Before I began capturing video and writing about Cuban baseball, my photos connected me with the Cuban baseball community. Some of my early photos were the first to circulate as the internet was in it’s naissance. I have had the good fortune to return many times and capture the Cuban National Team in Canada as well. Join me in a new series where I share some of my favourite photos and tell the Stories of some of Cuba’s best players. Today let’s look at Juan Carlos Torriente Industriales Through My Lens.
One of the biggest complaints about analytics and modern baseball is the increase in strike outs. Baseball fans of a certain vintage, grew up in an era where 100 strike outs for a batter was unacceptable. It seems a new strike out record is set annually. At the least it seems the number of players surpassing previous unfathomable plateaus is growing. Those who cringe at these numbers might also romanticize players that are the opposite of these free swingers. I think there has to be balance somewhere. My bias does have much respect for players that think strike outs are the devil. High strike out rates have yet to be accepted in Cuba. More on this in a bit.
One story was hidden in plain sight in the recent restructuring of the Industriales roster. Juan Carlos Torriente was also summoned to the offices of the Blue Lions. He fits into the cohort of veteran contributors to Havana baseball whose days appear numbered. His path is similar to Frank Morejón and Stayler Hernández.
He spent part of his development with the Metropolitanos as a teenager before moving up to Industriales. Torriente was also a key contributor to the last Industriales championship. Juan Carlos is part of a fading generation of Cuban baseball stars.
Juan Carlos missed the equivalent of a full season with a hand injury from home construction work. He did hit an impressive .358 as recently as 2018-2019. At just 32 he would appear to still have some gas left in the tank. He appears to be a victim of Industriales’ youth movement though. Whether he would accept a move to another Cuban National Series squad is uncertain. It appears that option is not at the forefront.
Cuban baseball has a throwback feel for many ways and Juan Carlos Torriente is a throwback player in his hitting approach. In 16 Cuban National Series Torriente has a .312 career batting average. This is a nice number in a league where averages are slightly inflated. Juan Carlos’ numbers show that he recognized his strengths and weaknesses and leveraged them to be a solid contributor.
His career high for home runs is just 4 and he has a tally of only 22 round trippers overall. He realized though that if you can’t hit the ball over the wall you can’t let the pitcher get it past you either. He struck out 158 times in 16 years or 2973 at bats. That is a strike out in 5% of his total at bats. For comparison MLB legend Tony Gwynn struck out in 4.7% of his career at bats. As always the caveat that comparing Cuba to MLB is comparing Apples to Naranjas but his aversion to whiffing is still impressive.
Torriente was a member of the Cuban National Team that toured the CanAm League in 2016 & 2017. He logged the majority of innings at second base. I had access to the squad in the dugout and approached the assignment in a professional capacity. My lack of Spanish was an obvious detriment but at the same time was a unique advantage. I was able to build a rapport with certain players based on my camera. Juan Carlos was one player who always seemed to play to my lens. He would become one of the early adopters of Facebook from the squad and I was able to share the photos with him via this channel.
Torriente, Morejón, Hernández et al represent a unique period in Cuban baseball. They came through the development system and competed against that superstars we see in the Major Leagues today. But for circumstance they might have joined these players in America. Their long careers span many different eras of the Cuban National Series. They played in arguably the golden age and are still key contributors in today’s game. Are their resumes overstated due to the attrition of talent on the island?
The stories of these players may only be relevant to hardcore fans of baseball on and of the island. I am increasingly fascinated by the gap, if it exists between Cuban Major League stars and National Series stars. I alluded before that for many it might be purely chance. The chance to get off the island, be scouted, sign and work towards the Majors. Good health and good work habits obviously have a big impact. These players that spent their careers in Cuba competed with the best at different points. They were teammates with the high paid stars of baseball’s best league. They outperformed these stars at points or supported them in the team environment.
The stories of players that existed in the baseball middle are thus at threat of disappearing. If this is the end for Juan Carlos Torriente and his cohort as a players I hope my photos can at least help preserve part of a legacy. A legacy of high quality baseball played for purer ambitions. The ambitions of competing for country and province, clearly not for money. Note, I don’t blame anybody playing for money and hope all players can make as much as possible. The retiring stars of the Cuban National Series at least deserve our respect. Respect for playing top level baseball for close to 20 years. 20 years without many of the creature comforts of professional baseball.