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New Home Run Records for Cuban Sluggers Abreu and Cépedes

by Peter C. Bjarkman

March 24, 2011

Young and unseasoned pitchers, the economic necessity of playing mostly daylight games, and of course the lively Mizuno 150 baseball – all have conspired to produce an unprecedented outburst of home run slugging across the last three Cuban League seasons. First Alexei Bell pounded out a record 31 round-trippers in 2008, a standard that lasted only a single season before Granma’s Alfredo Despaigne upped the mark by one in National Series #48. Last winter Despaigne fell a single dinger short of duplicating his own standard while edging José Dariel Abreu and Yulieski Gourriel (both with 30) on the final day of the campaign. National Series #49 marked the first occasion on which three different Cuban Leaguers all topped the once-milestone 30-homer plateau in a single campaign. And now landmark Gold Anniversary SN#50 has ended in yet another assault on the record books, with both Abreu and Yoennis Céspedes achieving a record-busting 33 four baggers and a half dozen other prodigious sluggers (paced by Reutilio Hurtado with 30, Joan Carlos Pedroso with 29, Freddie Cepeda with 28, and Despaigne with 27) trailing close on their heels.

The recent unprecedented slugging explosion has resulted in eight of the nine individual 30-plus homer campaigns all falling within the three most recent seasons. And certainly more of the same might reasonably be expected in the near future. The only two sluggers to top the 30 barrier in two different seasons, both Abreu and Despaigne notably missed more than a quarter of the just-concluded season. Had Abreu not sat out 23 contests due to nagging shoulder pain (bursitis), and had Despaigne not missed an identical number of games in December and early January (while traveling with a Cuban delegation to the World Youth Festival in South Africa), it is highly likely that both would have approached or even topped the once unimaginable level of 40-plus during the present 90-game campaign.

Abreu (who turned 24 in January) began the campaign with a bang and at mid-year seemed a strong bet to log a Triple Crown performance – the first since Orestes Kindelán turned the trick back in 1989 (a season in which separate batting titles were awarded in the Occidental and Oriente league divisions). Abreu’s fast start produced nine long balls in 18 contests and 23 by the mid-season 45-game mark. But mid-season injury left the Cienfuegos first sacker with nearly a month-long dry spell during which he failed to connect between February 9 and March 5 (21 games). Céspedes started much slower but roared down the stretch with a dozen blasts in January and nine in March to assume the league lead with but five games remaining. Céspedes equaled the record et in 2009 teammate Despaigne on March 20 (game #87) and then surpassed it on the season’s penultimate day. Abreu, however, roared back on the final two days of the campaign, smacking round-trippers in both ends of a Tuesday twin bill, and then equaled Céspedes on the final day of play. Abreu also walked off with the batting crown (.453) while Céspedes (with 99) held on for RBI honors. While Abreu and Céspedes now temporarily share the new league high-water mark, the former stands as this year’s “official” slugging champion due to a league regulation recognizing a single titleholder based on fewest overall at-bats.

For true aficionados of Cuban League statistics, complete logs for the record-setting home run seasons by Abreu (2011), Céspedes (2011) and Despaigne (2009) are provided below. It is noteworthy that both Céspedes (unlike Despaigne in 2009) seems to have benefited greatly by playing home games in Bayamo’s cramped Mártires de Barbados ballpark. The former wacked 17 of this year’s homers at the batter-friendly Granma stadium, while the latter only logged 10 of his 32 round-trippers in that same facility two years back. Abreu also blasted 16 of his record number in the home park during the current campaign, but Abreu’s home-field shots came in the much more spacious 5 de Septiembre Cienfuegos playing grounds.

Several additional notes might be added here about this season’s batting explosion. With his 99 RBIs, Céspedes posted the third highest total in National Series histories, trailing only Alexei Bell’s record 111 (2008) and Yulieski Gourriel’s league-leading 105 of last winter. Céspedes and Frederich Cepeda together paced the circuit in Total Bases with 236, while Cepeda barely missed hitting .400 (falling to .397 on the final day). Runner-up to Abreu in batting was Isla’s Michel Enríquez who finished strong at .401 (his third career season over the .400 mark). Enríquez in the process raised is 14-season lifetime mark to .367, which now leaves him a single point shy of Omar Linares as Cuba’s lifetime batting leader. With his third season of 27-plus homers, Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas) raised his career total to 270 and lengthened his margin as Cuba’s lifetime leader in homers hit in the wooden-bat era (264). And Céspedes and Despaigne now become the first pair of teammates to combine for sixty round trippers in a single campaign.

And one final observation is in order concerning José Dariel Abreu. It has often been claimed in Cuba that the island’s greatest slugging feat was the 30 homers blasted by Orestes Kindelán in a 63-game Selective Series campaign back in 1986, though it might well be argued that Kindelán’s performance was somewhat illegitimate due to the use of aluminum bats. Note, however, that despite the current 90-game National Series framework, this season Abreu only appeared in 67 games and reached the fences 33 times (three more than Kindelán). Kindelán’s 30 homers in 1986 came in 233 Abs which resulted in an average on one dinger every 7.77 official at-bats. Abreu this year struck 33 homers in 212 Abs for an incredible 6.42 HR/AB ratio. This home run frequency easily now makes Abreu the most productive single-season long-ball threat in league history, if one only discounts some of the shorter seasons played by Kindelán who enjoyed the incomparable advantages of aluminum bat-era competitions. The below chart will shed some final light on Piti Abreu’s current miraculous season.

Peter C. Bjarkman is the author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past three-plus years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.