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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Latin American pitchers are a scarce commodity

Philadelphia Phillies’ starting pitcher Ranger Suárez between pitches during the first inning in Game 3 of baseball’s World Series between the Houston Astros and the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Chad Jennings and Andy McCullough / The Athletic

The best Latin American starting pitcher in baseball was signed out of Venezuela for just $25,000. He never ranked as a Top 100 prospect and has never made an All-Star team. Like many of his peers, he turned to pitching as a practical matter.

“The thing is, there are too many position players in Latin America,” Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Ranger Suárez said. “So I went opposite. A pitcher. It helped me stand out a little bit.”

Suárez, 28, leads the MLB with a 1.70 ERA. After 13 seasons of professional baseball, he has slowly but surely traced an increasingly rare path: from Latin America to the top of a major league rotation.

Numbers from the MLB office show roughly 25% of its players come from Latin America and the Caribbean, but fewer than 15% of starting pitchers belong to that demographic. The position player leaderboard is loaded with Latin American superstars (20 of the Top 50, according to FanGraphs), but only eight of the Top 50 starting pitchers in ERA are Latin American.

The imbalance defies surface-level expectations. In the age of Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Elly De La Cruz, baseball does not have an obvious heir to Félix Hernández and Pedro Martínez as the next great Latin American ace. Twelve of the 25 hardest-throwing position players are Latin American, and so are 11 of the 25 hardest-throwing pitchers, so why aren’t more of them starting pitchers?

The top American players tend to pitch and hit at least through high school, and many emerge as legitimate pitching prospects only after their bodies and skills further develop in college. Justin Verlander, who grew up in Virginia and is now one of the best starting pitchers of his generation, went undrafted out of high school but was the second overall pick after three years at Old Dominion.

Few Latin American players have an opportunity to follow that path. They often sign as young as 16, and many Latin American major leaguers tell stories of choosing a position when they were very young, then staying there. As long as they can hit, even the strongest throwers are kept off the mound.

Kenley Jansen of the Boston Red Sox has the fifth-most saves in MLB history, but when he was signed out of Curacao as a 17-year-old in 2004, he was a catcher, and remained so for years despite his electric arm. When he finally moved to the mound in 2009, he was in the major leagues within a year.

“If I were an American kid, I would not be a catcher in the minor leagues,” Jansen said. “Some coach would have already turned me into a pitcher. I would have never hit in professional baseball. They would have recognized the arm.”

Although he is a four-time All-Star, Jansen said he wonders if he might have become a starter had he converted sooner and had more time and instruction to develop his secondary pitches. The league’s numbers show that 45.3% of Latin American players are pitchers, but a disproportionate number are relievers. Some of that disparity is a financial issue.

Two decades ago, elite Latin American pitchers generated some of the largest signing bonuses on the international market. Hernández, Ervin Santana, Francisco Rodríguez and Francisco Liriano signed for nearly seven figures at a time when such hefty deals were rare. Bonuses of that size have dwindled since MLB and the players union agreed to cap international amateur spending at $5 million per club in the collective bargaining agreement struck after the 2016 season. The new rules caused teams to become more risk-averse, a calculus that favors hitters.

In baseball, there is a popular saying often attributed to players from the Dominican Republic: “You don’t walk your way off the island.” It speaks to a mentality that Latin American players have to hit to be signed. Plate discipline alone will not do it, and these days — especially for those who want to sign for big money — neither will pitching. We will never know, but the best Latin American pitcher today just might be the guy playing shortstop or right field.

De La Cruz, a Cincinnati Reds shortstop who is from the Dominican Republic, has one of the strongest arms in baseball. But he said he has not pitched since he was very young. Tampa Bay Rays center fielder José Siri, also from the Dominican Republic and another of the hardest throwers in the game, was more specific: He has not pitched since he was 9. The New York Mets’ Dominican-born right fielder, Starling Marte, was once asked to pitch at an amateur tryout but refused.

“I was never interested in that,” Marte said. “I saw other pitchers get hit hard, and I didn’t like that.”

Why would he? In January, more than 35 international amateurs received signing bonuses of at least $1 million, but none were pitchers. The big money went to hitters, while even the most highly touted arms settled for six or even five figures.

That extends to the domestic amateur draft, where only three high school pitchers have ever been selected first overall, and two of them never reached the majors.

On the international market these days, teams tend to splurge on a few promising hitters while spreading smaller bonuses to a handful of young pitchers in hopes that one or two will emerge.

The handlers who train and promote amateur Latin American players, who are known as buscones and who receive a cut of signing bonuses, recognize this spending disparity and, according to several executives and players with knowledge of the international market, sometimes push elite Latin American players away from the mound. Had a player like Verlander been born in the Dominican Republic, he might have been showcased as a center fielder with the size to hit for power and the arm strength to handle right field.

“They try to train position players so they can get more money,” the Reds’ Dominican-born starter, Frankie Montas, said. “If you can hit, they’re going to want you to stick with hitting as long as you can.”

Mexico counts former Los Angeles Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela among its most well-known baseball players, and since 2000, nearly 65% of the Mexican major leaguers have been pitchers. In Puerto Rico, though, right fielder Roberto Clemente is a national hero, and there is a proud tradition of catchers (Iván Rodríguez, Jorge Posada, the Molina brothers) and middle infielders (Roberto Alomar, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa). But Puerto Rican pitchers? They are draft-eligible and thus unaffected by the rules and quirks of international free agency, yet, since 2000, 73% of Puerto Rican-born players (107 of 146) have been position players.

There is considerable value, though, for teams that successfully tap into the pitching talent pool.

In recent years, the Houston Astros have leaned on low-cost Latin American starters — Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, José Urquidy, Luis García and Ronel Blanco — to keep their rotation competitive amid a streak of seven consecutive American League Championship Series appearances. The Phillies (Suárez), Atlanta Braves (Reynaldo López) and Chicago Cubs (Javier Assad) have benefited from strong seasons from Latin American starters this season.

Those are outliers, though. Since 2015, only one Latin American pitcher has won an ERA title and only two rank in the Top 25 in wins above replacement for starting pitchers. The Astros, Mets and Miami Marlins are the only teams to have used as many as three Latin American starters this season; the vast majority of teams have used one or zero.

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