Cuban Stats: Examining the Big Picture

Yunel Escobar reduced his K rate more than 5 percent from Serie Nacional to the majors. (via Dirk Hansen)

A few weeks ago, the Chicago White Sox, who incidentally have a long history of signing Cuban players, beat out a number of other major league teams to sign Cuban outfielder Luis Robert to a reported $25 million contract, with a bonus around $30 million. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! wrote about how Robert’s signing marks the end of an era of big-money contracts for Cuban players, based on new changes to the collective-bargaining agreement, but he is also part of a new wave of increasingly young Cuban signings.

Unlike the signings of older, more established players like José Abreu and Yoenis Céspedes, who spent little to no time in the minors before being called up to the bigs, 19-year-old Robert likely will start his American baseball career in High-A ball, similar to how current White Sox top prospect Yoan Moncada did when he signed with the Red Sox. Scouts are understandably high on Robert, but scouts were also high on Rusney Castillo, who is still stuck in Triple-A.

As with any big contract, these major Cuban signings have the potential to pay off in a big way or ultimately flop, but the relative dearth of information about Cuban players, and the fact that the statistics we do have access to from Cuba’s Serie Nacional de Béisbol (CSN) league (which many equate to the competition at High-A ball—more on that later) are incomplete (for instance, Baseball-Reference doesn’t have games played or intentional walk info for the 2004-05 season or any season prior), make Cuban signings an even more intriguing gamble for major league teams.

I’m a Mariners fan, and Guillermo Heredia, a 2015 Cuban defector who signed with the M’s in 2016, is my favorite player. However, if you don’t follow the team, his name may be unfamiliar. At one point, he was the 11th ranked prospect in Cuba by Baseball America, prized for his speed and outfield defense. But when Heredia came to the U.S., his stock dropped due to concerns about his offensive production. He went unsigned until March, at which point the Mariners signed him to a major league minimum, $507,000 contract.

The 25-year-old started the year in Double-A but was brought up at the end of July as a bench player/fourth outfielder. Heredia began the 2017 season in a similar position, but due to a painful plethora of injuries and some rough Jarrod Dyson platoon splits, he has been pressed into almost everyday service. Since mid-April, when he began starting the majority of games, Heredia has been one of the Mariners’ most valuable position players, with impeccable plate discipline, stellar defense, and new flashes of power.

With Mitch Haniger back on the active roster, Heredia may not play as often, but his emergence as a solid everyday player, coupled with plate discipline numbers that put him among the best in baseball, led me to research the strikeout and walk percentages of players in the Serie Nacional and whether those numbers correlated with their major league plate discipline metrics. That subsequently left me wondering more generally about trends between players’ Cuban statistics and their major league numbers, which led me here.

Clay Davenport has done extensive work in this regard. I do not seek to translate any of these statistics as he has, merely to compile them all in one place and examine them to see if any patterns emerge. When a team signs a position player out of Cuba (and they are almost always position players), there are always questions circling about his expected regression due to the change in quality of competition.

Davenport, through much of his work, has determined the level of play in the CSN is most closely comparable to the level of play in High-A, and he makes his determinations of the quality of Cuban players based on assessing major league players’ stats in High-A and comparing them to the Cuban player’s numbers in the Serie Nacional.

This strategy, despite being considered the closest true translation of Cuban statistics, is still flawed, because that is simply the deeply fallible nature of translations as a whole. As Bill James was quoted in a Grantland piece about Abreu prior to his defection, “Much of what we do is ‘predicting the future,’ but it’s not really prediction; it’s merely projecting present realities into the future.”

As with any data set, particularly one based around information from Cuba, it is important to provide some context for these numbers. My basic parameters for selecting the players were simply that each player had to have at least 60 plate appearances in both the CSN and MLB.

These parameters were selected because, though 60 PAs is still below a foolproof sample size when assessing a player, it also struck the ideal balance between somewhat legitimate sample sizes for a player and maximizing the number of players I could include in this study. Thus the absence of notable Cubans like Jorge Soler (recorded only 15 PAs in Cuba, and Yoan Moncada (yet to reach 60 PAs in the majors).

As Jonah Keri pointed out in his Grantland piece on Abreu, even Davenport’s Cuban translations “remain much less reliable than what he can do with, say, Japanese league players. He has more examples of players coming over from Japan.” So too is my problem here; only a small number of players have adequate playing time in the CSN and the majors combined.

A handful of other considerations to keep in mind while looking at the tables below: Some of the names within these charts may be instantly recognizable, while others just barely managed to qualify, and their respective statistics are subsequently a bit more volatile than those who had long careers that helped smooth out their numbers. I calculated the players’ walk and strikeout percentages from when they were in Cuba and, though I double-checked my work, there is a chance I made an error or two because not only am I human, I am a human who hasn’t done real math in approximately six years. Also, all MLB stats are as of Tuesday. The purpose of this piece, and these data sets, is not to develop foolproof means of projecting the success of Cuban stars in the majors, but rather to compare nearly two decades worth of player statistics in the CSN to the major league level and see if any patterns emerge.

