Monday, October 03, 2005

The Quick And the Brain Dead by John Shiffert

Esteban Enrique “Steve” Bellan died on August 8, 1932 in Havana at the age of 82. Now, that may not seem like much of a news flash, but Steve Bellan was a pioneer... the first Latin American to play baseball in the United States and one of the game’s pioneers in Cuba and the Caribbean. As such, he was a trailblazer for the expansion of what was already the American National Game to an entire new population, and the starter of a trend that only gathers momentum to this day. However, it is apparently a trend with a skeleton in its closet, and a controversy.

Steve Bellan was born into a Cuban (not Spanish) family in Havana in 1850, and was playing baseball at its highest level in the U.S. by the time he was 18, first with the Unions of Morrisiana, and then, for the next four years, with the Troy Haymakers. He finished his American career with eight games with the New York Mutuals in 1873. Thus, Bellan spanned the period between the National Association of Base Ball Players and the first professional league, the National Association. Basically a good-fielding third baseman, though with a scatter arm, he was only a fair hitter (.252 BA) with little power, although he did have a 5-for-5 day with five RBIs against Al Spalding on August 3, 1871. He was also eighth in the National Association in walks in 1871, drawing nine (the rules provided for very few walks in this era) in 29 games.

When he returned to Cuba, he was among the first to introduce baseball there, and he participated in the first organized baseball game in his native land in 1874. Apparently, he found some power back home, because he hit three home runs in a game on December 27, 1874. Bellan later went on to become the player-manager of the Havana team from 1878 to 1886 and lead his squad to championships in 1878-79, 1879-1880 and 1882-83.

The trend that Bellan helped start would make baseball as big a sport in Latin America, especially the Caribbean, as it is in the United States. By the start of the 21st Century, hundreds of thousands of Caribbean natives had taken up the game, and an increasing number were not surprisingly coming to America to get ahead and test their skills…just like Steve Bellan did almost 140 years ago.

The controversy is… how many of those thousands of Caribbean players are brain-dead? An absurd question, but the subject was brought up approximately 73 years after Steve Bellan’s death by KNBR radio’s now-fired Larry Krueger. Now, KNBR is the flagship station for the San Francisco Giants, and it seems as if Krueger was getting frustrated with the G’ints lack of success at the plate (and in the standings) this year, generating a rant that included a statement about the Giants club and its “brain-dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly.” This sort of cultural stereotyping is, of course, an anathema to most people, and it quite naturally provoked a firestorm of controversy, especially with Giants’ manager Felipe Alou, who happens to be from the Dominican Republican (remember the old saying attributed to Dominican players, “you can’t get off the Island by walking?”) and who also happened to object to being characterized in the same rant as a “manager…whose mind has turned to Cream of Wheat.”

All well and good, or maybe bad. But, what about the actual statistics that may or may not support Kreuger’s assertion? (The walking comment, not the Cream of Wheat comment.) In the fallout over Kreuger’s manifestly politically incorrect statement, no one seems to have wanted to explore the facts. Possibly out of fear of also being characterized as politically incorrect. Well, Zisk has no fear, so we’ll ask the question—do Caribbean players indeed lack plate discipline? That’s something that can be studied dispassionately, through the baseball record. First, let’s look at the 2005 San Francisco Giants, and their relevant stats, as of the time that Kreuger made his ill-fated rant:

Giants 3769 313 .326 .060
Opponents 3810 408 .345 .082

It seems pretty obvious that the Giants as a team were not drawing walks at a rate anywhere near their opponents—almost 100 fewer walks, and on-base percentage almost 20 points lower, and a team Isolated Discipline (On-Base Percentage minus Batting Average) 22 points lower. Now, how much of that can be laid at the feet (or heads) of their Latino players?

In early August 2005, there were five Giants who were born in Caribbean nations who had more than 100 plate appearances in 2005:

Pedro Feliz 401 26 .309 .042
Omar Vizquel 390 36 .350 .060
Edgardo Alfonzo 258 21 .349 .054
Deivi Cruz 185 9 .299 .034
Yorvit Torrealba 93 9 .301 .075

A mixed message at best. Vizquel and Alfonzo had on base-percentages significantly better than the team’s. Torrealba was the only one to meet the Rule of 10 for Walks (having around 10% as many walks as at bats) and had a better Isolated Discipline (ID—a stat developed by your humble author and derived by subtracting batting average from on base percentage) than the team, while Vizquel was right at the team ID average and actually had more walks than strikeouts. Collectively, these five players had an on-base percentage of .328, just about the team average. So, you could say that, while they were not part of the solution, they also were not really part of the problem—they were just part of a team that didn’t draw many walks.

