The marriage of scouting and statistics is well past the honeymoon stage in most front offices, but there are times when it’s easier than others. A college player out of a big program in an established baseball conference? Talk to the nerds, get a stat translation, get a projection, pair it with the qualitative analysis from the scouts. Boom. Date night.
Not to push this analogy too far, but working with Cuban players is more like a seven-year itch in the pairing: Neither side is completely happy with what they’ve got. In the case of Jose Abreu in particular, the scouts have a few competitions, a handful of games against Liechtenstein perhaps, spread out over many years. They can do their best with video.
The quants? They’re in even more trouble when it comes to Cuba.
Doesn’t mean they can’t do their best. Now that we’ve got a few projections in hand for the new White Sox first baseman, let’s take a look. We know the stakes are high — Abreu is no Rey Ordonez, he’s got no glove value to fall back on and the requirements to be a major league first baseman are stiff.
Let’s just list, in bullet point form, the problems with the data coming from Cuba:
• Inconsistent record-keeping.
• Small sample size of Cuban players coming to America.
• Non-existent sample size of American players going to Cuba.
• A recent change in ball size.
• Sheer number of parks (40 parks for 17 teams!).
• Inconsistent park conditions.
• Political influence on roster decisions.
• Large swings in talent level based on defections.
The first three are fairly self-evident. At the end of this piece, find the best list I could put together with Davenport Translations or Cuban stats… when available. It’s not a large list. The age numbers are not the most reliable until the player undergoes vetting from American immigration, and age is hugely important to projection systems. And the available stats dry up around 2001. And some stats aren’t even available, as you can see on Clay Davenport’s site, the most navigable clearing house for numbers from Cuban Serie Nacional.
Jonah Keri’s excellent piece on Abreu brought up the ball change, which wouldn’t be as big a deal if not for some of the other items on this list. After all, Japan has changed the ball before, and those translations aren’t *as* difficult as these.
But the Japanese teams also play in as many parks as there are teams. Cuban teams might play at home, or they might play at the local psychiatric hospital field. They might play in a nice park, befitting of a popular high-level minor league team or a sizable college program, or they might play on a field with “deep holes in the outfield” as Milton H. Jamail described in his book Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball. What would the batting average on balls in play be in America if outfielders were at risk of breaking their ankles in pot holes in right center? Dan Szymborski says the overall translation is “a bit like playing in Rancho Cucamonga,” but obviously it’s also a bit like playing on the empty lot down the street.
Playing on the Industriales team that was once re-directed to the hospital field might have been legendary German Mesa (with Rey Ordonez backing him up), Roberto Colina at first, and Orlando Hernandez, Livan Hernandez and Vladimir Nunez on the pitching staff. They were all teammates once. Part of that was politics — the teams in Havana had to be the best, in order to assure the best training facilities for those that would play for the national team, as well as to convince those in outlying regions that the sacrifices they made to go to games were well worth it. Players that were perceived as a risk to defect were also treated differently when it came to playing time. Those sort of political player decisions are possible in Cuba, at least in 1997’s Cuba. They served to artificially deflate plate appearances for players like Rey Ordonez and Yunel Escobar, making their translations even tougher.
Lastly, Cuba has 17 teams… and 11 million inhabitants. These sort of talent manipulations can create super teams that dominate the others, for a short while. But just a few years after that Industriales team steamrolled the Nacionale, everyone had defected except for Mesa, who got a (temporary) lifetime ban for taking money from an agent. I imagine the team-by-team numbers took a hell of a lurch around that time period… and they’re already fairly mismatched. In 2011, Yoenis Cespedes‘ Granma team hit 147 home runs, while the Isla del Juventud team hit 49. (Sure, the Marlins only hit 95 home runs last year in a season that’s about twice as long, but the Orioles led the league… with 212 home runs. The major league record is 264 homers by the 1997 Mariners.) Abreu’s 2011 team, Cienfuegos, had Abreu and Yasiel Puig hit half their homers that year… they might be hurting for power today.
So, when you look at some fairly large discrepancies in the projections for Jose Abreu, there are fairly large reasons for those. The numbers side of the marriage is just doing their best here — it’s not always easy to make dinner with what’s in the fridge.
