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Yoenis Cespedes and the Cuban Tradition

I don’t mean to #humblebrag, but I was there in person for Yoenis Cespedes‘s first home run in a major league uniform. It was just the luck of circumstance: I was there with a lot of my Fangraphs colleagues for spring training, and the first spring training game of my life just happened to feature the moment where Jeff Francis tried to sneak an 82-mile an hour fastball past Cuba’s best outfielder. Mike Newman was there as well, and he captured the moment. But now that Yoenis has homered in his second continent and third major land mass, I thought I’d take a look at the recent history of Cuba’s best players to come to America, to whose number Cespedes now belongs.

Cespedes isn’t the best Cuban slugger, of course: that’d probably be Jose Abreu, whom Fangraphs alum Jonah Keri called “a hitter so big, so powerful, he just might be better than anyone else on Earth.” Last year in Cuba, Cespedes hit 33 homers in 354 at-bats; Abreu hit 33 homers in 212 at-bats, which is Bonds-in-’04 type of crazy. But he’s a hitter first and foremost; he plays first base and reportedly not well. Cespedes, according to his promotional video, has “explosive ability” and “core power.”

Part of the appeal of Cespedes, beyond that amazing video, is that Cuban baseball is still hard to translate to the United States. As Bradley Woodrum noted two months ago, Cuba’s professional league might be somewhere around the level of High-A ball, and it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons because elite American players generally don’t play A-ball in their mid-20s. So Cespedes could be anything. He could be amazing. Two days into his major league career, we still don’t know.

That said, there have been a lot of Cuban-born players in the major leagues: counting Cespedes, to date, there have been 72 Cuban-born pitchers and 98 Cuban-born position players in the majors.One Cuban in the majors has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Tony Perez. Martin Dihigo, Cristobal Torriente, and Jose Mendez, who played in the Negro Leagues, were all inducted much later.* But still, even though we don’t have the best notion of how to translate Cuban stats to the majors, we know what the best of Cuba looks like. If Cespedes is the best Cuban player, then we can compare him to others who were the best in their own eras.

* At least six of the position players also moonlighted on the mound: Julio Becquer, Bert Campaneris, Jose Canseco, Marty Martinez, Cookie Rojas, and Gil Torres. At the spring training game where Cespedes hit his blast, Campaneris was outside signing autographs for A’s fans, next to George Foster, who was signing for Reds fans. Also, as I wrote last year, Tony Perez is one of only seven major leaguers born outside the United States and Puerto Rico to make the Hall of Fame.

The top two Cuban-born sluggers in major league history will likely never make the Hall. Nonetheless, Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro were wonderful hitters for a very long time. They are the only two Cuban-born players ever to hit 400 homers. Tony Perez, at 379, is in third place; Tony Oliva is in fourth place with 220 and Minnie Minoso is in fifth place with 186. In other words, even though the 26-year old Cespedes is unlikely to pass Palmeiro or Canseco, if he averages 23 homers a year over the next decade, then he could be the fourth-leading home run hitter in Cuban history.

Many of the most prominent recent Cuban defectors have been pitchers, such as the brothers Orlando and Livan Hernandez, and Jose Contreras, the pitcher who was so highly valued that, when the New York Yankees outbid the Boston Red Sox for his services, Red Sox president Larry Lucchino famously referred to the Yankees as the “Evil Empire.” One of the three Cuban Hall of Famers who played in the Negro Leagues was pitcher Jose Mendez, and another was Martin “El Maestro” Dihigo, a pitcher and hitter whom Buck Leonard called “the best player of all time, black or white.”

While no Cuban-born pitcher in the major leagues has yet made the Hall, Luis Tiant is often mentioned as one of the best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame. Still, while Cespedes may be a five-tool player, he probably isn’t a six-tool player like Dihigo. If Yoenis ever pitches, his mound results are likely to bear a closer resemblance to those of Canseco than Dihigo, Tiant or Mendez. So the A’s had probably better just keep him in the field.

That’s something of a shame, considering that only one Cuban has ever won the Cy Young, Mike Cuellar in 1969. Cespedes has a slightly better chance of breaking the dry spell for other hardware. Only two Cubans have ever won the MVP, Zoilo Versalles in 1965 and Canseco in 1988 (the year he had the first 40-40 campaign in baseball history).

However, he could easily be the first Cuban All-Star in several years. There are 23 All-Stars in Cuban history, 11 pitchers and 12 hitters. But none recently. The last Cuban-born All-Star was actually Jose Contreras, back in 2006; believe it or not, the last Cuban-born position player to make the All-Star team was Jose Canseco back in 1999. On his present talent-starved team, Cespedes has a good chance of breaking that dry spell.

In fairness, Yoenis Cespedes has hit all of two homers since signing a $36 million contract with the Athletics, and one came on an 82-mile an hour fastball in an exhibition game; the other came on a hanging slider from Shawn Kelley, a 27-year old pitcher who has now given up 15 homers in 84 career innings. So Cespedes has a long way to go. There have been a lot of Cuban players in the majors but only a few historic greats, and the next couple of years will show us what Cespedes can be: an all-time great or just a good player, the next Tony Perez or the next Sandy Amoros. It’ll be fun to watch.