Top 10 Latin Starting Pitchers: The Legacy of Our Latin Legends

Jonathan StilwellCorrespondent IDecember 31, 2009

During my childhood, when I was first learning about baseball, I can remember asking my father, “Who is a good pitcher?”  We lived near Washington D.C., and the hapless Senators offered little to root for, but my father answered, "Now Camilo Pascual, he’s a good pitcher.  But it’s hard on him, because Washington is never very good.”  I can vaguely remember him saying something about Pascual keeping a good ERA and pitching many good games, even though it was hard to win.

Over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to root for many of the Latin players who came to our country and paved the way for today’s players.  I always enjoyed following Marichal’s stats in the Sunday paper and loved his style when I got to see him pitch.

Later Tony Perez was my favorite player on my hometown Cincinnati Reds.  I liked his soft-spoken nature.  But you could tell he was the glue that held the team together and the spirit that refused to lose.

Latin American players did not always have a free path to the major leagues.  Before the color barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson in ’47, only a few light-skinned players had found their way to major league rosters.

This was tantamount to making some arbitrary rule that people with red hair could not play baseball!

In retrospect, it is easy to see just how ridiculous this unspoken policy was!  Just where was the cut off for the tone of one’s skin supposed to be?  Did they have to be careful not to get too much sun in the summer so they would not turn too dark?

It was popular to go barnstorming in the winter and play in Cuba.  Major leaguers spread the gospel of baseball to the island nation of Cuba, but then the major leagues blocked them from playing.

One pitcher who got through and made it was Dolf Luque.  He pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in the '20s on a staff that included Eppa Rixey, Pete Donohue, and Carl Mays (himself somewhat of an outcast from a beaning incident around 1920).

From the '20s to the mid-'50s, when the “Latin invasion” began, two more notable pitchers of Latin blood blazed successful careers. 

Lefty Gomez pitched for the '30s Yankee dynasty teams.  He went 6-0 in the World Series, won two triple crowns (most wins, lowest ERA, and most strikeouts), and won 189 games for the Yankees, which basically made him a legend.  He had an outgoing and winsome personality that endeared him to sportswriters and fans.  He was voted to the Hall-of-Fame.

Gomez was born in Rodeo, California, of Mexican heritage.

In the '50s Mike Garcia became a dominant pitching force for the Cleveland Indians.  He was of Mexican and American Indian extraction and was born in San Gabriel, California.

Even though Minnie Minoso became a folk hero as he galloped across outfields in Chicago and Cleveland, there was plenty of resistance to the new, foreign born Latin players.  Their language barrier made it harder for sportswriters and fans to get to know them.  They were often forced to sleep and eat in separate accommodations from the rest of their team as they travelled.

Today’s Latin stars owe that first generation of Latin players a debt of gratitude for enduring the hardships for the love of the game.

The modern legacy of Latin pitchers begins with Cuban Camilo Pascual and the high-kicking Juan Marichal.

The aim of this article is to line up the best of the Latin starting pitchers to date.  It seems they are seldom pulled together as a group.  It is the belief of this author that the Latin American movement in baseball can be better understood by getting to know its heritage in a side-by-side gathering.

The criteria to make this list are follows: The player had to be born abroad.  I looked for pitchers with over 2000 innings pitched in the major leagues.  In a couple of cases I included pitchers I knew with fewer innings.

I developed and applied a ranking system.  The stats I assigned points to were Wins, ERA+, CG/ SHO, H/9, Ks, K/BB ratio, and WHIP.  So the best pitchers will be listed in reverse order.

Honorable Mentions

Mario Soto

Soto was a very fine pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds of the '80s.  His arm and career wore down too quickly for his fans.

Fernando Valenzuela

Also from the '80s was a pitcher that captured the imagination and support of millions of fans.  Fernando mania swept through Southern California as he won game after game.  He looked skyward during each delivery, as if asking God to bless the pitch. Valenzuela just missed the top 10 list.

The Top 10 Latin Starting Pitching Legends

10) Jose Rijo

(’84-’02) 116 wins, 3.24 ERA/ +121; 22CG/ 4 SHO; 1880 IP/ H/9 8.2; 1606K/ 2.42 K/BB ratio; WHIP 1.262) Jose was born in the Dominican Republic. 

By ’88 he had found a home in Cincinnati.  From ’88-’94 he was one of the finer pitchers in the league.  He was very hard to hit and posted H/9 records of 6.7 and 6.9 two different seasons. He led the league in strikeouts in ’93 with 227.  He was instrumental in the Reds winning the World Series in ’90, having won two games with an ERA of 0.59.

He kept running into elbow injuries and sustaining several surgeries before a final comeback attempt in ’02.  He won five games but hung it up after that.