Let’s begin by looking at walk rates and strikeout rates as a general approximation of how Cuban players’ plate discipline changes in their jumps from Cuba to the majors. The amount of access we have to Cuban statistics through Baseball-Reference is obviously fairly limited, so though it would be incredibly interesting to look at CSN contact rates, swing percentages, etc., we are left with simple BB% and K% to glean Cuban players’ shifts in plate discipline.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
Serie Nacional-MLB Comparison, K%
Player Cuba MLB Difference
Guillermo Heredia 10.2% 13.2%  3.0%
Jose Abreu 15.3% 19.4%  4.1%
Yoenis Cespedes 12.7% 20.5%  7.9%
Aledmys Diaz  8.5% 13.1%  4.6%
Yandy Diaz 13.4% 23.9% 10.5%
Yunel Escobar 16.8% 11.4% -5.3%
Adonis Garcia 12.1% 16.0%  3.9%
Yuleiski Gurriel  7.4% 10.6%  3.2%
Adeiny Hechavarria 15.1% 15.6%  0.4%
Jose Iglesias 13.2% 12.2% -1.0%
Kendrys Morales 11.9% 17.9%  6.0%
Yasiel Puig 15.0% 20.6%  5.6%
Yasmany Tomas 17.7% 25.3%  7.6%
Rusney Castillo 11.3% 18.7%  7.4%
Hector Olivera  7.7% 15.7%  8.1%
Alexei Ramirez  9.8% 11.8%  2.1%
Alex Guerrero 10.9% 25.9% 15.0%
Henry Urrutia 13.0% 14.9%  1.9%
Dayan Viciedo 14.6% 21.6%  6.9%
Yuniesky Betancourt  9.2% 10.2%  1.0%
Juan Miranda 16.9% 23.0%  6.0%
Leonys Martin 14.2% 22.1%  7.9%
Average 11.5% 15.8%  4.3%

Cuban hitters, particularly those who have played in the last five to 10 years, often have been categorized as big sluggers with a tendency to strike out wildly. However, in accordance with FanGraphs’ stats for strikeout percentage, Cuban hitters at the major league level are striking out at a rate that is considered above average as a group, with only a couple of hitters grading out as poor.

This 15.8 percent collective strikeout mark is higher than the players’ average in Cuba, but it’s not so dramatic as to be prohibitive to player success, particularly given that major league players are striking out 21.5 percent of the time in 2017. Players with K rates below 11 percent in Cuba showed relatively minimal increases in their strikeout rates in the majors, as did many players who had high K rates to begin with. In fact, two players, José Iglesias and Yunel Escobar, have struck out less frequently since coming to the majors.

Serie Nacional-MLB Comparison, BB%
Player Cuba MLB Difference
Guillermo Heredia 10.1%  7.6% -2.5%
Jose Abreu 11.9%  6.8% -5.0%
Yoenis Cespedes 10.1%  6.8% -3.3%
Aledmys Diaz 10.6%  7.4% -3.1%
Yandy Diaz 16.2%  8.5% -7.7%
Yunel Escobar 13.6%  8.6% -5.1%
Adonis Garcia  6.8%  3.8% -3.0%
Yuleiski Gurriel 11.4%  2.9% -8.5%
Adeiny Hechavarria  7.5%  4.9% -2.6%
Jose Iglesias  4.8%  4.9%  0.1%
Kendrys Morales 11.3%  7.2% -4.1%
Yasiel Puig 11.8%  8.9% -2.9%
Yasmany Tomas  7.7%  5.2% -2.5%
Rusney Castillo  6.9%  4.7% -2.1%
Hector Olivera 11.2%  5.6% -5.7%
Alexei Ramirez  9.4%  4.8% -4.6%
Alex Guerrero  9.2%  2.9% -6.3%
Henry Urrutia 10.2%  2.1% -8.1%
Dayan Viciedo  9.4%  5.3% -4.1%
Yuniesky Betancourt  5.3%  3.3% -2.0%
Juan Miranda 14.3% 10.8% -3.5%
Leonys Martin 15.2%  6.4% -8.8%
Average 10.4%  6.1% -4.3%

On the other side of the plate discipline coin, the average walk rate for a player in Cuba started relatively low, and though the decrease was less than the increase in strikeouts, the average walk rate grades out as slightly better than “poor” according to FanGraphs’ chart. In all likelihood, a number of circumstances have contributed to a generally low walk rate in Cuba, most notably the fact that power hitters have historically been the ones to sign big-money contracts, and subsequently plate discipline is not always a priority at the lower levels. It’s also possible that making contact is more prized on the island than it is these days in the States.

