Cuban-born Major League Baseball players have been contributing to the game for decades, but the level of talent now in the game is unprecedented. Between MVP candidates, a Rookie of the Year winner, and a flamethrower who tosses fastballs topping 100 mph, Cuban MLB players are filling seats in every stadium around the two leagues.
In fact, one could argue that Cuban players are setting a higher standard for MLB ballplayers. Sluggers who can rake in the Home Run Derby and then turn around to play All-Star baseball the same weekend bring back an old-school swagger for power hitters that the game has been missing. The same goes for outfielders who play the game with athleticism not seen since the days Bo Jackson roamed Kansas City’s outfield.
Here are five Cuban ballplayers who are raising the bar for MLB superstars. All statistics quoted are current at the start of play on July 31.
1. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Aroldis Chapman earned the nickname “The Cuban Missile” for the stunning velocity he brings to the mound for every relief outing. Regularly throwing smoke that could discombobulate a radar gun, Chapman has the MLB record for his pitch speed of 105.1 mph, set in 2010 against San Diego. He hasn’t slowed down since. On a July 28 contest against Arizona, Chapman threw 15 pitches at or over 101 mph in a single inning, including one pitch at 104 mph and three at 103 mph. His average fastball speed for the outing was 102 mph.
Since his blistering debut season, Chapman’s control has gotten better. A 6-foot-4 reliever who can control pitches over 100 mph is an obvious game-changer. How do hitters handle it? Looking at the leagues’ .135 batting average against Chapman, it appears they have little chance.
2. Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
At a time when slugging is in short supply, Jose Abreu is delivered an unparalleled power show for Chicago’s South Siders. The Cuban defector has 31 home runs and 83 RBI — both bests in MLB — through just 93 games in his rookie campaign for the White Sox. While Abreu put up some staggering numbers in the Cuban league before arriving in Chicago, few MLB analysts believed he could duplicate that production on the Major League level. Abreu has been up for the challenge.
In fact, it will be tough for any player to top him for AL Rookie of the Year in 2014. Abreu has already won Rookie of the Month for two of his first three months of play and made the All Star team for the American League. At a contract worth around $11 million a year, it’s safe to say the White Sox made a smart move by locking up Abreu for the next six years.
3. Yoenis Cespedes, Boston Red Sox
A July 31 trade to the Red Sox was announced that will send A’s slugger Yoenis Cespedes to Boston in exchange for Jon Lester. No matter where Cespedes plays (Fenway’s left field won’t hurt), the Cuban slugger will continue to mash and perform superhuman feats from the outfield with his throwing arm.
What’s refreshing about Cespedes is his old-school approach to challenges like the Home Run Derby. Some players worry it will mess with their swing and opt out of the power spectacle. Cespedes shrugs off these concerns and won for the second year straight in 2014. Prior to that accomplishment, the last player to win back-to-back derbies was Ken Griffey, Jr. in 1998 and 1999.
4. Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins
Before Jose Fernandez succumbed to an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injury and had Tommy John surgery in 2014, he was the pitcher that made everyone stop and watch as the must-see performer on the mound. The Cuban-born Fernandez defected as a teenager before entering the Marlins system in 2011. In his 2013 rookie campaign, Fernandez posted a 2.19 ERA with a 0.98 WHIP and 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings. That earned him the NL Rookie of the Year award. Baseball fans everywhere are hoping he gets back on the mound some time in 2014 to resume his dominant pitching.
5. Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers
Whether it’s wild bat flips, dynamic outfield play, reckless baserunning, or power displays that catch a fan’s attention, Yasiel Puig usually delivers them all in the course of a single game. He incited a frenzy during his 2013 debut and has held MLB players to a higher standard ever since. Even when Dodgers players and coaches were frustrated by his mistakes, there was never any question of Puig’s desire to be sensational. Puig puts pressure on fielders whenever he hits a ball into the outfield through his canny, aggressive style of running the bases.
Though he has battled injuries in 2014, Puig has a 4.19 offensive WAR, which ranks him eighth best in Major League Baseball. His marked improvements (fewer strikeouts, more walks) suggest this Cuban star is still rising at age 23. He’ll continue to raise the bar for MLB players in the coming years.