OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
Norge Luis Vera, a pitcher with excellent control. Photo: Ricardo López Hevia

Since its emergence in the second half of the 19th century, baseball has featured nine positions, of which one is considered to be the most important of all: the pitcher.

Any team could boast having good batters, blessed with tact and power, but without efficient pitchers, able to dominate the opponent, its chances at victory would be minimal.

This is, and continues to be the case. The best example of which was the Fourth World Baseball Classic. It wasn’t by chance that the champions of the competition, the United States, also had the best earned-run (2.15) and WHIP (0.89) - walks and hits per inning pitched. It was also the team which allowed the least hits among the 16 participating, with a .191 opponent batting average, just 15 walks, and 64 strike-outs.

It was no accident that Cuba ended its run in the competition with two wins and four losses, ceding three games in a row in the second round.

The Cuban team averaged about six earned runs per game, with a high WHIP average of 1.73, giving away 30 walks over 49 innings.

The chart featured at the bottom of this article lists the top 10 teams - all with over 90 innings pitched - with the highest number of walks given over the last four Classics, in order of total number of bases given. A first glance, Cuba leads all other squads with 114, followed by Venezuela, the only two nations to have conceded over 100 bases on balls.

Noteworthy throughout the four editions of the competition have been Japan’s pitchers, giving away only 70 walks in more than 273 innings, averaging about one every four innings and just over two in each one its 31 games, in addition to over 280 strike-outs, for an average of nine per game. Meanwhile, another world baseball powerhouse, the Dominican Republic, has given away 40 walks less than Cuba, in almost the same number of innings.

Games played; OP: Opening pitcher; CP: Closing pitcher; S: Strike-outs; W, walks. Stats: www.beisbolcubano.cu. Photo: Granma

A good reference point in this analysis is Cuba’s pitching performance in the 2013 World Classic. During the tournament the island’s ERA was 2.54, with 43 strike-outs and 19 walks. In four years we have deteriorated to such an extent that in the most recent edition of the completion, we struck out three less batters, and gave away 11 more walks, as well as allowing an average of 1.76 earned runs, well above Cuba’s typical rate seen in previous editions.

THE KEY FACTOR

There are various reasons why the quality of Cuba’s pitchers has declined. The National Baseball Directorate held a meeting to analyze the causes, which include problems accurately pitching toward the strike zone, and inability to throw inside, given a lack of control and the resulting fear of hitting the batter.

Another problem is pitchers’ inability to make the third and final strike, as many are only able to control a few throws, above all fast balls and sliders. To this must be added tardy pitching, wasting a lot of time on the mound, alongside careless base fielding. The majority of stolen bases against receiver Frank Camilo Morejón were the responsibility of Cuba’s pitchers.

If I were to choose a model pitcher from this era, I wouldn’t hesitate to mention a member of the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, and the U.S. team’s pitching coach during the Third World Classic, Greg Maddux. Not a typical fast pitcher (at the end of his brilliant career he only averaged at 86 miles per hour) Maddux had a sizeable arsenal of throws, including a circle-change which has been dubbed as the best in the Major League. The U.S. pitcher was renowned for his ball control, but in an interview shortly before retiring, Maddux noted that it’s not the arm that makes a great pitcher, it’s the mind. A pitcher who doesn’t use his head won’t last long in this sport. With this philosophy, Maddux set a record of 72.3 innings without giving away a base in 2001; only conceding 20 walks in 232 games in the same year, for an average of 0.77 per game.

Good control, however, isn’t a quality exclusive to U.S. pitchers. Cuba also has an excellent example in right hander Norge Luis Vera from Santiago de Cuba who, during his outstanding 15 year career, claimed the titles of Olympic, World, Pan and Central American Champion.

Vera, with good pitching technique and one of Cuban baseball’s best sliders, only gave away 437 walks in 1,917 innings, with a WHIP of 1.15 and almost three strike-outs for every base on balls.

Many of Cuba’s baseball fans have been calling for the creation of a Pitching Academy. Personally I don’t agree, firstly because academies existed in the past and disappeared shortly after they were established. It would perhaps be more beneficial to set up a single training system among youth leagues in all municipalities across the country, focused on perfecting pitching technique, vital to good control. Only this way will we be able to reverse the current situation. Let’s go from inferior to superior.