Interestingly, Iglesias, one of two to decrease his strikeout percentage in the jump to the majors, is also the only player in 17 years to increase his walk rate. Now in his third full season as a starter for the Detroit Tigers, he is known as a defense-first player, but has experienced an offensive surge in the last month while maintaining a career-average walk rate and a strikeout percentage just slightly above his career-average rate. In fact, during his June hot streak, he’s seen a dramatic dip in his strikeouts, down to 3.6 percent for the month as of Tuesday.

SERIE NACIONAL-MLB COMPARISON, TRIPLE-SLASH STATS
Cuba MLB Difference
Player AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG
Guillermo Heredia 0.285 0.376 0.418 0.269 0.339 0.357 -0.016 -0.037 -0.061
Jose Abreu 0.341 0.456 0.622 0.299 0.359 0.511 -0.042 -0.097 -0.111
Yoenis Cespedes 0.319 0.404 0.585 0.274 0.328 0.499 -0.045 -0.076 -0.086
Aledmys Diaz 0.307 0.398 0.440 0.284 0.342 0.470 -0.023 -0.056  0.030
Yandy Diaz 0.277 0.412 0.344 0.203 0.268 0.219 -0.074 -0.144 -0.125
Yunel Escobar 0.278 0.392 0.365 0.283 0.350 0.386  0.005 -0.042  0.021
Adonis Garcia 0.312 0.375 0.503 0.269 0.302 0.416 -0.043 -0.073 -0.087
Yuleiski Gurriel 0.337 0.421 0.582 0.270 0.301 0.420 -0.067 -0.120 -0.162
Adeiny Hechavarria 0.248 0.307 0.339 0.255 0.291 0.337  0.007 -0.016 -0.002
Jose Iglesias 0.296 0.333 0.351 0.275 0.321 0.357 -0.021 -0.012  0.006
Kendrys Morales 0.350 0.433 0.576 0.272 0.329 0.466 -0.078 -0.104 -0.110
Yasiel Puig 0.311 0.410 0.527 0.281 0.355 0.467 -0.030 -0.055 -0.060
Yasmany Tomas 0.290 0.345 0.504 0.268 0.307 0.462 -0.022 -0.038 -0.042
Rusney Castillo 0.315 0.380 0.501 0.262 0.301 0.379 -0.053 -0.079 -0.122
Hector Olivera 0.323 0.407 0.505 0.245 0.296 0.378 -0.078 -0.111 -0.127
Alexei Ramirez 0.332 0.405 0.513 0.270 0.307 0.392 -0.062 -0.098 -0.121
Alex Guerrero 0.303 0.386 0.528 0.224 0.251 0.414 -0.079 -0.135 -0.114
Henry Urrutia 0.350 0.426 0.517 0.272 0.287 0.337 -0.078 -0.139 -0.180
Dayan Viciedo 0.285 0.370 0.450 0.254 0.298 0.424 -0.031 -0.072 -0.026
Yuniesky Betancourt 0.289 0.331 0.439 0.261 0.285 0.388 -0.028 -0.046 -0.051
Juan Miranda 0.299 0.420 0.544 0.226 0.320 0.420 -0.073 -0.100 -0.123
Leonys Martin 0.322 0.449 0.476 0.248 0.301 0.359 -0.074 -0.148 -0.117
Average 0.317 0.403 0.520 0.270 0.320 0.416 -0.047 -0.084 -0.104

Now we get to the traditional measure of offensive production, the triple-slash line of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Under normal circumstances batting average is an unreliable statistic when it comes to determining a player’s true ability, but it’s one of the few concrete averages we have and will serve just fine as a frame of reference.

Prior to the signings of big power hitters like Céspedes and Abreu, many in the media and throughout the baseball community said their slugging numbers were not sustainable at the major league level, and they were correct for the most part. On average, players are experiencing a 100-point loss in slugging in their transition from Cuba to the majors.

Nevertheless, Céspedes and Abreu — who had two of the highest slugging percentages in Cuba — have been able to maintain a solid degree of power in the states. It would be easy to say those two have had successful slugging careers in the majors because their high SLG in Cuba was indicative of true power, but Rusney Castillo and Alexei Ramirez, the latter the owner of a .918 OPS in Cuba, are two counter-examples who represent the risk side of these high-risk, high-reward international signings.

All but three players experienced a loss in slugging percentage. Those three were Aledmys Diaz and Escobar, whose SLG were not obscenely high to begin with, and—say it with me now–Iglesias. I’m not knowledgeable enough about Iglesias or his career to posit how he has managed to improve his stats since playing in the majors, beyond the fact that he reached the majors at the tender age of 21, but it certainly would be an interesting exploration and one I’d be eager to read.

