Bartolo Colon’s Forebears: The Previous Winningest Latin Pitchers of All Time

Dennis Martinez, center, was the all-time winningest pitcher from Latin America before Bartolo Colon passed him. (via Erik Drost)

On August 7, Bartolo Colon passed Dennis Martinez on the all-time wins list among pitchers from Latin America. Martinez had held the record since August 9, 1998 when he notched his 244th win to pass the great Juan Marichal of the Giants, a Hall of Famer from the Dominican Republic, and one of baseball’s first Latin superstars. Martinez retired a month and a half later, having pushed his career total to 245, which remained the record for almost exactly 20 years.

Baseball records are almost Biblical in their complexity, and more than a century of assiduous record-keeping can sometimes lead to lists of begats longer than Leviticus. But in the case of this particular record, it’s pretty brief:

  • The 45-year-old Colon took the record from Dennis Martinez, who remained in baseball past his 44th birthday in order to be able to pass Juan Marichal.
  • Marichal recorded his 243rd and last win on August 11, 1974. He took the record on July 26, 1970, when he won his 195th career game.
  • That broke a record that for 35 years had belonged to Dolf Luque, who won his 194th and last game on April 23, 1935.

The four Latin American wins leaders represent three different countries. And where might the next record breaker hail from? In all, 11 Latin American countries have sent players to the majors, and nine of those countries have sent both pitchers and hitters. (For the purposes of this article, Puerto Rico will be treated as a Latin American “country,” but English- and Dutch-speaking countries like Curaçao, Aruba and Jamaica will not. I’m also looking just at country of birth, not where a person grew up. I used the birthplace pages on Baseball-Reference.) By far, the largest contributor has been the Dominican Republic, which has sent 407 pitchers to the majors, including both Bartolo Colon, the Big Sexy, and Juan Marichal, the Dominican Dandy.

Marichal’s first major league appearance was in 1960, just a few years after the very first Dominican major league debut, New York Giants third baseman Ozzie Virgil. The Dominican Republic has sent three men to the Hall of Fame, including Marichal, Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero. Whenever he retires, Albert Pujols will certainly add to that number, and David Ortiz may be a fifth.

The man who beat Marichal’s record was Dennis Martinez, nicknamed El Presidente. He’s one of just 11 Nicaraguans to toe the mound — in fact, Martinez was the very first Nicaraguan to make the majors. His next-best countryman is probably Vicente Padilla, while the best Nicaraguan hitter of all time is almost certainly longtime Giants center fielder Marvin Benard.

The most recent Nicaraguan to debut in the majors was Jonathan Loaisiga, the babyfaced rookie for the New York Yankees. Martinez and Padilla are the only All-Star pitchers to hail from Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, the man who held the wins record the longest was Dolf Luque, the Pride of Havana, the first Cuban pitcher, and the first great player from his country to make the major leagues. In fact, for decades, Cuba was the only country in Latin America sending players to the major leagues. This was because, of course, baseball’s color line was still firmly in place. The only Latin players who made the majors before Jackie Robinson were light-skinned.

By the time of Luque’s debut in 1914, there were a handful of Cuban hitters already in the major leagues — short-tenured role players like Armando Marsans and Merito Acosta.

There was even a Cuban player in the early 1870s, Steve Bellán, a Fordham University graduate who spent a couple of years in the National Association before the founding of the National League. But before Luque, there were no Cuban stars; he was the first.

Adolfo Luque was born in Havana in 1890, and after a couple cups of coffee with the Boston Braves, settled in as a major league starter with the Cincinnati Reds beginning in 1918. Most of the teams he played on frankly weren’t very good. His best teammates were Hall of Famers Edd Roush and Eppa Rixey, two of Cooperstown’s less impressive residents.

Of course, that era’s Reds are mainly famous for winning the 1919 World Series when the Chicago White Sox took money from gamblers to lose on purpose. In hindsight, it tainted Luque’s otherwise brilliant performance — 106 regular-season innings as a swingman, with nine starts (including six complete games) and 21 relief appearances. In the World Series, he pitched out of the pen in two games, throwing five scoreless innings.

Following that performance, he established himself as a permanent member of the rotation, and after leading the majors in losses in 1922, he led the majors in wins and ERA in 1923; he repeated as major league ERA leader in 1925. But it was for naught, as the Reds went two decades between pennants. They wouldn’t make another World Series appearance until 1939, four years after Luque retired.

But he wisely spent his final four years on the New York Giants, 1932-1935, a decade after his Reds had watched the Giants win four consecutive league championships from 1921-1924. They went on to win the World Series with Luque in 1933, and consecutive pennants in 1936 and 1937 just after he retired.

