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La Pelota Cubana: Volume 7, La Esquina Caliente

Put on your gloves, as we take to the field and discuss Cuban defensive play.

Olympics Day 15 - Baseball Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Following a long hiatus, La Pelota Cubana returns from its winter slumber to bring you a discussion of fielding and defense down in Cuba. Cuba has been the homeland of some of baseball’s greatest defensive players. MLB fans will recall gold-glovers like Rey Ordóñez and Adeiny Hechavarria, of course, but there are plenty of great glovemen who never made it to the bigs. Lesser known players who worked their magic back home on the island such Industriales shortstop Germán “El Imán” Mesa or former national team catcher and captain Ariel Pestano were every bit the defensive savants as their big league counterparts.

As with most elements of Cuba’s solitary baseball universe, glove work on the island has a few unique twists that give it a distinctive flair. Note however, it is important to keep in mind that by far the largest difference between defensive play in Cuba and defensive play in the Major Leagues is that MLB is home to a much more consistently gifted group of defenders. Range, arm strength/accuracy, hands, outfield routes, and first steps to the ball are all better on average in baseball stateside than in Cuba.

With that in mind, as always, let’s hit the field.

Mind Your Glove

In the United States, sporting equipment is essentially an afterthought at the major league or even minor league level. Ballplayers, as they always will, remain attached to their specific gloves or bats, but the quantity or quality of such equipment is rarely a serious concern. Afterall, major league players receive top-of-the-line equipment from some of the richest manufacturers in the world, such as Rawlings or Wilson, with much or their equipment coming custom made to exact specifications. Indeed, many players are actually paid to act as sponsors for using this equipment.

But the situation is radically different in Cuba. To start with, players do not have the ample wealth of their professional counterparts to the north. Serie Nacional players are, in the strictest sense, not paid for their play on the diamond. Rather they receive the standard state salary (around 650 Cuban pesos in 2016, or about $25). In addition, they receive an approximately 700 peso bonus which accrues to individuals for outstanding artistic, cultural, or sporting achievement. In total, this means baseball players receive around $50 as a baseline salary, with additional bonuses for further accomplishment, such as berths on the national team or tournament medals. Far more than the average Cuban citizen, but hardly enough to buy a full set of top-flight gloves, cleats, and bats that an American major leaguer would have at his disposal.

Even for those few players, such as Frederich Cepeda, Yulieski Gurriel, and Hector Mendoza, who have in recent years signed large contracts to play overseas in NPB, equipment can remain a concern, because personal spending money is hardly the only impediment. Most of the major sporting good manufacturers, including Rawlings, Wilson, and Spalding, are American run and operated corporations and are therefore forbidden under the US embargo to sell their products directly to Cuban buyers. The embargo presents similar problems when attempting to buy American goods through third party countries, or to buy products from third nations, such as the Japanese Mizuno brand. While some nations, such as Venezuela, have historically been willing to run the embargo and export goods to Cuba, for most countries, the possibility of opening up a market of approximately 11 million people has been little worth the risk of incurring the anger and possible diplomatic retaliation of the United States.

This means that for the vast majority of ballplayers in Cuba, from the youth level all the way up to the Serie Nacional, all of their baseball equipment will be produced by the domestic sporting goods manufacturer Batos, which receives its funding from the Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educación Fisica Y Recreación. Issues have always surrounded the Batos brand in terms of the quality and availability of equipment, but these issues became especially acute in the 1990’s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its largest source of foreign imports, and the one powerful nation which was consistently willing to run the US embargo, and the Cuban economy suffered drastically as a result. Since that time, sporting equipment has been comparatively low on the list of goods to be produced, and as a result, gloves, bats, spikes, and even balls have not always been in great supply.

What this means for players is that they must keep and use their gloves (and other equipment) for longer than a player in one of North America’s wealthier professional leagues. So when you take the field for an afternoon game in Havana, be sure to keep an eye on your old Batos glove, because it’s likely the only one you’ve got.

