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La Pelota Cubana: Volume 6, At-Bat on the Island

A continuation of our examination of baseball in Cuba vs. the Major Leagues. Today we’ll look at how Cuban batters differ from their big league counterparts.

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Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks v Cuba - WBC 2013 Friendly Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

In our opening discussion, we examined some of those special elements which Cuban pitchers bring to the table. Today we’ll be switching gears and taking a look at how islanders step to the plate and take a swing.

As with velocity in our discussion of pitching, the lack of power is simply a fact about population size, not about hitting approach. Although this lack of power is a huge difference in terms of everyday gameplay in Cuba, it will not be the main topic of our discussion here.

**It is also important to mention that the discussion and statistics below apply only to those players who grew up and were trained in Cuba. We are therefore excluding players such as Yasmani Grandal or Yonder Alonso. While both are fine players in their own right, and both were born in Cuba, each left the island at a young age and therefore developed their game primarily under the tutelage of American coaches and trainers, and therefore both look a lot more like typical American players than they do other Cuban players.**

With these caveats stated, let’s begin.

Put the Ball in Play

No change in MLB gameplay has had a more pronounced impact on the diamond than the prolific spike in strikeout rate over the last decade. Between increased pitcher velocity, an increase in bullpen usage and effectiveness, and a greater willingness on the part of batters to swing from their heels and sacrifice contact for solid, extra-base power, batters at the MLB level are striking out at a prodigious and ever-increasing clip. Just within the last ten years, Major League baseball has seen the league average K% rise from 16.8% in 2006 (per FanGraphs) to 21% during the 2016 season.

But back down in Cuba, things are quite different. In contrast to the skyrocketing 21% K% in MLB for 2016, the 2015-2016 Serie Nacional finished with an overall K% of just 12%. Obviously, part of this gap is that Cuba features fewer flamethrowers with lights out stuff capable of striking out 21% of the batters they face. But this can’t be the full story. If it were, we wouldn’t be able to account for how pitchers coming from Cuba to MLB regularly increase their K%, like Raisel Iglesias (16.6% vs. 26.1%), Roenis Elías (15.5% vs. 19.9%), or Aroldis Chapman (18.3% vs. 42.4%).

Moreover, we find that even when we examine only those Cuban players who have made it to the Major Leagues, and therefore who faced the same pitchers which produced that league average 21% K% for 2016, we find that the Cuban players produce a strikeout rate which is lower than the MLB average (17.1% for all Cuban at-bats in 2016). Indeed, Cuban players in the big leagues have posted a lower K% than MLB average every season since 2010, as illustrated in the graph below.

This consistent discrepancy in K%, like many of the differences in Cuban play, arises from the desire of Cuban trainers and coaches to maximize the performance of their players for the small sample chaos that is an international tournament. In the Major Leagues, we have learned which statistics are the most useful in a predictive context over the course of a 162 game season, and have come to regard the early season fluctuations of those statistics as “small sample size theater”, a goofy time in which unsustainable over- or under-performances result in crazy statistics and leaderboards.

But now imagine a different world. One in which “small sample size theater” isn’t the time where you wait for stats and outcomes to stabilize, but rather the whole season. Your team will be judged on how it performs over an excruciatingly small sample of gameplay. What kind of team do you build? How do you win in small sample size theater?

If you’re a Cuban, the answer is to build a team that hangs its offensive hat as much as possible on those elements of performance which stabilize as quickly as possible, are most consistent game to game, and which the player is most able to individually control. And, indeed, K% is one of the quickest stats to stabilize. In building a team that, regardless of whatever other talents it might have, rarely strikes out, you are helping to minimize (to the greatest extent possible) the variability, both positive and negative, associated with your team’s performance

Consider, for example, a team that relies more on players with, say, high slugging. Such a team would likely put up more runs over a 162 game season than our high contact low K% team. But, since the elements of slugging, such as HR and 2B do not necessarily occur every game,they would also be at increased risk of getting into a tournament, having their big slugger (think Giancarlo Stanton) go 0-8 with 6K in two games and being immediately eliminated.

One should not take this to mean that the Cuban National Team was composed of slap hitters, as the Major Leagues have seen plenty of Cuban sluggers over the years (Cespedes, Abreu, Puig) and missed out on plenty of others (Linares, Kindelan, etc.). What it does mean, however, is that those sluggers who made it to the National team did so because in addition to their power or speed or other talents, they coupled that talent with a low strikeout rate. In turn, talented players like Joan Carlos Pedroso (.310/.447/.567) have been consistently passed over for playing time with National Team because of their excessive strikeout rate (17.7% vs. a league average of 12%).

If you want to wear the Cuban reds, then you’ve got to put the ball in play.

You Don’t Walk Off the Island

Another of the great revelations of the analytical revolution in baseball is the value of OBP. Walks, long undervalued for their contribution offensive to offensive production, have in recent years been brought into the center stage of offensive evaluation.

But again, the situation in Cuba is different. For one part, the statistical revolution has never really gotten underway in Cuba, but more importantly, the focus on contact and avoiding strikeouts brings along with it a lower walk rate, as more balls are put into play as both hits and outs. Again, when we compare Cuban players in the Major Leagues to the rest of their counterparts, we find that they exhibit a consistently lower BB%.

Ultimately, the reasoning behind this has to do with winning in the small sample size pressure cooker of international baseball. Ideally, all players on the national team would have great contact, great power, great plate discipline, great walk rates, great everything. But, of course, it would be difficult for any nation to put together a team that good, and it is quite hard for a small country like Cuba. Therefore, when forced to choose which skills are most important to have on the team, they emphasize contact, under the idea that, in a single, winner-take-all game, especially against a good opposing pitcher, you are less able to consistently rely on the ability to walk than you are the ability to consistently put the ball in play.

