Cuba Still No.1 in Baseball

By Peter C. Bjarkman*

Team Cuba when it won the 2007 Rio Pan American Games
Team Cuba when it won the 2007 Rio Pan American Games

HAVANA TIMES, March 27 – Despite the considerable doom-saying at home and abroad that followed Cuba’s two WBC losses to Japan, the latest International Baseball Federation (IBAF) world rankings have once again firmly established Cuba’s unchallenged preeminence among the leading ball-playing nations.

Cuba’s international supremacy was painstakingly built over a full half-century of dominance in top-level Olympic-style tournaments. It was also often open to much skepticism (mainly the charge that the Cubans won world titles by hammering inferior collegiate squads and not big league pros) and somewhat difficult to measure.

The long-overdue IBAF rankings launched this past January have now thankfully provided a clearer measure of Cuba’s long-assumed but rarely quantified domination of international tournaments at both the junior and senior levels. Since the Cuban dominance was built brick by brick over a full five decades, it will take far more that a single tournament stumble to dismantle it. That is the primary conclusion to be lifted from the latest IBAF rankings released in the wake of a second World Baseball Classic.

A delightful twist to the latest rankings is the fact that while numerous USA writers jumped all over the story of two difficult Cuban losses in San Diego to eventual WBC champion Japan-prematurely citing those games as evidence that Cuba’s dynasty had ended and that the search was on for a new world baseball power (was it Venezuela? Team USA? Korea?)-little or nothing has reached American newspapers about this latest IBAF poll which has Cuba still clinging to the cherished top slot.

Frederich Cepeda was Cuba’s top hitter in both the 2006 and 2009 Classics. This time around he finished with a spectacular .500 batting average.--Photo: Jose Luis Anaya
Frederich Cepeda was Cuba’s top hitter in both the 2006 and 2009 Classics. This time around he finished with a spectacular .500 batting average.--Photo: Jose Luis Anaya

Ironically it was Team USA-despite the American’s weaker WBC pool and their eventual short-lived appearance in the semifinals-that slipped appreciably in the new international standings.

Four countries made significant moves up or down the ladder in the latest IBAF rankings. The United States tumbled three slots from second to fourth and now has to score some significant international tournament victories in order to retake momentum against the rival Asian powerhouses.

Venezuela climbed four notches from fifteenth position to number eleven, but this may be something of an aberration. Venezuela rarely enters competitive teams in any major events other than the WBC, since all the nation’s top athletes are now performing for organized baseball in the United States.

Panama slid from ninth to twelfth after its two quick WBC losses in San Juan, while Australia, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were all posting multiple victories on the WBC stage. Nicaragua, without a WBC entrant, also experienced the same three-slot drop-off, from number twelve to number fifteen.

IBAF March 2009 International Baseball Rankings

The next two IBAF standings will be announced this coming summer and fall, immediately before and immediately after the scheduled September World Cup in Europe. In those next two rankings we can expect Cuba and Korea to further solidify their respective grips on the two top slots.

Neither Japan nor the Americans will send crack teams stuffed with major leaguers to European venues in September, since this year’s World Cup play (unlike the November 2007 matches in Taipei) falls during the stretch run of both the major league and Japanese league seasons.

The remaining 20-team field will thus be left wide-open for the increasingly strong Koreans and revenge-minded Cubans. Even a Korean championship will not dislodge the Cubans from the top slot if the islanders can manage either a silver or bronze medal finish. Clearly the position of Cuba as the dominant world power seems destined to last for at least another year and quite likely well beyond.

The IBAF poll is the first attempt to establish relative rankings of the nation’s baseball playing countries based on measurable on-field performance at various levels of international competition. The system, developed in conjunction with Harding (Arkansas) University SID Scott Goode, assigns point totals to countries for each IBAF-sanctioned event at the junior and senior levels (including the women’s world cup matches).

Yoennis Cespedes, 22, hit .458, and like fellow outfielder Cepeda, was selected for the 2009 WBC All-Star squad.--Photo: Jose Luis Anaya
Yoennis Cespedes, 22, hit .458, and like fellow outfielder Cepeda, was selected for the 2009 WBC All-Star squad.--Photo: Jose Luis Anaya

The point totals are 50 for first, 40 for second, 30 for third and 15 for fourth. After fourth place, points are divided evenly among other finishers to assure balance between tournaments featuring vastly different-sized fields. Points awarded for a country’s finishes are then multiplied by a strength factor designed to weigh properly the highest level events.