So Luque finally made it back to the World Series as a 42-year-old in 1933, and he was just as good as before: he came out of the pen and threw 4.1 scoreless innings to close out the seventh game of the Series, as his Giants finally scored the winning run in the 10th inning. Luque pitched in three World Series games, more than a decade apart, and he never allowed a run.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

He left quite a legacy, as the first of 93 Cuban pitchers in the majors. And since he was the first, there was no Latin wins record for him to break: he simply set it, every time he took the mound. But Luque was the only Latin star in the majors for quite some time.

Perhaps the greatest Cuban player ever, Martin Dihigo, never had a chance to play in the majors because of the color of his skin, and so instead was one of the greatest stars of the Negro Leagues. The next great Cuban star was Minnie Miñoso, who debuted in 1949, just two years after Jackie Robinson’s first game; many people feel he deserves to make the Hall of Fame.

For now, though, the only Cuban Hall of Famer is Tony Perez.

After the Dominican Republic, the country that has sent the most pitchers to the majors is Venezuela, homeland of King Félix Hernández and Johan Santana. The first Venezuelan to play in the majors was righthander Alex Carrasquel, who pitched for the Washington Senators from 1939-1945, mostly out of the bullpen, and then collected a final few innings with the Pale Hose in 1949. Apart from Carrasquel, 177 other Venezuelan pitchers have made it to the majors.

But nearly all of the greatest Venezuelan players were hitters, like Luis Aparicio, who for the moment is the only Venezuelan in the Hall of Fame, though that is sure to change whenever Miguel Cabrera retires. The first Venezuelan pitcher to make an All-Star team was Wilson Alvarez, who debuted a full 50 years after Carrasquel.

After Venezuela is Cuba, and after Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico are tied with 79 pitchers each. The first Mexican player in the majors was Mel Almada in 1933, and the first Mexican pitcher in the majors was Jesse Flores in 1942, with 78 other pitchers following him. But as with Venezuela, for the first several decades, few Mexican major leaguers distinguished themselves.

The best of the bunch was infielder Bobby Avila, who made three All-Star teams with Cleveland in the 1950s. The first Mexican All-Star pitcher was Aurelio Lopez, a pretty good reliever with the “Bless You Boys” Tigers of the early 1980s.

But the greatest Mexican pitcher is exactly the first name that comes to mind: Fernando Valenzuela. If anything, I think people forget how good the rest of his career was, because his rookie year was so transcendent. The 20-year-old southpaw won both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards in 1981.

But he didn’t stop there. He remained at the top of the league for the next six years: from 1981-1986, Valenzuela made six consecutive All-Star appearances and notched three more top-five Cy Young finishes. Sadly, the final 11 years of his career were below average, as he chewed up 1,375.1 innings and went 74-85 for six different teams. As yet, no Mexican player is in the Hall of Fame.

Puerto Rico has had the same number of pitchers in the major leagues as Mexico, but Puerto Rican hitters have produced far superior play — Puerto Rico has four Hall of Famers, Roberto Clemente, Roberto Alomar, Iván Rodríguez, and Orlando Cepeda. Carlos Beltrán is a likely fifth, while Francisco Lindor is busy making a case for his own future enshrinement.

The first Puerto Rican pitcher was Hiram Bithorn in 1942, namesake of the stadium where the Expos played a number of “home games” in 2003 and 2004. The first great Puerto Rican pitcher was Juan Pizarro, who won 131 games from 1957 to 1974. The winningest Puerto Rican pitcher, though, is the homer-prone righty Javier Vazquez, who won 165 games in 14 years with a career ERA a full 0.31 runs higher than his FIP.

Most of the best Puerto Rican pitchers, however, have been closers: Luis Arroyo started in 1955 and made two All-Star teams as a closer; then came Willie Hernandez, who won a Cy Young Award in 1984 at the back of the Tigers bullpen with Aurelio Lopez; then Roberto Hernandez, who recorded 326 saves in the 1990s and 2000s; and Edwin Díaz, perhaps baseball’s most dominant closer this year.

After Puerto Rico, the tallies for the remaining countries fall off quite a bit. Panama has sent one man to the Hall of Fame, Rod Carew, though a second will soon join him — Mariano Rivera, who will debut on the ballot this year.

Strangely enough, with 82 wins, Rivera is actually his country’s all-time wins leader — tied with Bruce Chen. Chen was a starting pitcher, and Rivera was a closer. (Chen also never appeared in the postseason. Rivera went 8-1 in the postseason, twirling 141 innings after the regular season and allowing exactly 11 earned runs, good for an ERA of 0.70.) Beyond Chen and Rivera, just 26 other Panamanian pitchers have appeared in the majors.