It should be noted that this accounting does not include Moises Alou, son of Felipe, who was born in Atlanta and raised in the United States, and who happened, at the time, to be by far the team’s best hitter, with a .925 OPS. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but his figures at the time were as follows:

Moises Alou 302 46 .418 .090

(An aside: I saw Moises Alou play in a New York/Pennsylvania League game at, of all places, Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, when he was about 18 years old. He spent the entire afternoon futilely chasing curve balls in the dirt.)

Obviously, this study says more about the 2005 Giants than it does about Caribbean players as a whole. It only covers six members of one team for a part of one season. What about the big picture, over a much larger slice of baseball history? The four Caribbean countries that have provided major league baseball with by far the most players in the last century have been the Dominican Republic (385), Puerto Rico (214), Venezuela (169) and Cuba (148). Let’s take a look at all the players from those countries who have had significant careers. In this case, 6000 plate appearances or more, or the rough equivalent of 10 full seasons, and ranked by ID.

Dominican Republic
Manny Ramirez 5948 928 .409 .095
Jose Offerman 5652 766 .360 .087
Sammy Sosa 8362 895 .346 .071
Rico Carty 5606 642 .369 .070
Pedro Guerrero 5392 609 .370 .070
Julio Franco 8363 882 .366 .066
Cesar Cedeno 7310 664 .347 .062
Tony Fernandez 7911 690 .347 .059
Raul Mondesi 5814 475 .331 .058
Juan Samuel 6081 440 .315 .056
Tony Pena 6489 455 .309 .049
Felipe Alou 7339 423 .328 .042
Julian Javier 5722 314 .296 .039
George Bell 6123 331 .316 .038
Matty Alou 5789 311 .345 .038
Alfredo Griffin 6780 338 .285 .036
(Hmmm… maybe that’s why Felipe Alou was so upset. By the way, Jesus Alou’s career ID was an awful .025.)

Puerto Rico
Carlos Delgado 5368 872 .392 .109
Bernie Williams 7278 1024 .385 .086
Roberto Alomar 9076 1032 .371 .071
Jose Cruz, Sr. 7917 878 .354 .070
Orlando Cepeda 7927 588 .350 .053
Willie Montanez 5843 465 .327 .052
Juan Gonzalez 6555 457 .343 .048
Benito Santiago 6951 430 .307 .044
Felix Milan 5791 318 .322 .043
Roberto Clemente 9454 621 .359 .042
Ivan Rodriguez 7076 406 .345 .039
Vic Power 6046 279 .315 .031

Minnie Minoso 6579 814 .389 .091
Jose Canseco 7057 906 .353 .087
Raffy Palmeiro 10446 1351 .371 .082
Tony Perez 9778 925 .341 .062
Tony Taylor 7680 613 .321 .060
Jose Cardenal 6964 608 .333 .058
Leo Cardenas 6707 522 .311 .054
Bert Campaneris 8684 618 .311 .052
Tony Oliva 6301 448 .353 .049
Cookie Rojas 6309 396 .306 .043

Omar Vizquel 8213 822 .341 .066
Andres Gallarraga 8096 583 .347 .059
Dave Concepcion 8723 736 .322 .055
Manny Trillo 5950 452 .316 .053
Luis Aparicio 10230 736 .311 .049
Ozzie Guillen 6686 239 .287 .023

What, if anything, can we learn from these 44 players? First, that this is an arbitrary cut-off point. If we were to include all those players with 5000 plate appearances then, for instance, you could add Bobby Abreu, a master of controlling the strike zone, to the Venezuela list, and his numbers look like this:

Bobby Abreu 4559 843 .411 .107

Cutting back to 5000 career PAs also brings in Danny Tartabull (Puerto Rico), with his .095 career ID, Stan Javier, who had a lot more plate discipline than his dad (.076), and another Venezuelan, Alfonzo, who’s actually having a bad year in 2005, because his career ID is .073. On the other side of the coin, Caribbean players with between 5000 and 6000 PAs also include Cuba’s Tito Fuentes (.039), Venezuela’s Tony Armas (.035), Dominican Rafael Ramirez (.034) and Puerto Rico’s Carlos Baerga (.040), so maybe it balances out.