Major world events receive a 4X multiplier (Olympics, IBAF World Cup, World Baseball Classic and IBAF Intercontinental Cup). The Intercontinental Cup has already been slatted for demotion to a second-level event starting with the 2010 international tournament season. More minor world championships also included in these rankings (junior, youth or university world championships, Haarlem Baseball Week, Rotterdam World Port Tournament) are assigned a lesser 1X multiplier.

Other continental tournaments (like the Pan American Games or Central American Games) receive multipliers of anywhere between 1X and 0.25X, depending on how many teams (countries) from the current top ten rankings are entered.

While most of Cuba’s international dominance of the past half-century has involved the vaunted senior national team, the island nation has also displayed considerable strength throughout all other levels of junior and university international championships.

This new IBAF ranking system-while not any less flawed than any other imaginable objectified system-does provide a meaningful tool for concrete measurement of the relative strength of any given baseball playing nation.

It is through the IBAF rankings that Cuba’s recent 2000s-era domination of the international baseball scene-despite the recent entry of top big league pros into these events-to say nothing of its half-century mastery of top international tournaments versus amateur national squads-is now finally being more clearly validated by a truly balanced and objective system of quantification.

*Peter C. Bjarkman is the author of “A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006.” His latest books entitled “Baseball’s Other Big Red Machine: The History of the Cuban National Team” and “Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1962-2007”, will appear from McFarland & Company Publishers during the coming year. To read Bjarkman’s coverage of Team Cuba in the recently concluded World Baseball Classic II see his diary at: http://havanatimes.org/?p=5062



7 thoughts on “Cuba Still No.1 in Baseball

  • Cuban Observes Team Cuba

    I didn’t miss any of the World Classic Baseball games, which I thought were excellent until the Cuban team was eliminated.

    I wondered why there wasn’t a better balance of the teams? If they would have been divided by continents, the Cuban team would have played with those of the Dominican Republic, Panama and Venezuela. The US would have been grouped with Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico.

    China, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Japan would have remained together leaving Italy, Holland, Australia and South Africa as the other group.

    The Cuban team played courageously; but in the games against Japan it was as if their bats were tied.
    During the tournament, we saw manager Higinio Velez changing the lineup, using the opportune batter and giving everyone a chance.

    Something I didn’t like seeing was when catcher Ariel Petano argued with pitcher Yunieski Maya, which led to a loss of concentration. I don’t blame Cespedes for the fielding error, you could see the fog that hindered his vision, and he was a good hitter throughout the Classic.

    I think that the quality of baseball is improving around the world and Cuba is not the only good team. Now they all want to be better than our team.

    We need to change some things, said Fidel in his reflection on the Classic. He said that it wasn’t the players fault, but blamed the coaching. When an adversary is tough you need to change strategy and Cuba and the tough Asian teams have met four times recently in the Olympics against Japan and Korea and now twice against Japan.

    There’s something that draws my attention regarding the Cuban team and Asia. In recent years many excellent Cuban players have gone and continue to go to train teams in Asia and should be studying their tactics to improve ours.

    I believe that with each team there is always a different way to play the game, and in this case in Asia, the student surpassed the teacher, despite baseball being born in the Americas.

    The commentaries in Nicaragua were disappointing. Even with all the stars from the Major Leagues, people felt bad when the best baseball team in the Americas was out of the tournament.

    The World Cup is coming in September, I’m convinced we will do better.

    Reply
  • So funny that they consider that the WBC is a ballanced way to measure which countries are the best in baseball. The Cubans are in mid season form while the rest of the North and South Americans are just stretching out after a long winter’s nap. If the best Americans, Domincans, Venezuelans etc decide that they are all going to play and they have the tournament after the season, the Cubans and the Koreans wouldn’t stand a chance. Keep dreaming Havana – Cuban baseball is good but not that good.

