Peter C. Bjarkman*
HAVANA TIMES — Easily the most unapproachable record in the full annals of modern-era Cuban League baseball is the 1966 back-to-back no-hit, no-run feat of Aquino Abreu.
It is almost beyond imagination to envision another pitcher surpassing Abreu with three consecutive no-hit and no-run masterpiece games. But when it comes to career standards (as opposed to one-time flukes) then the argument swings to Orlando Hernández.
A decade and a half after leaving the island El Duque still owns the career record for winning percentage (126-47, .728) making him by this important measure the most successful of all modern-era Cuban League hurlers.
Of course it must be noted that the one-time Industriales hero earned his place in the record books in large part because he left the island in mid-career, after only ten full seasons.
While the subsequent decade brought Hernández considerable success in the North American major leagues, it is rather doubtful that a .700 winning ledger would have survived another ten-plus years of Cuban League action. The same can be said for another .700-plus pitcher and eventual MLB-convert, José Ariel Contreras (117-50, .701).
Had either El Duque or Contreras opted to play out an entire career in Cuba their equally impressive lifetime ledgers would almost certainly have experienced some considerable late-career erosion of their stellar winning numbers.
Orlando (“El Duque”) Hernández CAREER Season-by-Season CUBAN LEAGUE Records
*=Additional Selective Series Seasons (9 summer seasons) which are included in Cuban career records
The most serious single challenge to El Duque’s often-touted milestone over the years has been mounted by Santiago’s durable right-hander Norge Luis Vera. Surviving a late-career injury that almost took his life in 2009, Vera hung on to his winning ways for nearly two decades and retired within percentage points of Hernández.
Vera’s own consistent winning resume is all the more amazing if only because of the way it stood the test of time across a half-dozen injury-plagued late-career seasons. He also is perhaps the most impressive among the four owning .700-plus career percentages since he boasts the most wins (176) and features fifty more victories and 71 more game decisions than the celebrated El Duque.
In the end Vera pitched nearly two decades in the Cuban League whereas his three closest challengers in the “rate of successful winning” category boast barely a decade apiece. It is also worth noting that Vera is the only one among the several pitchers under discussion here to accomplish such other milestones as hurling a no-hit, no-run game (January 21, 2001), pacing the circuit in ERA (0.97 in 2000, with the only sub-1.00 mark after 1992), and ranking on the island’s Top Ten career victories list (at number ten). El Duque was never an ERA pacesetter and Contreras earned the honor only once; neither ever tossed a Cuban League no-hitter.
Cuba’s Four Highest Career Winning Percentages (Based on 120-plus Career Decisions)
|Orlando Hernández||1986-1996||10 Seasons||Industriales||126W-47L (.728)|
|Norge Luis Vera||1994-2011||17 Seasons||Santiago de Cuba||176W-68L (.72131)|
|Ismel Jiménez||2004-2012||8-plus Seasons||Sancti Spíritus||98W-38L (.72058)|
|José Ariel Contreras||1992-2002||10 Seasons||Pinar del Río||117W-50L (.701)|
Now a new challenger has arisen in the person of 29-year-old Sancti Spíritus ace right-hander Ismel Jiménez (born September 1983). Jimenez made a large leap with his 19-5 mark last season and has now supplemented his charge to the front with an unblemished 5-0 record so far during this current campaign.
Ismel Jiménez is hardly a back-page story in Cuba, having enjoyed several stellar outings (mostly as a reliable middle reliever) in major international outings with the Cuban national team over the past half-dozen years. And Trinidad native boasts at least one distinctions not owned by any of his three rivals: he has already on three separate occasions been a full-season league leader in games won (2009, 2011, 2012).
For all their regularity in ringing up victories, Vera, Hernández and Contreras paced the National Series in the win column on only a single occasion each.
The unflappable Sancti Spíritus ace also enjoyed a true breakout season during last winter’s National Series #51, missing by a single victory of becoming only the second-ever single-season league 20-game winner (José Ibar posted a 20-2 ledger with Habana Province in 1998 and Braudilio Vinent also went 19-4 way back in 1973).
And so far this year Jiménez has continued the magic by racing to a 5-0 start which has him trailing only Isla’s Wilbur Pérez (6-0) atop the leader board in victories. Maintaining an unblemished mark or even a league-best ledger will, however, be anything but easy during the current campaign, since the new split season format will feature reinforcements in the lineups of the league’s other seven surviving second-half ball clubs.
But on the positive side, Ismel Jiménez is backed up by a talented Gallos lineup under rookie manager Yosvani Aragón that boasts the league’s top slugging offense – one featuring Freddie Cepeda and Liván Monteagudo alongside Yulieski Gourriel, and Eriel Sánchez. And an equally strong supporting mound corps (including top starters Noelvis Hernández and Angel Peña plus quality relievers Omar Guardarrama and rookie Yoanni Hernández) means that Ismel likely will not suffer from any added pressures of carrying the entire pitching load on his own potentially overworked shoulders.
Ismel Jiménez Season-by-Season National Series Records (*NS Post-Season Games)
#Season now in progress
Jiménez will temporarily edge ahead of Norge Vera on the career victory-percentage chart if he captures his next outing, which will likely come at home versus weak Holguín on January 4, immediately following the one-week year-end league shutdown.
Two added uninterrupted victories (the second being career win number 100) will temporarily unseat El Duque from the long-held top slot. With a strong team behind him this season (Sancti Spíritus currently sits alone in first place with a 17-7 ledger) it is not entirely inconceivable that Jiménez might cling to the acme position all the way until season’s end.
But his long-term chances of holding on to that distinctive edge will not remain all that bright since continuing such a relentless pace during late career seasons poses a truly stiff challenge. Few hurlers in any league escape the inevitable slump that eventually comes with an aging arm and waning physical talents.
(*) Peter Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team as senior writer for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past five-plus years and is currently writing a book on the history of Cuba’s post-revolution national team.