Nicaragua and its 11 pitchers follow Panama, and then comes Colombia, which has sent only eight hurlers to the majors. The two best are Julio Teheran and Jose Quintana, both of whom have scuffled this year. The best Colombian players, by far, are the shortstops Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera.

While Belize and Honduras have both sent a single hitter to the majors, no major league pitchers have emerged from either country. There have actually been four players born in Spain who made the majors. The first was Al Cabrera, a longtime player in the Cuban League who got two at-bats with the Cardinals in 1913. The first pitcher born in Spain was Bryan Oelkers, who twirled 103.1 innings in the majors in the 1980s. The most recent Spaniard to get the call to the Show was Danny Rios, who allowed 10 earned runs in 9.2 innings in 1997 and 1998. It is a thoroughgoing soccer nation.

The only other Latin American country to send pitchers to the majors is Brazil. The first Brazilian player in the majors was catcher Yan Gomes, who debuted in 2012.

Of the four men who have followed Gomes, three have been pitchers: Braves prospect Luiz Gohara, White Sox farmhand Thyago Vieira, and reliever Andre Rienzo, who is back in the minors after drawing steady work from 2013-2015. Gohara may be the best of the bunch, but his 2018 has been forgettable.

The man who breaks Bartolo’s record could be from any of these countries — a baseball powerhouse like the Dominican Republic or Venezuela; a country with a long tradition, like Cuba, Mexico or Puerto Rico; a newer entrant like Colombia or Brazil; or a small country with very few major leaguers to its name, like Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua or Panama. Or possibly, he could from a place that has yet to send a pitcher to the majors, like Costa Rica, a soccer-mad country that nonetheless is responsible for manufacturing millions of baseballs a year.

The possibilities are endless, but one thing is clear: this record was made to be broken.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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5 years ago

Great read!
It’s amazing how many great Latin players have been in and out of the league. You can’t help but root for Colon. He is definately a below-average pitcher now (who wouldn’t be with his wear-and-tear and his age) but he is a great example of a once dominant power-pitcher that had to make drastic adjustments as his career went along. Just look at videos from earlier in his career! Seems like 40 years ago!
I watched him make a start last year, with the Braves. I got there early to see batting practice and got to see him do long-toss before the game. The old man still has a cannon! He was slinging darts from foul line to foul line, flat footed almost! Pretty common for a professional pitcher, I’m sure. But nevertheless, pretty impressive for a guy in his mid-40s.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Great read. But what about Luis Tiant? After I read the headlines, his name immediately jumped up.

5 years ago

What a great article Alex. Really interesting.

One very minor quibble. Martin Dihigo is a member of the Hall of Fame, so both him and Tony Perez are HoFers from Cuba. Know that as just this morning finished reading “I was Right on Time” by Buck O’Neil and several times in the book he notes that Dihigo is the only person to make the Cuban, American and Mexican baseball Halls of Fame.

Barney Coolio
5 years ago

I always thought it was a good story that Nicaragua’s first MLB player, and still one of their few to make the bigs, was a total BOSS.

5 years ago

I would love to see someone from Guatemala (my parent’s place) or from El Salvador. According to a quick Google search, there have been a number minor leaguers from Guatemala, most who have played with the Orioles:

Andres Aquilar, OF, Manuel Hernandez, OF, Fabian Vizcaino, C, (all who recently played), and Juan Diego Montes, OF/1B, who is still active.
Dennis Hurtarte played for Pittsburgh’s DSL Pirates.
Hugo Pivaral was a pitcher for the A level Dodgers in the mid-1990s.

From El Salvador:
Henry Bonilla of the Twins and Dodgers, the first player in the Minors to have been born in El Salvador, played until 2016.
Wilmer Villatoro, P, of the Padres, played from 2000 to 2005.

To my (Wikipedia-based) knowledge, the only player of (partial) Guatemalan descent to have played in the Majors is Ryan Spilborghs.

Mick D
5 years ago

Perhaps Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos should have been mentioned as great Cuban pitchers given their MLB wins and brilliance for Cienfuegos. Also Pascual and Ramos both pitched for the poorly run Clark Griffith, owned Washington Senators. If either pitched for the Giants in the mid-to-late 1950s no telling how many additional games either might have won.

5 years ago

Great article, very informative. Do you think in today’s game that any pitcher, Latin or otherwise will ever amass 246 wins?

5 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

A couple of years ago Felix would have been expected to but he is having to reinvent himself. If he passes Colon it will probably be by pitching like him.

5 years ago

Good read. Gets me thinking about nationality. My kids are half Peruvian so I they’d qualify as Latin? But what per cent Latin does a player need to be to considered Latin? Is language a consideration? I’m born in the Netherlands but speak better Spanish than both my boys. Sorry if this sounds like identity nonsense but just wondering? Also why is Mexico better at producing pitchers than hitters?