    Reply
  • Its always been that good, they have been playing against major leaguers before castro. They have been playing the game as long as we have.

    Reply
  • esos rankings no quieren decir nada estan basados en torneos internacionales que son importantes para los cubanos y 2 o 3 mas. WBC no es mas que un error monumental. Los unicos rankings que debieran contar son los de las Grandes Ligas que es el campeonato que si agrupa lo mejor del mundo. Ni siquiera la liga japonesa se acerca. Ejemplo: Matsusaka numero 1 en la rotacion japonesa, numero 4 en la rotacion de Boston, despues de Beckett, Lester, Lackey. Con excepcion de Ichiro ningun otro japones ha sobresalido en las Mayores jugando una posicion. Cuba tiene una gran tradicion, pero ni en su mejor momento (1961-62) cuando jugaban mas cubanos en las mayores que del resto de todos los otros paises (excepto USA) el baseball cubano se podia comparar al norteamericano

    Reply
  • Cubans have been the best latin players in MLB in the history of baseball, for the person tht said Cubans weren;t at the americans level, let me say this…cuba has more Hall of Famers than any other latin country, despite the 50 year drought, no draft..no nothing
    good Cuban players come here and make it to MLB…currently Cuba has 3 good solid shorts…plus a 1B , who ‘s a star…Viciedo will be also a star…and these are only some of their players…in the near future expect over 30 Cuban players, this doesn’t include the Cuban americans like Ibanez, Hermida, Arroyo, Valencia, Avila, Jay, Sanchez, Andino, Chulk, Perez, Gio gonzalez…and more
    Despite no draft, cubans and Cuban american have 22 players in the majors….with 5 more soon to be
    JPArencibia, chapman, Maya, Anderson, Iglesias…
    Cubans are by far , the best Latin players…dominicans train to be pro’s, reason wht they stink internationally..plus they are roids users(must of them).they came aboard in the late 70’s….Cubans have been around since the early 1900
    and americans used to go to Cuba, we didn’t need to come here…plenty of talent in Cuba…over 100 p[layers MLB talent…easy!

    Reply
  • MLB is totally overrated, the baseball played here is a AAAplus…compare to previous decades….50’s 60’s 70’s…when the quality was supreme, and players werent using drugs to beat the next…dominicans have been a huge part of MLB , but also negative…more negative than positive….and with no hall of famers to show for…but Marichal…..”stars” likie Ortiz, Ramirez, Sosa, Tajada and Afraud will probably miss the opportunity to make it to the hall….there are more Dominicans involved…like Felix the reliever and 20 of the top 40 Dominican prospects …..you are going to see, from now on a total amd Complete decline of dominican players…because of the new regulations in Dominicana….it seems that for them to be good players, Roids have to be there, in their veins…..
    you dont see other latin Countries having that problem….they are the problem…and they are not that good…..remenber..its quality, not quantity…over 50% of the 75 players they have currently playing in the majors specially the pitchers are really really mediocre….

    Reply
  • Ricardo, Cuba is a 12 million country population…we have here over 315 millions as of 2010….how can Cuba be at the level or quantity of the U.S?
    now , let me say this….the U.S should be able to beat Cuba with a 5th Team…correct? well, they wont…..the U.S has to put on the field either their A or B team to be able to compete , not onlt with Cuba, but with Japan…Cuba’s league is the stronger league after MLB…it happens that we just haven;t seen their best players yet..and we did missed hundreds od stars for 50 years…..Do you know how many Cuban players would have pased by the majors in those 50 years, if players like Brayan Pena, Eduardo Perez and Frenando vina , andino..and many othersplayed in the majors?
    make it around 200 more than the 200 we have….easy…..look at what’s happening….Alexei Ramirez, an Utility man for the Cuban team comes and takes the job of a 9 year vet….a Utility man!
    Morales becomes a star……Viciedo will be a star…..contreras, livan , duque….who came extremely old…won 3 rings and 100 games..same for Contreras….Escobar , who was a nobody in Cuba..so was Betancourt….and they are hitting .280…….300 here
    in line we have chapman, Maya, Arguelles, Iglesias, Padron , gomez, anderson soon to be MLB players…the formula is Age…..to defect at a young age…

    Reply

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