As the Royals demonstrated last year in the playoffs, such a strategy can be devastatingly effective over the short term. Cuban teams have pressed this advantage in the international arena to great success, coupling legitimate big league talent with an approach which is tailor-made for squeezing out the best performances possible for big games.

Keep It Closed

In contrast to the varied and often exotic (El Duque, Odrisamer Despaigne) windups which Cuban pitchers bring to the table, Cuban batters have remarkably simple and rather conventional batting stances. For the most part, Cuban batters exhibit stances with their feet placed in an even or closed position (and never more than a hair open), fairly close together, with little to no crouch or bend to their stance. The upper body is held upright, with the arms kept high, approximately at the level of the head, and little bend to the bat, which is generally kept vertical or diagonal. Observe the quartet of Cuban batters below.

Yulieski Gurriel, José Abreu, Yoenis Céspedes and Alfredo Despaigne exhibit the characteristic Cuban stance.

Note that such a stance is by no means unique to Cuban batters. Indeed, observe the similarity between José Abreu’s stance above and Mike Trout’s below.

No, it is not the uniqueness of the stance which is intriguing, but rather, the comparative uniformity of the Cuban batters compared to hypothetical MLB counterparts. Compare the relative uniformity in terms of hand placement, openness/closedness, and upright body posture of the Cuban players to the MLB players displayed below.

Edwin Encarnación, Nelson Cruz, Anthony Rizzo, and Daniel Murphy display more varied batting stances

Note, for instance, that Encarnación and Rizzo both hold their hands quite low, far lower than their Cuban counterparts. Likewise, they, as well as Cruz have open stances, with their stride foot pulled back behind their plant foot. Finally, Murphy exhibits the hand placement and closedness of a typical Cuban stance, but does so while crouched at the knees and hunched over at the hips.

An observant reader may even have noticed that the stance which Yoenis Céspedes displays in the image above differs in many ways from the stance he uses today in the Major League. Critically, it differs precisely in that it has moved away from many of those elements that are characteristically Cuban and are drilled into players on the island. Compare the two still shots below.

Yoenis Céspedes in 2009 vs. 2016

His stance in 2016 reveals a number of changes characteristic of an MLB stance. His stride foot is further open and he has placed his feet further apart, allowing him to crough lower and shift more of his weight through his stance as he strides in order to generate more power. Part and parcel with his open stance, he has moved his hands out away from his body. We can likely surmise that one or more MLB hitting coaches have tinkered with Céspedes’ stance in order to take advantage of his great strength by getting him to open up, pull the ball more, and try to generate more power in his swing.

As with many of the important differences in philosophy between Cuba and MLB, this one arises from the obsessive focus on tailoring players for tournament play. As we have seen, Cuban batters are expected to have low strikeout rates and high contact rates in order to participate seriously with the National Team. To help groom players in this directions, Cuban hitting coaches favor this type of stance. The closed position of the feet lessens the ability to pull the ball, but at the same time, it makes it much harder for players to develop the tendency to pull off the ball and swing and miss. The close position of the feet transfers less of the player’s weight into power in his swing, but it likewise leaves him less likely to be fooled by offspeed or breaking pitches, as he has not built up as much momentum with his longer stride. The tight hand position makes it harder to get the hands extended, but also encourages a shorter, more compact swing. All of these elements are designed to produce a swing that can get the bat on the ball, and hopefully be as slump-proof as is possible.

Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve

In the United States, professional baseball is just that, a profession. Players are paid exceptional sums of money and are expected to comport themselves with a businesslike demeanor. There are a whole host of less than clear unwritten rules governing player behavior, the breaking of which can have very serious ramifications. Although there is today more acceptance of playing the game with flair and an overt display of passion than ever before, Major League baseball remains a game where watching a home run you hit for too long can end up with a fastball in your ear.

But in Cuba, unwritten rules of this sort are not really a part of the game. Whether because of the cultural undertones of these unwritten rules, or simply because of the amateur status of Cuban players, baseball in Cuba is much more forgiving, and indeed quite welcoming of those types of displays which would be considered an affront to everything holy about the game up north. Let’s have a look at just a few examples. First, check out former National Team catcher Ariel Pestano.

What a great reaction from Pestano, and what a celebration with his teamates, made all the more unique because this home run was a not a game winner, not in the series clinching game and interrupted the continuation of play in the 6th inning (notice towards the end there that even members of his family came onto the field to celebrate with him). Nevertheless, as you can likely tell by the announcer, Pestano’s reaction was considered quite normal and this kind of celebration of big plays by individual players and teams is not at all out of the ordinary in Cuba. Next, let’s take a look at the mother of all bat-flips, courtesy Granma outfielder Alfredo Despaigne (here playing for Industriales after being drafted by them for the second half of the season).

If you missed it, take a look again at 0:54 second, as you see the bat go sailing through the foreground as Despaigne jogs past. Here’s another highlight from Despaigne, which SB Nation’s own Grant Brisbee describes as the “Sistine Chapel of dinger-watching”.

And you think Fernando Rodney is showy after closing out a save? Take a look at how Camagüey right-hander Vicyohandri Odelín closes out Cuba’s 4-3 victory over Puerto Rico in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

All of this excitement, passion, and seemingly genuine enjoyment and appreciation for the game that they play every day is one the things that most drew me Cuban baseball, and is, I think it’s greatest strength vis-à-vis Major League baseball. The talent and play of Major League baseball is almost always of a higher quality, but the passion and real emotion of playing the game of baseball often shines through all the clearer down on the island.

Up next on our series, we’ll take a look at how players take to the field and flash the leather down in Cuba