Well, With a Name Like the Reds, blah, blah, blah... (18 Game Capsule #5)

In MLB history, there have been 26 Cuban-born players with at least: 1,000 career hits, or 100 career home runs, or 100 wins, or 50 saves. Rather improbably, perhaps, nine of them have played for the Reds, although five of those were with the team for just a season or less. Too, there is exactly one Hall of Fame plaque dedicated to a Cuban; Tony Perez wears the wishbone C in permanent bronze.

With this rich backdrop of Cuban and Cincinnatian convergence, there's every expectation that Aroldis Chapman will become the next great Redleg from the small island. He's certainly off to a reasonable start.

Chapman, as you know, throws a zillion miles per hour, has been very solid in the bullpen since 2010, and also has shown some personal idiosyncrasies in his off-field behavior. All the same, he has a long way to go before he can be considered the best or most interesting of Cuban-born pitchers in Reds history.

Dolf Luque, born in Havana in 1890, was an improbable star for the Reds in the 1920s. For one, he should have been far too small at 5'7", 160 lbs to have thrown the more than 3,200 MLB innings that he did, a figure which still ranks 100th of all time and does not include the undocumented Cuban League innings Luque likely racked up. Even more unlikely than the rubber arm, however, was where the man came from.

First things first. All interesting and non-statistical data in this piece comes from one of two very impressive sources: Peter C. Bjarkman wrote a killer bio of Luque as part of SABR's bio project, and Callum Hughson put together a shorter but no less interesting post on Luque at mopupduty.com.

Back to the pitcher. What's so incredibly unlikely about Luque's story is that he represents the only Cuban Major Leaguer of note of his era, plus an era or two on either side. In fact, Bjarkman notes that Luque was the only Caribbean player of significant big-league contribution in the first half of the 20th century. Dolf was fair-skinned, as Cubans go, and was able to ply his talents at a time when all his qualified countrymen could not. Nonetheless, he wasn't quite white enough for some, and took considerable ribbing around the country.

I can't do the referenced bios justice so I encourage you to read them in full. For now and for here, let me simply recap my favorite Luque anecdotes.

  • 1) Luque was facing the New York Giants once, and was being heckled mercilessly from the bench. He stopped mid-windup on one pitch, set his glove and ball down on the mound, rushed the dugout and beat Casey Stengel to a near-pulp.
  • 2) Luque once threw a fastball into his own team's dugout.
  • 3) Although Luque died in 1957, his widow proclaimed that he was actually still alive at the pitcher's posthumous induction into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.
  • 4) Luque won nearly 200 games in the Majors, but may be more well known to history as a manager in the Cuban Leagues, in part to his being referenced in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.
  • 5) Speaking of Luque's managerial career, he was known for his sublime motivational techniques. This example is lifted verbatim from Hughson's bio:

As manager, his players both respected and feared him. During a playoff series, Luque insisted that his star pitcher Terris McDuffie pitch on 2 days rest. McDuffie refused.

Luque: You gotta pitch McDuffie! I need you!

McDuffie: I told you, I will not.

L: I need you!

M: I am not pitching today.

L: Step into my office.

As McDuffie followed Luque back to the manager's office, all of the players shook their heads, worried. Since both men were quite heated they knew nothing good could come of it. They knew the temperament of Luque and knew that his fiery temper was partly responsible for his success in America. When Luque shut the door of his office, the players huddled around the door to listen to what would happen.

Luque yelled at McDuffie to sit down. McDuffie sat while Luque went to the desk and drew a pistol from a drawer. Pointing the gun at McDuffie, Luque said: "Now, motherfucker, are you going to pitch or not?"

McDuffie walked out of his office and didn't say a word to any of his teammates. He only approached his catcher and said "let's warm up." That day McDuffie pitched a complete game 2-hitter and led Almendares to victory.

Beyond the unusual personality, Luque should be remembered and honored by Reds fans for posting the greatest season by a pitcher in franchise history. In 1923, Luque tossed 322 innings, good for 2nd most in the NL that year, while leading the league in wins (27), ERA (1.93), and ERA+ (201). His K/9 (4.2) and WHIP (1.14) were both good for second best, league-wide. Pretty good year.

Pretty good career, in fact, especially as pertains to the Redlegs. Over 12 seasons, Luque won 154 games for Cincinnati, while generating a 121 ERA+. Something's a bit off, though, from my armchair view. We know about the pitcher's durability, and the quality seemed to be there, as evidenced by the well above average ERA+. So how did he manage just a 154-152 record for the Reds? I'd love to know, especially given that the Reds were pretty good during Dolf's tenure, winning roughly 53% of the games over that span.

Bjarkman's excellent bio raises a wonderful point regarding Luque's legacy that I would not have considered. By actually playing in the Major Leagues, Luque has become a bit of a forgotten star, especially in relation to his darker-skinned compatriots (i.e., Martin Dihigo et al.) who couldn't get off the island, so to speak, as the Negro League players have garnered much deserved attention and appreciation over recent years. One imagines that the thin-skinned Luque wouldn't have been eager to appreciate the irony.

When Luque died in 1957, two Cuban phenomena were ongoing. On the baseball front, the island was generating a wave of MLB talent unencumbered by racial boundaries. The Reds were soon to reap the benefits, primarily in the forms of Leo Cardenas and Anastasio Perez.

The other, and more impactful, Cuban event of the time was the Castro revolution. Within a few short years of Luque's death, the flow of ballplayers from island to continent would again cease, but for unusual exceptions. I have no idea what Dolf Luque's political leanings were, nor what he thought of Castro, Guevara, and friends. Baseball men tend to view life through baseball-colored lenses, and I imagine he would have been a bit saddened to see his career's circumstances replicated, albeit in an altogether different way.