Mens Prelims  CUB v JPN
Longtime Cienfuegos and National Team hurler Norberto González pitching in the 2004 Olympic Games with a Cuban Batos glove.
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Move Around the Diamond

Even from its earliest days, North American professional baseball has been characterized by a system of market association between players and teams. Even in the years before free agency, teams purchased players who could fill positions of need on their team, and avoiding signing players who would be blocked by one of their stars. Once the draft was instituted, the purchasing of amateur players halted, but the basic logic of how to assemble a team did not. Draft skilled players who will not be blocked from playing by players already on the team. Either avoid, or draft and trade those players who are blocked by superior talent at the big league level.

In this way, major league baseball has always been a game of relatively strict positions for players. Although the infancy of baseball did see pitcher/fielder combo players, and today we see players shifting to less defensively strenuous positions as they age, it is generally quite uncommon to see a player at the major league level shifting defensive positions, and even less common to see a shift more drastic than, say, SS to 2B, or LF to CF.

In Cuba however, such movement of players is a necessity. Following the Castro-ite revolution in 1960, semi-professional baseball on the island was replaced by a Soviet-styled amateur system. In this new system, players would play for the local club teams of the provinces in which they lived. This new added regional makeup for ballclubs has been well received by Cuban fans who can root on their friends, neighbors and sons on their teams, but it has created something of an awkward situation in terms of finding positions for players in the Serie Nacional. If, for instance, your province happened to produce multiple talented first baseman over a 3 year span, you would find yourself in a quandary. No free agency and no trading means that you are stuck with these players. If all 3 of them are among your more talented players at the plate, you are often left with no alternative but to move them around the diamond to other positions where your province has not been so fortunate in player production.

And we see such shifts play out all the time in the Serie Nacional. Before his time as a standout player with MLB’s Chicago White Sox, Alexei Ramírez was a star player in his native Pinar del Río, collecting a home run crown in Serie Nacional 46 (2006-2007), and three batting titles. Despite this star status in his home province, Ramírez started games in CF, RF, 2B, SS, and 3B during his time with the Vegueros. If that list of positions looks a little too “utility infield/outfield” for you, consider the case of former Rays farmhand Leslie Anderson. During his time with Camagüey, Anderson compiled a .381/.490/.572 line while splitting his time in the field primarily between CF, RF, and 1B, a position to which the slight-of-built Anderson moved in order to make space in the outfield for a couple of up-and-coming youngsters by the name of Dariel Álvarez and Dayron Varona. And if you really want a laugh, take a look at current White Sox and former Cienfuegos slugger José Abreu. Since coming to the big leagues in 2014, Abreu has established himself as a top notch power hitter, though not much with the glove. During his time with the Elefantes of Cinefuegos, however, Abreu started games at 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, LF, RF, and CF(!), as his natural position at first was blocked by veteran first sacker Yosvani Lazo (who had even less business at short or center than Abreu did). Abreu was still playing games in CF for Cienfuegos as recently as Serie Nacional 49 (2009-2010), and if the thought of the lumbering Abreu playing SS and CF isn’t enough to get a chuckle out of you, nothing is.

Such problems become even more acute when assembling the national team. The odds that the 25 most productive ballplayers in Cuba will nicely align into one or two at each position are pretty long, and the FCB often faces quite a crunch in trying to build a team. National team stars are therefore no more exempt from positional shifts than local players at home. Yulieski Gurriel, arguably Cuba’s best player during his time with the national team in the 2000’s, switched positions from 2B to 3B full time around 2009. To accommodate the glut of slugging outfielders coming up around that time, the national team slotted natural right-fielder Yoenis Céspedes in at center, moved Freddie Cepeda to the team’s DH, and bumped RF Leslie Anderson to become Ariel Borrero’s and later José Abreu’s backup at 1B. Even the brightest of stars in Cuba might find themselves moving around the diamond if their provincial (or national) team needs it.

Where’s the Shift?

In recent years, as analytic thinking has won out in baseball’s kulturkampf, one of its most visible outward signs on the diamond has been the constant shifting of defensive players from their conventional symmetric distribution about the diamond. However, if we go back even a decade’s time there were a number of voices within MLB who were opposed to defensive shifts in particular, and to any kind of analytic thinking more generally.

