Given the quality of the World Baseball Classic, the most important international baseball competition of the last 11 years, it will no doubt come as a surprise to many that Cuba has the best batting average over the last four editions of the competition, and is the only team to have reached over .300.
Cuba not only ranks above baseball powerhouses such as Japan, the United States, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico in regards to overall batting but also homeruns, topping the list with 34 homers - one more than Japan in five less games.
Cuban players also come in third in runs and base hits, which begs the question: how is it possible, that with the top batting average, we have only reached one final, and been eliminated three times in a row without even making it to the second round of the competition?
If we hope to learn the truth we must first break-down the statistics, which aren’t as disappointing as some may imagine. To get a clear picture of the situation, multiple factors and indicators must be considered, including the quality of rivals the Cuban team has come up against during each phase of the tournament. The easiest thing to do would be to blame the team’s pitchers, but it’s not just their performance on the mound that makes for victories.
Let’s assume that batting average – one of the most important stats in baseball – is, as I believe to be the case, overrated these days. Three hits in 10 turns at bat makes for an average of .300. This in itself doesn’t tell us much, or at least only very little. We would also need to know if any of those hits resulted in a run or enabled a batter to advance to second or third base.
Otherwise, they provide little benefit for the team which is, in short the most important thing.
There are other key aspects which must be considered in order to arrive at a more accurate assessment of what occurred on the field. Let’s take, for example, the number of walks as compared to strike outs. It’s generally accepted that a walk is almost the same a hit, as it puts the runner on base, what it doesn’t do is affect the team’s batting average. Cuba is eighth in walks with 73, while Venezuela, with two games less, has 17 more.
With four less games than Cuba, South Korea received 15 more walks than those given to Cuban batters, who certainly lack tact and patience when it comes to pitch selection.
Likewise, strikeouts make a big impact. The Cuban team has the fifth most strikeouts, while Japan – the only team to win a medal in all four editions of the Classic, placing first and third on two occasions – only has 16 more, despite 170 more turns at bat than the Cubans.
Here, it would be worth citing an example. The Dominican Republic – champion of the third Classic with a record eight consecutive victories – has played one less game than Cuba. However, the team has 70 more walks and 16 fewer strikeouts than us, which despite having a lower batting average, standing at .272, has been more effective at the plate, with more men on base.
SCRUTINIZING THE DETAILS
In baseball it’s crucial to scrutinize the details when analyzing a team’s performance. Cuba had a strong offense in the third Classic with a batting average of .343, 11 home runs, 45 runs and a total of 24 extra base hits. It was also the team with the best batting average. Slugging and on base percentages standing at over .500 and around .400, respectively.
The team defeated Japan 6-3 for the first time and looked set to make it to the final, just like in 2006.
But then came the Netherlands, a longstanding rival and champion of the last World Cup held in Panama in 2011 where it defeated Cuba 2-1 in the final.
The Europeans, led in the third Classic by players that would later become regulars in Major League baseball: Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, defeated the Cubans twice, with scores of 6-2 and 7-6. The dozen hits made by Cuba in both games counted for nothing as the team lacked productivity when it came to batting. Achieving the best average among the remaining teams didn’t prevent their elimination.
JAPAN, TACT & SPEED
At this point it would also be worth asking how Japan has always placed among the top three teams in every edition of the Classic. The answer could lie in their mix of tact, speed around the bases, and solid pitching.
Their first Classic win saw them hit 10 home runs, take 32 walks, make nine hits, and steal 13 bases in 15 attempts.
The Japanese employed a bit more of the same to secure their second title, topping the categories for walks received (34) and stolen bases (11 in 12 attempts), while also making seven hits and six sacrifice flies to secure a few more runs, but this time with a lot less power after making only four home runs. Speed in the offense will always be an effective resource.
CEPEDA, AN EXAMPLE
The best and most well-rounded ambidextrous Cuban batter. This statement alone encapsulates the greatness of 37 year old Frederich Cepeda, from Sancti Spiritus, whose 20 year career in baseball includes various outstanding achievements such as an Olympic gold medal, multi World Championship titles, and featuring as a member of the Cuban team which reached the final of the first World Baseball Classic.
It has been there, in the Classics, where Cepeda has demonstrated his enormous offensive capacity. He is also the only player to participate in all four competitions, with results which support his condition as most outstanding batter: historic leader in runs scored (17), hits (31), home runs (6), runs batted in (23), total bases (46), base on balls (15) and the second best batting average (.449).
If I were asked to name his defining feature, I’d say his ability to select pitches.
It would be hard to see Cepeda make a move with a ball thrown outside of the strike zone. He has the virtue of patience, and will wait for a pitcher to make a throw that suits him, meeting it with that harmonic swing, so characteristic of his batting style.
Almost 1,500 walks in National Series competitions demonstrate the care pitchers take when faced with Cepeda.
Frederich Cepeda is an example of what we hope to see from our young players. An example of commitment and perseverance, of how to calmly approach every turn at bat. “I try to concentrate as hard as I can in tense situations,” the player from Sancti Spiritus once commented, because for him, just having a good batting average isn’t enough.