We are sixty years into Cuba’s post revolution baseball and twenty-five years into Cuba’s baseball revolution. The first cohort of Cubans arriving in MLB was in the mid 1990’s. This was often pitchers and they risked it all to get on American shores. Rene Arocha and Ariel Prieto were the first trailblazers. The half brother’s Hernandez the first to find big success helping the Marlins and Yankees to World Series glory in 1997 & 1998 respectively. Let’s explore Cuba’s pitching today with an analysis of Granma’s Lazaro Blanco.
Since Livan & El Duque Cuban bats have been the big difference makers. Jose Fernandez is a tragic case of what if, taken way too soon. Even in his short time on earth and in MLB he flashed brilliance the likes we haven’t seen out of Cuban hurlers in some time if ever. Fernandez is often left off best Cuban pitcher lists because he developed in the States. He never played in the National Series or for the Cuban National team. The Cuban debate typically holds players who played extensively in Cuba or for Cuba in higher regard.
Few debate that Major League success holds more credence in overall career accolades. “The Cuban Missile” Aroldis Chapman is likely the best Cuban pitcher of the past decade plus. Chapman’s record 106.7MPH fastball is at least a standard deviation away from MLB standard. His heater is likely plus three standard deviations from what we see in Cuba.
Chapman was miscast as a starter in Cuba. His stats didn’t jump out at you from his time with Holguin. Aroldis has been a top closer in MLB but loses some points for some high profile failures in key spots. Many have anointed him as the best hurler in the 2010’s. That might not be as concrete as it first appears.
Granma’s Lazaro Blanco might be the best Cuban pitcher of the 2010’s or at least the most important. I am not making the argument that Blanco was ever of MLB calibre. I will as most always put more weight on accomplishments in the highest league in the world. However if you’re ignoring the accomplishments of players such as Blanco, who have performed in the world’s top non-MLB leagues you’re missing a great game.
Blanco has been a stalwart with Granma and a bit of a nomad over the past few years. He has logged rubber armed innings wherever they are needed. Like many pitchers Blanco figured out how to pitch as he matured. He turned the corner at 27 which is when most athletes enter their prime. Most pitchers don’t learn on the fly against top competition though. Lazaro he debuted at 18 for Granma in the Cuban National Series. Early on you wouldn’t have been wrong to question why the Alazanes were giving him so many opportunities. You also might not have predicted he would toe the rubber in Championship clinchers or for Cuba in International competitions.
Lazaro Blanco is listed at 6’3 and 200 lbs and the weight estimate might be light. On the mound he appears larger and perhaps that stature contributed to his early struggles. Was he was trying to be a thrower and not a pitcher? Blanco has learned how to work with his still above average by Cuban standard 88 MPH fastball. The reality is his success comes in pitching to contact. Mixing in sliders in the 78 to 84 MPH range. At least by the eye test he never throws a pitch that looks straight. Fastball velocities are on the rise in baseball everywhere. But it strikes me as ironic that the island that produced the record breaking fastball of Aroldis Chapman lags in speed overall.
Increasingly Cuban pitchers feel their best chance for success is to get out of Cuba and to work with pitching experts on other shores to increase their fastball velocity. Perhaps Blanco would have been better off if this path had been acceptable during his time on the rise. There is a romantic throwback feel to his approach.
Blanco has become the de-facto Ace for Cuba which might make him more the winner of a war of attrition than a true pitching star. That isn’t his fault and his dedication to his craft and country can’t be denied. Players in the Cuban National Series are deemed amateur but by Cuban standard are paid more than average.
The obvious riches of MLB contracts make the perks players receive seem a pittance. This also lags the increasing salaries for players being allowed to sign in Japan and return to Cuba. Blanco and other veteran Cuban pitchers have supplemented their earnings playing in Professional leagues in Canada, Nicaragua, Panama & Mexico. This should be lauded as it feels like pitching has become a 365 day a year endeavour in certain seasons. On top of this he is always available for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic, Caribbean Series and PanAm Games.
Blanco in 2020 shuttled back and forth between Granma and Nicaragua and returned in time for the disjointed but ongoing Cuban National Series playoffs, going deep in his two wins as the Alazanes advanced past Industriales in five games in round one and most recently taking game one of the semifinal against Pinar del Rio. Granma as the number two seed and Blanco as the number one pitcher might be the favourites to take their third Cuban National Series title.