Beyond SLG, it is interesting to note that no player was exempt from a loss in OBP when transitioning to the majors. Yulieski Gurriel, who was praised for his plate discipline and ability to take walks in addition to a high slugging percentage, has been one of the players to struggle the most, with a .120 loss of OBP. It stands to reason that those who experienced smaller shifts in OBP are players with decent speed on the basepaths, such as Adeiny Hechavarría, Heredia and, yes, of course, Iglesias. A huge number of factors change when players transition to the majors, but speed seems to be a somewhat consistent characteristic.

Serie Nacional-MLB Comparison, wOBA
Player Cuba MLB Difference
Guillermo Heredia 0.350 0.314 -0.036
Jose Abreu 0.454 0.373 -0.081
Yoenis Cespedes 0.422 0.355 -0.067
Aledmys Diaz 0.371 0.351 -0.020
Yandy Diaz 0.351 0.227 -0.124
Yunel Escobar 0.345 0.328 -0.017
Adonis Garcia 0.380 0.314 -0.066
Yuleiski Gurriel 0.426 0.314 -0.111
Adeiny Hechavarria 0.289 0.276 -0.013
Jose Iglesias 0.305 0.302 -0.003
Kendrys Morales 0.436 0.345 -0.092
Yasiel Puig 0.403 0.358 -0.045
Yasmany Tomas 0.359 0.334 -0.026
Rusney Castillo 0.380 0.300 -0.080
Hector Olivera 0.397 0.296 -0.101
Alexei Ramirez 0.398 0.307 -0.091
Alex Guerrero 0.393 0.288 -0.105
Henry Urrutia 0.408 0.276 -0.132
Dayan Viciedo 0.355 0.315 -0.040
Yuniesky Betancourt 0.335 0.293 -0.042
Juan Miranda 0.419 0.326 -0.092
Leonys Martin 0.409 0.293 -0.117
Average 0.398 0.322 -0.077

Finally, let’s look at wOBA. For these, I used the general wOBA formula for both Cuban and American stats. I figured I would keep both the same, since we don’t have specific weights for Cuban seasons readily available. Also, the missing IBBs are somewhat of an issue, but the formula gets close enough to be useful.

Calculating wOBA, and assessing the difference between a player’s weighted on base average in Cuba, as opposed to MLB, represents the crux of the change that occurs when players make that jump. FanGraphs considers a wOBA of .400 to be “excellent,” .320 to be “average”, and .290 to be “awful.” With those classifications in mind, we can conclude that what we’re seeing in the difference in wOBA is a general trend for Cuban defectors. These players are excellent hitters in Cuba when they’re first signed, and, adjust to become squarely average offensive producers. There are, of course, exceptions when it comes to both extremes, but ultimately it is a not dissimilar phenomenon to drafting a top high school talent, and seeing them settle into a perfectly decent major league career.

In my article on Heredia and plate discipline statistics, I concluded that his style of player, with a solid OBP, low strikeout rate, and modest slugging percentage, could represent a new kind of successful Cuban signing. This broader sample size seems to hint at a similar trend, based primarily around the idea that players who are most likely to experience success in their major league transitions are the ones who fall somewhere in the middle range of these respective statistics.

Iglesias, somewhat inexplicable Cuban unicorn that he is, is a good example of this. Save for the lowest walk percentage among all players in this data set, his numbers in Cuba left him squarely in the middle of the pack. Players like Iglesias, or Escobar, were not big names when they were signed, nor have they become huge stars like their big, slugging countrymen, but they have been useful pieces for their respective teams at relatively small financial cost.

As I mentioned earlier, this sample size still feels far too limited to make concrete determinations about which types of players will thrive or fizzle out in the majors, but it does begin to illuminate some interesting patterns of success. With the new restrictions on international signing bonuses, coupled with what many international talent scouts consider a “decimated” talent pool, it is possible we may start to see more signings of these less “flashy” players. In some cases, consistency can be as valuable an asset as power.

References & Resources


Isabelle Minasian is the Digital Content Specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Before she spent her days creating and sharing baseball nonsense in Cooperstown she did so in Seattle, where she wrote for Lookout Landing, La Vida Baseball and, clearly, The Hardball Times. Follow her on Twitter @95coffeespoons.
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Carl
5 years ago

Isabelle,

Great article. And loved the series you did on FanGraphs!

Fireball Fred
5 years ago

Very interesting. Iglesias couldn’t hit when he came up (with Boston), but IIRC spent a winter working on his hitting with Dustin Pedroia’s encouragement and learned to hit the ball down both lines – which suddenly gave him “doubles power.”

Joseph Meyer
5 years ago

It seems natural to me to somehow normalize or adjust each player’s seasonal statistics with aging curves. A problem with this analysis is that these players came over to the MLB at vastly different points in their careers. I don’t know if aging curves exist for Cuban statistics but I would think that MLB aging curves have to be close enough for an initial adjustment.

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