Yoenis Céspedes is considered by many to be the purest power hitter Cuba has ever produced. What if I told you he wasn’t even the best home run hitter on his Cuban National Series team? Let’s find out why Alfredo Despaigne is De Maigne.
Céspedes briefly co-held the Cuban single season home run record swatting 33 home runs in 2010–11. This tied him with another familiar name Jose Abreu. The mid 2000’s were a prolific period for four baggers amid rumours of a juiced baseball. 30 home runs in a season (the cuban season is normally 90 games) was once considered unlikely. For a period it became the norm. Alexeis Bell of Santiago also held this record for a time.
Céspedes ceded the league record and doesn’t even hold his home club’s record. A former teammate might be the best Cuba home run hitter of all time and one that you may not of heard. The is, unless you pay close attention to the world baseball scene. That player is Alfredo Despaigne of Granma and Japan’s Softbank Hawks.
Debates over who the Cuban Home Run King is often get snagged on whether a player had to have played in the Majors to qualify. Personally I put a greater weighting on the players who did make it in MLB but it doesn’t negate the achievements of players who spent their entire career in Cuba. It isn’t fair to compare statistics from different leagues and different eras. Part of the charm of baseball is that, that fact will never stop these comparisons. Bare with me as much of these comparisons are akin to comparing Apples to Naranjas.
Statistics for the Cuban National Series are incomplete online but https://www.baseballreference.com is as good a resource as exists. While https://www.beisbolencuba.com fills in some gaps. This makes the job of comparison even harder but I will try to present things as fully as possible.
Also note that Cuba used aluminum bats from 1977–2000. Not to discredit the 478 Home Runs that Cuban Home Run King Orestes Kindelan clubbed in his career but many feel that the more modern hitters should receive greater recognition having done their work with wood bats. Wood bats are much less durable than their metal counterparts, have a smaller sweet hitting spot and typically produce shorter batted distances overall.
Rafael Palmeiro presents a different discussion. Born in Havana he left for Miami at six years old. His 569 Home Runs are the most hit by a Cuban born player. The fact they all came at the Major League level should mean he is the definitive Cuban Home Run king. However, Performance enhancing drug use eliminates him for some. Many Cubans although proud of all their countrymen will only adorn the crown to someone who did most of their work in or for Cuba.
Back to Céspedes who when healthy has shown tantalizing flashes for the many teams he has played for in MLB. Showcasing incredible power and exciting athletic tools. He has twice won the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. He debuted as a 17 year old for the Granma Alazanes of the Cuban National Series. Yoenis showed promise in his first two seasons. Establishing himself as one of the best power threats on the island in 2005–06.
Born in the mid 80’s in the small Cuban province of Granma. He made his debut at age 18 in the Cuban National Series. He put up impressive numbers for a rookie. Before quickly ascending to become one of the top sluggers on the island. Setting league records while forming the core of and keeping up the legendary international legacy of team Cuba. Future stars Yuli Gurriel and Leonys Martin were also part of this squad. He would then leave to play professional baseball for Millions of dollars. At first glance this would appear to be the biography for Cespedes. It is but it is also remarkably the same path for Alfredo Despaigne.
Although no one will confuse the two players if competing in a pose down. For the seven years they played together they formed one of the most potent one two punches in Cuban history. Céspedes by far cuts the more impressive physique. The ability to play centerfield to Despaigne’s corner prowess may explain why Céspedes seemed to gain more of the limelight. He was always considered the better prospect of the two. A deeper dive into their numbers shows that at least in Cuba Despaigne may have been just as valuable. Adding in Despaigne’s impressive numbers playing in Japan’s top league closes the gap even further between the two sluggers.
Looking into their numbers as teammates almost feels Like a blind taste Only the most refined pallet could tell the difference between Pepsi & Coke.
First a reminder that an average season during these seasons was 90 games or roughly 350 at bats. Also of note their Granma squad was never able to break through despite having the crass equivalent of Mike Trout & Christian Yelich in the same lineup and win a championship as this period was dominated by Santiago & Industriales. Granma with Despaigne still a key bat did win back to back championships in 2017 & 2018.
Céspedes made the tough decision to risk his safety and contact with his family to leave Cuba in late 2011. He started a new wave of defections as his 4 year $36 million contract with the Athletics was by far the biggest such contract awarded to a Cuban and many more players saw their opportunity to take the risk in return for riches previously unimagined. Debuting at 26 years old he impressed immediately hitting .292 w 23 HR 82 RBI & 16 SB.
When healthy he has represented a .275 batter with 30 HR power and in the conversation to knock in 100 runs each season, however he has bounced around to multiple teams and his current team the New York Mets might be regretting signing him for 4 years and $110 million in 2016 as injuries on the field and reinjury hunting Wild Bores on his farm have limited him to 119 games over 3 seasons.
Despaigne stayed on the island and continued to put up big numbers. His 36 Home Runs in 2011/2012 are still a single season record and he has remained one of the more feared bats in Cuba even as offensive numbers have come down from the highs of the mid 00’s. Alfredo however became a key part of a new strategy from the Cuban Baseball Federation. In response to the massive numbers of defections they realized many of their players were worth more money than the island could pay. Many of the players didn’t want to leave their families or risk dealings with shady human traffickers. Alfredo Despaigne became one of the many players that are now allowed to play professionally in Mexico & Japan. They make small money compared to MLB but large contracts for a Cuban.
He played two seasons for Campeche in the Mexican league. Alfredo Despaigne then pivoted, first to Chiba Lotte of the Japan Pacific Pro League. He put up nice numbers that improved each season before jumping to the Softbank Hawks. There he has averaged over 30 Home Runs in his 4 seasons. Falling just short of the mark with 29 four baggers in 2018. He has been joined on that squad by fellow countrymen Yurisbel Gracial, Livan Moinelo, Ariel Miranda and youngster Oscar Colas. Colas is drawing comparisons to Shohei Ohtani as he will test the MLB Free Agency market in 2020. This infusion of Cuban talent has led Softbank to a mini dynasty claiming Three straight Japanese Baseball Championships.
Contract numbers for Japan are a bit tricky to find but some sources peg Despaigne’s 2019 earnings at $3.56 Million. A larger proportion he is able to return to Cuba with. Despaigne did become vocal in 2019. The Cuban Federation wanted him to return to Granma for the Cuban National Series after his commitments with Softbank. He is also expected to be a key bat for Cuba in International competition including the PanAmerican games and Olympic Qualifiers. Despaigne declined returning to Granma as he felt this schedule would see him playing baseball for close to 365 days. Putting his health and contract in jeopardy, he has however met most of the obligations requested by the Cuban National team.
This agreement with Japan hasn’t stopped certain players from defecting. Yuli Gurriel who had played with the Yokohama Baystars and Oscar Colas still left to pursue careers in America. Gurriel has said that his path was less about the money and more about finding out if he could compete at the top level. How would Despaigne have fared at the Major League level? We will likely never know as he is at an advanced age to try and make the jump. But he might have the next best scenario possible of still making massive sums of money and being able to keep playing and living in Cuba.
Despaigne might not get the chance to chase Orestes Kindelan’s home run record as he has missed much time and expended much energy in Japan. He may surpass the vaunted total when combining all of his statistics. In some ways this would be more impressive as the Japanese League is considered a higher caliber. Even if he doesn’t eclipse Kindelan many still consider Alfredo Despaigne the true Cuban Home Run King. Many more still recognize at the very least Despaigne is De Maigne.