs of their careers, so not only is the team not good, it’s not particularly interesting either. Giancarlo Stanton is about the only reason to go to the park and watch the team play.
Fernandez, though, should be highly marketable. Not only is he the Marlins best prospect and one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, he’s of Cuban descent, with a heartwarming backstory that includes four failed escape attempts and jail time during his time on the island. Miami (and surrounding areas) have the largest Cuban population in America, and the new ballpark is situated in the Little Havana neighborhood. If ever there was a chance for marketing synergy, having a Cuban refugee take the mound every fifth day would seemingly present that chance.
So, will Fernandez be a gate attraction for the Marlins? Is that why he’s in the big leagues to start the 2013 season? Let’s turn to the data.
Back in 1997, the Marlins acquired Alex Fernandez from the White Sox. Fernandez was born in Miami, but he’s of Cuban descent and had a similar heritage to many of the Cuban-Americans living in the Miami area. Fernandez was also joined by 22-year-old Cuban rookie Livan Hernandez in the rotation during the summer, so throughout the second half of the year, 40% of the Marlins rotation was of Cuban descent. The team was also pretty good that year, and they saw per game attendance increase from 21,565 in 1996 to 29,190 in 1997. An increase of 8,000 fans per game is a huge revenue boost, so there’s certainly evidence of increased fan interest in the 1997 Marlins, and perhaps the prominent Cuban pitchers played a role in bringing those extra fans to the park.
Thankfully, Major League Baseball tracks attendance per game, so this is a pretty easy thing to test. Here are the average per game home attendance figures for every starter the Marlins used in 1997:
Apparently Cubans really loved Rick Helling and Kirt Ojala. Or, you know, more likely, those two just happened to draw more weekend starts, or were the starters on some promotional day that inflated their totals. There are non-pitcher variables that affect attendance, and since we’re not capturing those, some variation is to be expected.
However, it’s hard not to notice that attendance was actually lower than the team’s season average when Hernandez and Fernandez took on the mound. If we were looking for evidence of an attendance spike related to the marketability of the two Cuban pitchers, it certainly isn’t obvious here. It’s certainly possible that Fernandez and Hernandez raised the profile of the team overall, but it would seem to require a bit of a leap of faith to say that the Cuban population in Miami was drawn to the franchise because of their acquisition but didn’t have any preference for which pitcher was throwing on the day they actually went to the ballpark.
But, you know, it’s still just a one year sample, and Livan Hernandez hadn’t really put himself on the map yet. It was his playoff performance that year — especially his two World Series starts that earned him MVP honors — that really put him on the map as a premier young pitcher and a Cuban hero. Attendance is a lagging indicator, so we’d really need to look at 1998 data to see if Cuban fans flocked to the ballpark to watch Hernandez pitch.
Except, of course, there’s one big caveat with the data. The Marlins had their first fire sale after the 1997 season, dumping Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Robb Nen, Devon White, Jeff Conine, and a host of others over the off-season. A month into the season, they dumped Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, and Charles Johnson. Attendance declined from an average of 29,190 down to 21,363, so they lost those 8,000 fans who came to the ballpark everyday during their successful 1997 run.
In some ways, though, this allows us to test a similar hypothesis. The idea that Fernandez is being called up as a marketing ploy requires that the Cuban population would be more interested in watching him pitch than they would be in staying away from the park in order to protest the off-season fire sale. In 1998, Cuban fans had the same choice — go watch Livan Hernandez pitch for a terrible team, or tell the ownership to go pound sand.
So, what does the 1998 data show?
Hey, look, it’s Kirt Ojala near the top again. Maybe fans in Miami really love lefty knuckleballers?
Anyway, Livan Hernandez is the guy we really care about here, since Alex Fernandez was injured and spent the entire year on the disabled list. And, again, we note that there’s no real evidence that the fans in Miami prioritized watching Livan pitch. Yes, his average attendance is marginally higher than the team’s overall average attendance, but that’s just a function of the fact that he got the Opening Day start, which drew 41,126 fans. If you eliminate Opening Day, his 16 other home starts resulted in an average attendance of 21,530 fans per game, or about 200 more fans per game than their total season average.
Attendance isn’t the only relevant data point for a player’s marketability, but you can bet that it’s a pretty good proxy for a starting pitcher. From the 1997/1998 data, there’s no real evidence that Miami fans flocked to the ballpark to watch either an established Cuban-American All-Star or a young Cuban phenom, either before or after he brought them their first World Series title.
While Jose Fernandez may have a very bright future indeed, there’s not really any reason to think that an unknown 20-year-old is going to have a significant positive boost on the Marlins 2013 attendance figures, even with his heritage. The Marlins say this is a baseball decision, not a marketing one. Based on this information, it’s probably best to believe them, because there’s not much reason to believe that Fernandez is actually going to make the 2013 Marlins any more marketable.
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