9) Javier Vazquez

(’98-  ); (142 wins, 4.19 ERA/+107; 26/CG/ 7 SHO; 2490 Ip/ H/9 8.9; 2253 K/ 3.48 K/BB ratio; WHIP 1.245) Javier was born in Puerto Rico.

He began his career with the Montreal Expos and had several promising seasons for them.  He established a high strikeout rate with good stuff and control.  Since Montreal, he has pitched for the Yankees, Diamondbacks, White Sox, Braves, and will suit up for the Yankees again when Spring Training starts in February of ’10.

He has been able to stay relatively healthy in spite of his hard throwing style.  Last year was a good one, with 232 Ks and 15 wins for Atlanta.  If he continues in last year’s path for the future, he will move up this list.  If he struggles, he will remain about where he is.

8) Camilo Pascual

('54-’71); (174 wins; 3.63 ERA/ +103; 132 CG/ 36 SHO; 2930 IP/ H/9 8.3; 2167 Ks/ 2.03 K/BB ratio; WHIP 1.287) Camilo Pascual was born in Cuba in 1934.

Camilo hit his peak in ’62-’63 and led the American League in Ks and complete games, while winning 20 games both years.  He is said to have had the most feared curve ball in the league during his career.

He is known for his work with the struggling Senators and moved with the team to enjoy more success in Minnesota as they became the Twins.  Pascual was the first successful Latin born pitcher in the '50s.

7) Dennis Martinez

(’76-’98); (245 wins; 3.70 ERA/+106; 122 CG/ 30 SHO; 2808 IP/ H/9 8.8; 2149 K/ 1.84 K/BB ratio; WHIP 1.266) Dennis Martinez was the first major league player born in Nicaragua.

Martinez’ nickname, "El Presidente," belied his winsome smile and moustache.  He spent the first 10 years of his career with the Baltimore Orioles and later pitched with the Expos and Indians.  He aged like a fine bottle of wine and was still pitching effectively in his 20th season for the Indians in ’95.

He is amongst those few major league pitchers who have won 100 games or more in both leagues.  He leads all Latin pitchers in wins.  His best year came in ’91 for the Expos, when he led the National League in ERA, 2.39, complete games, nine, and shutouts, five.

Dennis Martinez was very good for a long time.  He overcame rough times in his career to pitch a very fine second decade.

6) Dolf Luque

(’14-’35); (194 wins; 3.24 ERA/+117; 206 CG/ 26 SHO; 3220 IP/ H/99.0; 1130 K/ 1.23 K/BB ratio; WHIP 1.288) Dolf Luque was born in 1890 in Havana, Cuba.  He was one of 17 light-skinned Cuban born players in the major leagues during this time.

Luque pitched with teams from the integrated Cuban leagues and eventually signed with the Boston Braves in 1914.  In 1918 he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds.  He pitched the next 12 years for the Reds, the team with which he is most identified.

Luque’s best pitch was his curveball.  His greatest year came in 1923, when he won 27 games and had an ERA less than half the league average!  During the '20s, Luque was part of a very fine Cincinnati staff that included HOF pitcher Eppa Rixey, Pete Donohue, and Carl Mays.  His career ERA+ of 117 is an exceptional mark for this era and shows the level of pitching he brought to the game.

Luque pitched until he was 45 years old!  He later worked as the pitching coach for the NY Giants.

5) Mike Cuellar

(’59-’77); (185 wins; 3.14 ERA/ +109; 172 CG/ 36 SHO; 2808 IP/ H/9 8.1; 1632 K/ 1.99 K/BB ratio; WHIP 1.197) Mike Cuellar was born in Cuba in 1937.  By the time he worked his way into the starting rotation for the Astros in ’66 and ’67, he was pushing 30 years old.

From the time he joined Baltimore in ’69, he won 125 games over the next six years.  His first year with the team, he was the Cy Young award recipient for the American League.  He joined Dave McNally, and in ’71 both Jim Palmer and Pat Dobson joined in to make four pitchers with 20 win seasons—the first and only time this had been accomplished since the 1920 White Sox.

Cuellar was known as a crafty pitcher who featured his screwball.  His combination with Dave McNally and Jim Palmer made one of the best pitching trios in major league history.

4) Johann Santana

(’00-  ); ( 122 wins; 3.12 ERA/+ 143; 9 CG/ 6 SHO; 1709 IP/ H/9 7.5; 1733 Ks/ 3.66 K/BB ratio; WHIP 1.113) Johann Santana was born in Venezuela.

Johann came up with the Twins as a long reliever/spot starter with incredible stuff and a high strikeout rate.  He quickly asserted himself as a dominant pitcher this decade.  He exhibits exceptional control and a wicked changeup.  To date he has been awarded two Cy Young awards, in ’04 and ’06.

At some point during his peak, he led the American League in WHIP four times, ERA/ ERA+, Ks, and H/9 three times each, and wins once.  He seems to be past his peak now, and how the next few years go will determine his ultimate legacy.

