Do Cuban Pitchers Cause Attendance Spikes in Miami?

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:

Starter Attendance Games
Rick Helling 33,521 3
Kirt Ojala 31,270 4
Al Leiter 31,194 12
Kevin Brown 30,650 17
Livan Hernandez 29,869 10
Alex Fernandez 27,953 14
Tony Saunders 27,736 12
Pat Rapp 26,110 9

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?

Starter Attendance Games
Ryan Dempster 29,006 5
Kirt Ojala 26,354 6
Rafael Medina 25,278 5
Joe Fontenot 23,761 3
Jesus Sanchez 23,262 14
Livan Hernandez 22,683 17
Brian Meadows 20,862 17
Eric Ludwick 20,133 5
Andy Larkin 17,803 6
Felix Heredia 17,408 2
Chris Hammond 16,439 1

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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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Z.....
Guest
Z.....
3 years 3 months ago

He hasnt pitched above A ball, so I dont like rushing him and I also dont like starting his service time now when there isnt a reason for it. Even waiting a few weeks means we keep him under control for an extra year. Plus his agent is Scott Boras so we probably wont be able to afford him after the 6 years, likely meaning that this type of rebuild will eventually happen again. Starting his service time now may mean that he’ll already start being expensive by the time we’re competing again. I just dont like the whole thing.

chuckb
Member
chuckb
3 years 3 months ago

The Marlin’s plan to trade him before he reaches free agency, probably in year 4.

chuckb
Member
chuckb
3 years 3 months ago

Marlins.

My stupid Kindle must’ve added that apostrophe.

jfree
Member
jfree
3 years 3 months ago

Seems like a marketing opportunity to me. The current policy of “wet foot dry foot” isn’t working that well. So change it to “dry foot free tickets” and broadcast it on Radio Marti.

rubesandbabes
Guest
rubesandbabes
3 years 3 months ago

The supposed data here is very old, and arbitrary. Pretty much when one wants to go all race-sensitive in the baseball fandom ideal, it’s just a lot better to bring an A-game.

Dave Cameron – you found Rick Helling undervalued again!

This low attendance 2012 Marlin thing…

CS Yankee
Guest
CS Yankee
3 years 3 months ago

A-game or A-level pitcher?

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
3 years 3 months ago

It’s probably best to never believe the Marlins. My guess is this is a marketing decision, just a bad one.

Big Toucan
Member
Big Toucan
3 years 3 months ago

Of course there is more to analyze about these pitchers marketability than just the attendance when they pitch. I assume “Fernandez” jersey’s and t-shirts are going to be flying off the shelves in Miami.

Johnny Come Lately
Member
Johnny Come Lately
3 years 3 months ago

You’d have to be a serious optimist to buy Marlins gear right now. If I lived around there, I’d probably have no choice but to shamefully attend a game or two, but I sure as well would be proud of it and I definitely wouldn’t be broadcasting it by wearing brand new Marlins gear.

Johnny Come Lately
Member
Johnny Come Lately
3 years 3 months ago

*but I sure as hell wouldn’t be proud of it

Eric
Guest
Eric
3 years 3 months ago

They should bring back louis tiant to appeal to the retirees and cubans. What a joke this franchise has become

bothdakotas
Guest
bothdakotas
3 years 3 months ago

Has anyone done a data analysis of the Mariners (and teams like the mariners) that have one amazing starting pitcher, and then not much else?

Id like to know just how many people Felix Hernandez brings through the m’s turnstiles as opposed to Blake Bevan.

joser
Guest
joser
3 years 3 months ago

The trick is to do some actual marketing around the amazing starting pitcher. And by “marketing” I mean more than just a bobblehead and some radio ads. The Mariners invented the “King’s Court” (which apparently has become the Supreme Court this year in the wake of the perfect game) and marketed the heck out of it — and it does a good job of marketing itself every fifth home game. It was a masterful piece of work, not least considering that was one of the least-desirable corners of Safeco’s lower-tier seats which is now sold out every fifth game.

So you’d really need to compare teams that are actually marketing their one amazing starting pitcher with teams that just hope people know about him and show up to see him pitch. (And it sounds like Miami is doing the latter.)

Hank
Guest
Hank
3 years 3 months ago

– time the games started
– the day of the week
– the opponent
– the weather
– the time of year

These things all averaged out I guess?

par for the course
Guest
par for the course
3 years 3 months ago

You must be new to Dave’s analysis. This is pretty much as statistically rigorous as he gets

Jeffrey Loria
Guest
Jeffrey Loria
3 years 3 months ago

The fact that Livan Hernandez averaged 200 more people in attendance than the team average in 1998 was a primary factor in calling up Fernandez. The other primary factor is that we can re-use the “ernandez” letters from his jersey. That’s a savings of $1!

Phrozen
Guest
Phrozen
3 years 3 months ago

And they can use te old Florida Marlins’ logo for the Fs.

It’d be the most Marlins thing ever.

BillyF
Guest
BillyF
3 years 3 months ago

This was why the Yanks said to the media in 2009, they won’t need H.Matsui to boost up popularity in Japan (and attract J-corporations to sponsor or buy ads). Marketing is a funny thing. It’s like Bill James fighting the world back in 1970s. The decision makers always trusted instincts, tales, and the intangibles, even when data proved otherwise.

I.P. Freely
Guest
I.P. Freely
3 years 3 months ago

Miami just isn’t as primarily Cuban as it used to be either. Starting with the 80s much of the Cuban community started to move around and more Central/Latin Americans and the sort stepped into the void.

Miami is much more of a multi-national Latino community these days.

Scarface
Guest
Scarface
3 years 3 months ago

I know it’s hard to tell in print but we are pronouncing it “Coo-ba” right?

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan
3 years 3 months ago

I think another factor to consider was that in 1997 and 1998, the stadium the Marlins played in was 20+ miles in congested highway traffic from the predominantly Cuban neighborhoods. I think that comparing it to a stadium right near those neighborhoods is an unfair comparison.

joe
Guest
joe
3 years 3 months ago

Given the small sample sizes i would make sense to look compare pitchers to opponent since some opponents draw more than others and with a 5 man rotation+injuries, (+weekend games, etc.) there is not a good baseline

joe
Guest
joe
3 years 3 months ago

see hank’s comment above,

Jerry
Guest
Jerry
3 years 3 months ago

No, but sales of black beans and rice are off the charts!

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