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La Pelota Cubana: Volume 4, Pitch Like a Cuban

The first part in our series focusing on differences in play between MLB and Cuba. Today, we’ll examine some of the quirks of Cuban pitching.

World Baseball Classic- San Diego Day 2 Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

When you watch a domestic Cuban game, or watch the Cuban national team play, one of the first things you are struck by is how different Cuban pitching is from what we see at the major league level on a daily basis. Windups, arm slots, and pitch selection are all just a little off for the MLB fan. Today we will examine the art of pitching on the island, and discuss some of the ways that Cuban pitchers differ from their MLB counterparts, and why some of these differences in play arose, so that you too can know how to pitch like an islander.

The most obvious difference, though one that we will not examine in great detail here, is that velocity is much lower in Cuba than in MLB. While average fastball velocities rose to around 92mph, most Cuban pitchers lingered in the 85-90 range, with only a handful outstanding pitchers reaching into the mid or high 90’s. Although this represents an immensely important difference in terms of gameplay, we will not further discuss it, since it represents a simple statistical fact (an island of 11 million people can produce fewer flamethrowers than can a nation of 324 million, bolstered by the best from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, etc.), rather than an interesting difference in baseball philosophy.

With all that said, let’s dive in.

Drop Down Low

One of the most important mechanical components of pitching in the major leagues is the ability to repeat your arm slot and release point as consistently as possible from pitch to pitch. This repetition helps the pitcher maintain control and command of his pitches over the course of a long 162 game major league season.

In Cuba, however, pitchers are not only not required to consistently throw from a single arm slot, they are taught from the beginning of their careers to deliberately vary their arm angles based on a number of factors, including handedness of the batter, openness or closedness of the batter’s stance, and pitch selection. Take a look at Cuban ace Norge Luis Vera as he pitches against South Africa in opening round pool play of the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

You will have noticed that Vera is varying his arm angle radically over the course of this highlight. Look more closely, and you will see that he is varying it in response to the handedness of the batter. Compare the two still frames below.

Vera vs. LHB and RHB

Vera, a RHP, releases the ball somewhere between 34 and over the top when facing left handed batters, but often drops down into a low sidearm position when facing right handed batters. In doing so, he is able to maximize his advantage against same-handed batters, while at the same time minimizing his disadvantage to batters from the opposite side.

The impetus for this strategy clearly comes from the importance of tournament play, and therefore the optimization of players for small sample size, high variance baseball. Deception and trickery with arm angles is a strategy with clear drawbacks and diminishing returns in terms of rewards. While a shift of arm angles may fool a batter for an inning or a game, it is less likely to fool them in the next game, or the next series, or over the course of a 162 game season. And all the while, you have hampered your control and command for an advantage which is unlikely to persist beyond a few appearances against a given team.

However, if the important stretch of play in question is not a grueling 162 game season, but rather a 4-team round robin followed by a quarterfinal, semifinal, and final game, suddenly, the valuation of short term advantages versus longer term drawbacks shifts. If a trick of the arm can win you a game or two over the course of a short tournament, it becomes significantly less relevant that a team might figure you out in a future game you’ll quite likely never play.

Do The Twist

In the Major Leagues, we see pitchers with any number of varied different deliveries to the plate. Full windups, stretches, big leg kicks, slide steps, arm pumps, and even quick pitches (looking at you Johnny Cueto) are all on display at the major league level. In Cuba, deliveries are no less varied, but there is one characteristic element that almost every pitcher trained on the island shares: a twisting torque of the stride leg and torso at the peak of the leg kick.

Raisel Iglesias, José Fernández, Odrisamer Despaigne, Orlando Hernández, Aroldis Chapman, and Roenis Elías all displaying their corkscrew windup.

While many MLB players have torque to their delivery, the characteristic element of the Cuban twist is that it generally occurs as a second stage after the initial leg kick. The leg is lifted up, then brought backwards such that it is pointing diagonally away from home plate, exposing the back of the pitcher to the batter. Critically, this twist helps to conceal the ball from the batter, since the stride to the plate from this curled position must include a period of unwinding during which the ball is still concealed by the pitcher’s body.

As with the arm angle variation, this ball-counseling twist is designed to maximize short-term advantages over the course of tournament play. Young Cuban pitchers are instructed to develop their windup with such a twist by coaches developing them toward tournament play and hoping to scrounge up every possible advantage. While some pitchers eventually choose to abandon the twist, an overwhelming majority of Cuban pitchers retain this characteristic feature of their delivery such that, with enough practice, you can often identify pitchers who have been trained in Cuba simply by watching their windup.

Always Have a Trick Up Your Sleeve

In addition to the arm angle and the windup tricks, which almost all Cuban pitchers share, there is also a Cuban tendency to come up with special tricks and ploys to give them that extra edge in big games. For a simple example, let’s consider former Industriales and National Team pitcher Yadel Martí.

In this video, we see Martí pitching in 2011, following his departure from the island, for the Sacramento River Cats of the Pacific Coast League. Although he exhibits the characteristic curl, his delivery is otherwise quite smooth.

During the 2006 WBC, Martí was one of the starters for Cuba, and was slated to pitch the biggest game of the tournament to that point, a rematch against the vaunted tournament-favorite Dominican Republic, who had beaten Cuba 7-3 just a few days prior. Tasked with containing the powerful Dominicans, let’s see how Martí opened the game.