Below are sortable slash-line numbers for all Cuban position players that have defected from Cuba and played in Major League Baseball since Barbaro Garbey, widely considered the first. You’ll see Cuban stats, Davenport Translations (DT) with a year attached, Oliver Age-27 projections upon their defection, Major League Baseball stats, and, in the case of Jose Abreu, ZiPS and Oliver projections for next year. Steamer is on the case now.
|Jose Abreu||1B||DT (2010)||315||0.321||0.446||0.660|
|Jose Abreu||1B||DT (2011)||236||0.364||0.481||0.792|
|Jose Abreu||1B||OLIVER 14||600||0.280||0.348||0.520|
|Jose Abreu||1B||ZIPS 14||538||0.273||0.364||0.494|
|Alexander Guerrero||2B||DT (2010)||336||0.286||0.338||0.473|
|Alexander Guerrero||2B||DT (2011)||296||0.250||0.322||0.480|
|Henry Urrutia||OF||DT (2011)||316||0.302||0.373||0.428|
|Henry Urrutia||OF||DT (2010)||340||0.340||0.391||0.505|
|Yasiel Puig||OF||DT (2009)||184||0.212||0.281||0.337|
|Yasiel Puig||OF||DT (2011)||343||0.259||0.339||0.440|
|Yasiel Puig||OF||OLIVER 27||0.279||0.331||0.475|
|Yoenis Cespedes||OF||DT (2010)||354||0.271||0.338||0.489|
|Yoenis Cespedes||OF||DT (2011)||371||0.253||0.325||0.499|
|Yoenis Cespedes||OF||OLIVER 27||0.254||0.300||0.443|
|Leonys Martin||OF||DT (2009)||330||0.257||0.398||0.413|
|Leonys Martin||OF||DT (2010)||384||0.276||0.364||0.413|
|Leonys Martin||OF||OLIVER 27||0.273||0.339||0.417|
|Jose Iglesias||SS||DT (2007)||106||0.169||0.196||0.202|
|Jose Iglesias||SS||DT (2008)||337||0.265||0.294||0.315|
|Jose Iglesias||SS||OLIVER 27||0.263||0.296||0.333|
|Adeiny Hechavarria||SS||DT (2007)||188||0.245||0.296||0.340|
|Adeiny Hechavarria||SS||DT (2008)||314||0.225||0.308||0.366|
|Adeiny Hechavarria||SS||OLIVER 27||0.241||0.289||0.343|
|Dayan Viciedo||OF||DT (2006)||365||0.290||0.328||0.487|
|Dayan Viciedo||OF||DT (2007)||361||0.227||0.322||0.393|
|Dayan Viciedo||OF||OLIVER 27||0.287||0.340||0.531|
|Alexei Ramirez||SS||DT (2006)||390||0.285||0.358||0.444|
|Alexei Ramirez||SS||DT (2007)||397||0.307||0.384||0.561|
|Alexei Ramirez||SS||OLIVER 27||0.273||0.314||0.420|
|Leslie Anderson||1B||DT (2004)||383||0.288||0.369||0.433|
|Leslie Anderson||1B||DT (2005)||363||0.273||0.334||0.372|
|Leslie Anderson||1B||OLIVER 27||0.278||0.328||0.411|
|Juan Miranda||1B||DT (2003)||263||0.255||0.354||0.481|
|Juan Miranda||1B||DT (2004)||310||0.259||0.349||0.498|
|Juan Miranda||1B||OLIVER 27||0.270||0.335||0.508|
|Yunel Escobar||SS||DT (2003)||81||0.258||0.395||0.379|
|Yunel Escobar||SS||DT (2004)||205||0.222||0.338||0.301|
|Kendrys Morales||1B||DT (2002)||359||0.270||0.333||0.501|
|Kendrys Morales||1B||DT (2003)||214||0.336||0.433||0.537|
|Kendrys Morales||1B||OLIVER 27||0.296||0.351||0.501|
|Barbaro Canizares||1B||DT (2002)||323||0.283||0.372||0.430|
|Barbaro Canizares||1B||DT (2003)||305||0.278||0.417||0.480|
|Barbaro Canizares||1B||OLIVER 27||0.265||0.329||0.401|
|Yuniesky Betancourt||SS||DT (2002)||303||0.257||0.280||0.389|
|Yuniesky Betancourt||SS||DT (2003)||337||0.279||0.322||0.430|
|Yuniesky Betancourt||SS||OLIVER 27||0.264||0.302||0.388|
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