Of more significance is a point made by the exceedingly astute Bill Deane, the former National Baseball Library researcher and a Hall of Fame thinker on the sport. Deane notes that while Latino players, “had been taught early on that the only way to attract the attention of major league scouts was by their hitting ability, not their patience; so, their only hope to leave their native islands for the promised land of the majors was to go up there hacking.” However, Deane makes another, more important point—this trend has changed in recent years, in that, prior to 1999, only one Latin-born player (Tartabull) had ever drawn 100 walks in a season. Since then, notes Deane, it’s become fairly common, thanks to the skills of—among others—Abreu, Williams, Delgado, Palmeiro and Jorge Posada.

The thought also occurs that some of these players, though born in Caribbean nations, weren’t raised there. Ramirez (who went to high school in New York), Canseco (Miami), Palmeiro and Alomar come quickly to mind. Still, overall we can say we’re looking at a pretty good-sized sample of players with long-time major league service starting about 50 years ago. Meaning, among other things, that they had to be considered at least pretty good hitters to have stayed around that long, with the possible exceptions of Javier, Griffin, Milan, Power, Rojas and Guillen, who were perhaps better known for their work in the field. Of course, the perceived value of a base on balls has never been higher than it is today. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, a walk wasn’t generally considered as good as a hit, so maybe you could last longer, even if you didn’t walk much.

Maybe the best thing is to look at the long-term historical perspective. Over the 50 seasons from 1955 to 2004, which basically encompasses the careers of all of these players, the average ID in the National League was .064, and, except for a couple of years in the “New DeadBall Era” of the 60s, it really hasn’t varied very much from that median. Over those same 50 seasons the average seasonal ID for the American League as a whole has been a bit higher, .067, although, once again, there hasn’t been much variance from that standard over the years, with the yearly marks rarely dropping below .060, and then not very far below .060. Thus, we can say that 14 of our 44-man sample had career ID’s above the National League standard and 12 had career ID’s above the American League standard. (The two that fell between the American and National League averages are current players Omar Vizquel and Julio Franco.) And, if we recall The Rule of 10 for Walks, we also see that just 14 of the 44 (Ramirez, Offerman, Sosa, Carty, Guerrero, Franco, Delgado, Williams, Alomar, Cruz, Minoso, Canseco, Palmeiro, Vizquel) meet that standard, that is, only 14 of these players had walk totals that were within 10% of their at bats. However, also note that, in conjunction to Deane’s point, that Ramirez, Offerman, Sosa, Franco, Delgado, Williams, Alomar, Canseco, Palmeiro and Vizquel are current or recent players.

Individually, only Carlos Delgado on this list (as well as Abreu, once he gets 6000 PA) qualify as ID Monsters, with career IDs over .100. Whereas, any pitcher who walked Ozzie Guillen should have been pulled from the game immediately. Ditto for Javier, Bell (even though he was a power hitter), Matty Alou, Griffin, Rodriguez and Power. Actually, power hitters (as opposed to Vic Power) are scarce on these lists. That may be a significant point, since power hitters will typically get more walks from pitchers just pitching around them. Only Canseco, Palmeiro, Perez, Gallarraga, Bell, Ramirez, Sosa, Cepeda, Delgado and Gonzalez would unanimously make anyone’s list of power hitters, and only Bell and Juan Gone of that group really have seriously (more than 10 points below average) sub-par IDs. So, it could be postulated that Caribbean players seem like they draw fewer walks because there are relatively few power hitters in their grouping.

What does this all mean? What’s the conclusion? Well, another deep thinker on the game, Matt Coyne, has pointed to an interview Panamanian Manny Sanguillen (he of the .030 ID in 5300 PAs) gave years ago where the writer made a point of saying that Latin players would swing at anything because each time at bat was so valuable and that it was a macho thing to hit, meaning that only a nancy boy (Coyne’s term—an anachronism from his youth in the mid-19th Century) would accept a walk. So, maybe there’s something to the theory that Caribbean players don’t walk that much, at least up until 1999. Does that make them brain-dead hackers? Or, for that matter, does that make Rocco Baldelli a brain-dead Italian hacker? Hardly.

John Shiffert is the author of Baseball: 1862 to 2003 [PublishAmerica, 2004] and the forthcoming book, Baseball…Then and Now [PublishAmerica, 2005]. His third book, on Philadelphia baseball in the 19th Century will be published by McFarland in 2006. He can be reached through his website,

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