Now, of course, the Reds again have another talented Cuban pitcher, recently escaped from the clutches of national policy. The two share very little in physical or emotional characteristics, but will now always be somewhat linked through their common heritage and employer. While the likelihood of Chapman someday reaching Luque's career value is probably remote, he has the talent and opportunity to do so. Regardless of the final outcome, each new strikeout and save adds to Cincinnati's long-standing and league-leading Cuban connection.

*********************************

2012 Reds, Capsule 5

(All stats, opinions, and crackpottery through Tuesday's games)

Overview:

Wins/Losses: 11 - 7

Strength of Schedule: .503 (2nd most difficult in NL; 14th most difficult in ML) [Prev: .498, 6th most difficult in NL; 17th most difficult in ML]

RPI (ESPN): .519 (2nd best in NL; 5th best in ML)

[Prev: .512, 3rd best in NL; 10th best in ML]

Cool Standings postseason odds: 78.1% [Prev: 64.7%]

Cool Standings division odds: 44.6% [Prev: 40.1%]

Offense:

  • .236/.300/.389 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .258/.320/.407
  • The regulars, as defined by plate appearances: Hanigan, Votto, Phillips, Cozart, Frazier, Ludwick, Stubbs, Bruce
  • When Joey Votto (may he heal quickly and peacefully) plays like a mortal human, this offense probably doesn't have much hope to be good. Votto (MHHQAP) hit a pedestrian .280/.379/.400, with 0 HR and 2 RBI.
  • The two offensive stars of the period were Todd Frazier (.298/.365/.617) and Ryan Ludwick (.271/.314/.625). The two combined for 8 Lollapaloozas and 16 RBI.
  • On the other side of the ledger were Ye Olde Usual Suspects: Drew Stubbs (or Stubby, as he likes to be called): .136/.227/.288 and Zack Attack: .200/.256/.329. The two combined for a 3-to-1 K/BB ratio. It'd be a nice time for these guys to get well soon.
  • Chris Heisey, with starter tag now removed, went nuts: .367/.441/.600, and only struck out 6 times in 34 PA.
  • Scott Rolen struck out in one-third of his 33 plate appearances.
  • Roster-watch, 2012: Miguel Cairo posted a 316 OPS this period, lowering his YTD mark to 386.
  • Over the last three periods (i.e., since mid-May), Devin Mesoraco has hit .219/.284/.452, with a .226 BABIP. Lot of extra base hits, and if more of the gorks fall in, he'll be an offensive weapon. Soon.

Pitching:

  • Team ERA of 2.44, against league average of 3.89.
  • The Washington Nationals have gotten the pub and press this year regarding their quality staff, but the Reds have now overtaken the Nats in YTD ERA+, 126 to 124.
  • Only one pitcher had an ERA for the period above 4 and that was Sam Lecure, who only pitched four innings.
  • Bronson Arroyo had the worst starter ERA at 3.5.
  • Mat Latos pitched 21 innings, allowed ten hits, struck out 20, and saw three runners cross the plate. Welcome, Staff Ace 2.0.
  • The starters averaged 6.7 innings per start.
  • Aroldis Chapman bounced back in an acceptable fashion, striking out 19 batters in 7.3 innings. This means 86% of his recorded outs were punchouts. Four batters reached base over this stretch. The Reds should start him for one meaningless game in September just so he can break the single game strikeout record. Shall we pencil in September 18 against the Cubs?
  • One more A-Chap note: If he recorded three non-K outs, and allowed two hits over the period, then that's a BABIP-against of .400, meaning that perhaps Chapman suffered from some bad luck over the last few weeks. I'm looking forward to the regression to the mean. I don't know exactly how many pitches he threw over this period, but since he faced 26 batters, and he struck most of them out, I think 100 is a reasonable estimate. 5 of those were hit in fair territory. Almost literally unhittable.
  • Bill Bray had one of the stranger pitching lines seen in recent times: 2.3 innings, 0 hits, 1 K, SIX walks. Perhaps he's not quite ready for prime time...
  • Alfredo Simon has a lower ERA on the year than Chapman (1.53, 1.69).
  • The team's DER stayed relatively high, falling slightly from .700 to .699 for the year. This is above average, but not extraordinarily so.

The next 18:

  • 12 games at home, 6 on the road
  • 9 of the 18 against divisional opponents
  • 3 of the 18 against projected 2012 playoff teams
  • .442 average winning percentage (2012) for the teams in the next 18 games.
  • No Votto (MHHQAP).
  • Speaking of, here's a quick thought exercise. Let's assume that the team stats to date represent the team's true talent level. They have scored 377 runs, and allowed 328, putting the Pythagorean winning percentage at .563. Pretty good, but what does that look like without Votto? Barring any drastic roster moves, the three most likely recipients of increased playing time over the next few weeks will be Rolen, Frazier, and Cairo. Let's pretend that Votto's 370 PA for the year had been evenly distributed across these three. The Reds would lose the 75 runs created currently accountable to #19, and would make incremental gains of 9 runs created by giving Rolen an extra 123 PA, 19 for Frazier, and 1 (one!) for Cairo. The net loss would mean that the non-Votto offense is more like a 331 run team (377 - 75 + 9 + 19 + 1 = 331). Without Votto, then, the Reds can be assumed to be a .504 team. Against the composite quality of upcoming teams (.442), the Reds might be reasonably expected to win 10 of the next 18 games. Which is exactly what they need to do to maintain playoff pace. I'm not happy about the injury, nor am I optimistic about the recovery time, nor am I willing to give management a pass for how the thing was handled. But I do think the team can withstand the coming period, even if they lose the opportunity to really create some space between the 2nd and 3rd place teams.
  • That said, an extra impact bat would be nice. Maybe give Anaheim a call to see if Mike Trout could be had...
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