Baseball, for all the questions of its origins, began as an American sport, albeit with some aid from a British schoolyard game. It’s nearly impossible to discern the precise time period when the game began to spread beyond the borders of the United States but due to geographic proximity, and relative political and economic stability, historians largely agree that Cuba was baseball’s first international landing ground. Despite the murkiness surrounding the game’s national and domestic origins, we do know that Cuba’s first professional league was established less than a decade after the founding of the first professional league in the United States.
Baseball Reference lists “Steve” Bellan (real name Estabán Bellán, a Cuban native from an elite Havana family) as the first Cuban to play baseball in the major leagues. Census records were highly suspect at this time, so it’s fair to acknowledge that this is still not a certain fact. However, generally speaking, many historians also cite Bellán, and around here Baseball Reference is regarded at near-deity status, so we’ll stick with this as the starting point. Since Estabán debuted in 1871 there have been 198 other men who have journeyed from this nearby island nation, and played baseball in the American major leagues. The 197th man to do so was Guillermo Heredia.
The Seattle Mariners signed Heredia to a $500,000 bonus exactly 360 days ago and he made his debut on July 29th, against the nine-days-old-Cub Mike Montgomery. It wasn’t a good match-up, and Heredia struck out looking. On the 31st he grounded out. On August 1st he flew out, lined out, and grounded out. Finally, on August 2nd, he singled off of former Cy Young winner David Price. Heredia’s first MLB hit produced his third-highest WPA (.138) for 2016; the single brought Leonys Martín in to score but, most importantly, put Heredia on base, which subsequently enabled spotlight-stealer Robinson Canó to launch a three run go-ahead homer.
Two days later, another cool thing happened.
#Mariners 1st team w/Cuban-born pitcher and 2 Cuban-born position players in lineup since Twins, 9/27/70 (Tiant, Cardenas, Oliva)— Larry Stone (@StoneLarry) August 5, 2016
(Don’t worry, I’m not going to go through each of his individual plate appearances this season; you’ve been spared.)
Heredia ended his debut year with 0.4 fWAR, a 92 wRC+, and an 11.2% walk rate in 107 plate appearances. Steamer projects a similar wRC+ (95) and fWAR (0.3) but is exceptionally bullish about his BB%, which is projected to drop down to 8.2%. From what we can glean from minimal sample sizes, Heredia has been remarkably consistent throughout his recorded baseball career, particularly given the fact that he, prior to 2016, defected from his home country and didn’t play baseball for a full year. He is supposedly meant to compete with Ben Gamel for the 4th outfielder position, but it really shouldn’t be much of a fight. Heredia’s right handedness alone gives him a bump over Gamel, because he can more easily platoon with Jarrod Dyson, and he has better plate discipline and defense as well. His ceiling is not Yoenis Céspedes-level high but his floor isn’t terribly low either, and he looks to be a useful piece for this hopefully-competitive Mariners team.
(And, selfishly, his presence on the field puts the Mariners one step closer to my All-Cuban Outfield dream.)
I’m going to leave you all with this gif because a) I’ll take any excuse to post it, and b) there are fewer captured moments that display the pure and immediate joy that this does.