3) Luis Tiant

(’64-’82); (229 wins; 3.30 ERA/+114; 187 CG/ 49 SHO; 3486 IP/ H/9 7.9; 2416 Ks/ 2.19 K/BB ratio; WHIP 1.199) Luis Tiant was born in Cuba in 1940.

Tiant came up to the majors with the Cleveland Indians.  His father had been a famous lefty in the Cuban leagues.  Tiant faced and beat Whitey Ford and the Yankees in his rookie year. He soon was dominating baseball with his blazing pitches.

He changed his delivery after an arm injury, and in ’68 posted one of the most incredible seasons in Indian history—he won 21 games, posted a league leading ERA of 1.60, and allowed only 5.3 hits every nine innings!

His new delivery involved turning his back on the batter and facing second base.  He would then pivot toward the plate, concealing his pitch selection.  He became a crafty pitcher relying on breaking balls later in his career.

After arm troubles in ’69 and a broken bone in ’70, he found himself pitching in Boston, and to the delight of Boston fans resurrected his career.  For Boston he won 20 games three times and handled the Big Red Machine in the ’75 series twice, which gave him an undefeated record in postseason play.

Everything about his career says HOF pitcher.  His 49 shutouts and 2400+ Ks and big game performances are enough proof of his worth.  Hopefully someday soon he will get to make his induction speech.

2) Pedro Martinez

(’92-  ); (219 wins; 2.93 ERA/+154; 46 CG/ 17 SHO; 2827 IP/ H/9 7.1; 3154 K/ 4.15 K/BB ratio; 1.054 WHIP) Pedro Martinez was born in 1971 in the Dominican Republic.

Pedro spent time in LA and Montreal before finding a home with the Red Sox.   He had established himself as an exceptional pitcher while with the Expos.   His best years, ’97-’03, represent one of the great pitching peaks in baseball history.

He featured many pitches with different arm angles, adding to his deception.  He obtained great movement on all his pitches, allowing him to carve the strike zone with great precision.  He carries one of the highest marks for ERA+, K/BB ratio, H/9 ratio, and WHIP in baseball history.

Pedro was awarded three Cy Young awards in ’97, ’99, and ’00.  His 3100+ Ks put him in elite company, leading all Latin pitchers, and in a category that may designate automatic HOF induction.

His recent years seem to signal an approach to his career’s end.  He signed and contributed to the Phillies' pennant run last year.  Pedro Martinez has not only set new standards for greatness among his Latin American comrades, but for pitching in general.

1) Juan Marichal

(’60-’75); 9243 wins; 2.89 ERA/+123; 244 CG/ 52 SHO; 3507 IP/ H/9 8.1; 2303 K/ 3.25 K/BB ratio; 1.101 WHIP) Juan Marichal was born in the Dominican Republic in 1937.

Marichal came up with the Giants in 1960.  The team had just moved to their new home in San Francisco the year before, in 1959.  He made an immediate impression, pitching a one hit, one BB, 12 K shutout against the Phillies in his first game. 

In 1963 he tangled horns with Warren Spahn in one of the most memorable performances in baseball history.  Both pitchers threw a complete game shutout, and then kept pitching and pitching.  The game eventually ended in the bottom of the 16th inning with a Willie Mays home run off Warren Spahn.

From 1963 to 1969 Marichal won 20 games six of seven years. In fact, he won more games in the '60s than any other pitcher, but never received one vote for the Cy Young award.  He twice led the league in wins, WHIP, shutouts, and ERA+.  He has one of the top peaks in baseball history.

Marichal‘s most unique quality was his high leg kick as part of his pitching delivery.  His left leg would go almost vertical.  This helped him conceal his pitch selection.  He threw a wide variety of pitches, all effective and all with pinpoint control.

His mark of 3.25 for his career K/BB ratio is the highest in the modern era until our most recent era began around 1992.  His 52 shutouts place him in the top 20 all-time.  He also has one of the lowest ERAs in the live ball era.

In 1970, he had an allergic reaction to a shot of penicillin that created advancing arthritis in his pitching arm and shoulder.  He had one more good year in ’71, but was unable to continue past ’74.

Marichal gave us one incredible decade of pitching greatness.  He left a legacy for all baseball fans to know and honor.

In Conclusion

Latin American pitchers have given much to the game.  They have brought great style and grace to their legacy.  They have set a standard of craftsmanship when it comes to the use of breaking pitches and control of situational pitching.  Most of these pitchers have been good strikeout artists and had very good control, yielding high K/BB ratios. 

Although for the most part not of great stature, they have pitched with great energy and conviction.  There have not been any epic careers to date.  Dennis Martinez 3999 IP is the longest career.  But it is only a matter of time, when the right young pitcher meets the right circumstances.

I look forward to following the accomplishments of today’s Latin pitchers and those to follow in their footsteps, creating a continuing Latin legacy.


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