Cuba has had something of a different relation to the rise of analytics. Most significantly, the kind of data collection and computational methods employed by MLB teams are simply not available for Serie Nacional clubs which are not revenue generating and cannot develop proprietary software or other such methods. Another important difference is that the introduction of novel ways of scouting or coaching do not represent direct threats to people’s livelihoods in Cuba’s amateur baseball world they way they do in MLB’s hyper-competitive cutthroat industry.

The result is that Cuba exists in a strange place in of intrigue but inability when it comes to these new ways of thinking about how to play the game. They cannot generate the types of batted ball data necessary to fully implement defensive shifting, not in the Serie Nacional, and certainly not in international tournaments against players from Taipei, Netherlands, and other nations without ball in play tracking. At the same time, they seem to be itching to try out these novel techniques. At the 2006 World Baseball Classic, which followed a 2005 season in which shifting was just in its infancy in MLB, the Cuban team, as part of it’s go-for-broke short-term strategy against the favored Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, employed pronounced defensive shifts against David Ortiz, Carlos Delgado, and even a something of a prototype right-handed overshift against Albert Pujols (though they weren’t quite bold enough to station 2B Gurriel all the way to the left of second).

Poor video quality notwithstanding, Cuba hopped aboard the shift bandwagon in the 2006 WBC against MLB players with well known batted ball tendencies.

For Cuba, defensive shifts are a bold new world, one they seem eager to enter, even as the technologies necessary to really step through that door remain beyond their reach.

Give ‘em Some Gamesmanship

Baseball has never been a game which has been short on gamesmanship. Outfielders since the beginning of the game have tried to sell trapped balls as catches to umpires by holding them up triumphantly overhead. Every base runner on an even moderately close play down to first will throw his arms open wide to signal that he was safe (and probably be joined by the umpire). Some players even try more serious ways to influence umpires. We’ve all seen players at the big league level who, upon taking a close pitch on a 3-ball count will drop the bat and quickly begin to trot to first, hoping to bait the umpire into calling the close pitch a ball. It’s unclear if this ploy actually has any impact on the rate of balls called on such pitches, but it remains a relatively popular tactic, going by the frequency with which we see it.

In Cuba, catchers have added their own twist to that old gambit. When receiving a borderline pitch in a 2 strike count, a Cuban catcher will often jump quickly out of his stance and begin to cock his arm so as to throw it around the horn, or, with 2 outs, will quickly begin to walk off the field, in the hope of influencing the call. Check out how former national team captain Ariel Pestano (the master of the “fake it till you make it” school of catching) bolts out of his crouch on this called strike 3 against Carlos Guillen in the 2006 WBC.

An even better (and funnier) example comes from the final out of Cuba’s 3-1 upset of the Dominican Republic in 2006.

With two out and a runner on second in the 9th inning, Cuba’s closer Pedro Luis Lazo has worked the count to 2-2 against Dominican pinch hitter Alfonso Soriano. On the next pitch, Lazo gets the notoriously free swinging Soriano to chase a slider. In a last ditch effort, Soriano asks for an appeal to first, which the home plate umpire grants. It is ruled a swing on appeal, and the game is over.

Notice however, that even as the appeal to first is ongoing, with both the home plate umpire and even the pitcher Lazo pointing towards first, Pestano has already left the dirt circle around home plate is has raised his arms to celebrate the victory. Sly devil that he is, though, notice that even he has his mask turned towards first to see if he has sold the call well enough.

Ariel Pestano leaps out of his crouch to try to sell a final out against the Dominican Republic

As with batter sprinting to first to try to sell a walk to the umpire, it is not at all clear if the Cuban catcher ploy actually works, but it’s a clever piece of gamesmanship, and it can often result in a pretty funny scene when the umpire isn’t buying it.

In our next installment (likely installments), we’ll tackle the heavy issue of players leaving the island to come to the major leagues. More to come on that front later.

The powers that be at Crawfish Boxes have also authorized La Pelota Cubana to cover the upcoming World Baseball Classic, so keep an eye peeled for pool and player previews, as well as game threads and maybe recaps (depending on whether I can watch that much baseball without dying).