Notice that in contrast to his natural delivery, which the Dominicans had likely seen and scouted from his appearances against Panama, Netherlands, and Venezuela, Martí added a distinct pause to his delivery between raising his stride leg and twisting into his curl. In addition, Martí deliberately cut about 2-3 MPH from all of his pitches compared to his velocity for the rest of the tournament. Both tactics were obviously designed to interfere with the batting timing of the Dominican players. Now let’s observe Martí in the 4th inning of that game.

After opening the game with the added leg-kick pause and change in velocity, Martí then abruptly cuts the leg kick, and also begins working exclusively from the stretch, hoping that the Dominican players, having spent the first 4 innings attempting to adjust to his hesitation, will now find themselves again off-kilter by his much quicker, stream-lined delivery from the stretch.

In this case, Martí’s ploys payed off, as he was able to maneuver through 4.1 scoreless innings before giving way to the Cuban closer Pedro Luis Lazo.

Throw a Forkball

If a pitcher is going to succeed at a high level of baseball, whether it be at the Major Leagues, or big-time international tournaments, he’s likely going to need an out pitch against opposite-handed batters, and for many pitchers, that pitch is the changeup. However, a changeup is often amongst the most difficult pitches for a pitcher to learn and master. Even the great Tom Seaver once remarked of his changeup that he “worked on it for about five years.”

Cuba, a country of just over 11 million people, and lacking the abundance of flamethrowers present in the big leagues, can’t simply hope that enough pitchers will develop the fine touch feel required to throw a changeup that can consistently get opposite-handed batters out. Instead they teach a somewhat less effective, but much easier to learn pitch: the forkball.

In terms of grip, you may think of a forkball as a mix between a splitter and a changeup. It has the characteristic split-fingered grip of a splitter, but the fingers are pulled further apart, and the ball is held deeper in the hand towards the palm, like a changeup. Observe José Contreras’ forkball grip below.

Jose Ariel Contreras of Cuba stands on the mound
José Contreras displays a forkball grip while pitching for Cuba at the 2000 Olympic Games.

The forkball is thrown with a distinct snap of the wrist, causing the ball to slip from between the fingers with little to no spin, causing a distinctive tumbling action somewhat akin to a knuckleball, and even occasionally a screwball-like movement. Check out Danny Betancourt’s forkball in the clip below (the first pitch at 0:36, and again at 0:47).

Obviously, some Cuban pitchers, such as Orlando Hernández or José Fernández, do eventually develop a changeup and end up scrapping their forkball, but in general, the forkball is a common and rather unique element of pitching on the island.

In it for the Long Haul

The rise of specialized relief pitching has been one of the biggest changes in Major League baseball over the past ten to twenty years. Today, many teams carry dedicated single inning or single batter pitchers to help them navigate between their starters and the final out.

But in Cuba, things are quite different. Cuban pitchers are expected to continue pitching until they lose effectiveness. Sometimes, this means that pitchers will throw well over 100+ pitches in a game, but likewise, it sometimes means they will be removed after only a few innings if they are struggling with or giving up hard contact.

This likewise means that our notion of a dedicated purely relief pitcher does not really exist in Cuba. Many pitchers will finish a season or tournament with a mixture of starts and relief appearances, and many of those relief appearances will be will be longer than a single inning. The previously mentioned Yadel Martí made two relief appearances in the 2006 WBC, before starting two games against Venezuela and Dominican Republic. In each of his starts, he was relieved by Pedro Luis Lazo, normally a starter in Cuba, who authored saves of 5 IP and 4.2 IP respectively.

This comparative disregard for relief pitching in general, or for a sharp division between starters and relievers arises from two primary causes. On the one hand, when Cuba was isolated from the rest of the baseball world following the American embargo in 1962, relief pitching was still the purview of less talented pitchers who were relegated to the bullpen because they lacked the velocity, stuff, or stamina to make it as starters. Such a mentality is still alive and well in Cuba.

The other reason is one that we know well from the MLB playoffs. In short, win-or-go-home series, the division between starters and relievers, even at the major league level, often becomes much fuzzier. Whether it’s Randy Johnson or Madison Bumgarner relieving in the 7th game of the World Series, or Clay Buchholz going 4 innings as a starter in 2013, MLB teams have realized that they have to get whatever performance from their top pitchers they can muster, regardless of whether it looks like a conventional regular season start or relief appearance. In Cuba, where all baseball is organized around tournament play, these desperation scenarios are the norm, and it is common therefore for pitchers to be used in Serie Nacional regular season games the same as they would in the gold medal game of a tournament in order to prepare the players for just such a possible use with the National Team.

As MLB fans learned when Orlando and Livan Hernández left the island in the 90’s, Cuban pitchers may lack the firepower which has come to dominate pitching in the Major Leagues, but they are masters of guile and deception, with the entire philosophy of pitcher development, training and gameplay trying to squeeze out every possible advantage no matter how minute. Because when you find yourself in the 9th inning of gold medal game wearing your country’s home reds, you never know whether a surprise sidearm delivery, a split-second extra hiding the ball, or whatever other tricks you’ve picked up on the island might be the difference between a silver or a gold medal around your neck.