(Yan Gomes - Photo via)
When the Toronto Blue Jays called up Yan Gomes on May 17, 2012 to play third base against the New York Yankees, they made him the first Brazilian-born player to ever appear in a Major League Baseball game. Gomes, a 10th round draft pick in 2009, made it count, recording his first two career hits as Toronto topped New York by the score of 4 – 1. Now 26, the São Paulo native finished 2012 with a.204/.264/.367 line in 111 plate appearances and was traded to Cleveland in the offseason. 2013 was a much better year for Gomes, as he hit .295/.345/.481 with 11 home runs and 38 RBI across 322 plate appearances, mostly as a catcher. If we stretch out the sample size to include a minimum of 300 plate appearances – which we’ll do because this is my post – then Gomes ranked seventh among catchers in fWAR (3.7), fifth in wOBA (.359), and fifth in wRC+ (131). Just so we’re clear, those numbers aren’t too shabby.
Gomes’ emergence as a quality catcher parallels the emergence of his home as a member of the baseball community and a producer of MLB-caliber players; there are now 20 Brazilian-born players signed to pro contracts. Their native country is experiencing robust economic growth and owns the world’s seventh largest economy by GDP. As with Gomes, Brazil’s increasing relevance to the global economy mirrors its increasing relevance as a vital piece of the international baseball scene. Like a man scrambling for a last minute five-year anniversary gift, it’s a country not quite there but one for which there are high expectations.
Brazil’s participation in the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC) – its first – is indicative of this position. As the team took to the diamond to face off against Panama in the qualifier, its roster was a veritable triple question mark of players that the American baseball fan would have never heard of. Gomes was there (as was Andre Rienzo – more on him later), along with guys like Kelsey Kondo, Juan Muniz, and Leonardo Reginatto. The most recognizable name and face by far was that of Barry Larkin – for the record: born in Cincinnati, OH – the Hall of Famer and former Major League shortstop, who helmed the team as its manager and spiritual liaison to the netherworld (not verified). Of the 28 players on the roster, just three are today older than 29. Eleven of them were born on 1990 or after, and, not including Gomes and Rienzo, 18 of the players are currently in the minor leagues.
While Brazil will once again have to qualify for the 2017 WBC, the team gained valuable experience playing against the likes of Cuba (great), Japan (great), and China (okay) (ranked 1st, 3rd, and 20th respectively by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF)). In part due to the team’s play in the WBC, the IBAF now ranks the Brazilians at number 18 out of the 72 teams evaluated, two spots higher than its ranking in 2012. With a roster full of young, perhaps improving, players, it will be interesting to see where the team nets out the next time around.
Japanese immigrants are credited with introducing baseball to Brazil in the early 20th century. The Japanese population, currently the largest concentrated one on the planet outside of actual Japan, helped keep the sport alive, mainly in the southern parts of the country. Interest never really hit a critical mass outside of this segment and waned during the middle part of the century. As in many South American and European countries, baseball in Brazil today competes against soccer – futebol – for the hearts and minds of young athletes. Baseball is much less popular and also comes with a cultural stigma attached, as access to it has long been the realm of those in the middle to upper classes.
But baseball continues to make incremental gains in popularity as both Brazilian and international organizations invest in building out the game, showcasing the talents of young players, and expanding knowledge of and appreciation for the sport amongst a wider range of people. And if we’re lucky, teaching them the glory of expertly laid sacrifice bunts, multi-color stirrup socks, and the importance of mustaches on relief pitchers.
Some of the credit for this goes to the Brazilian Baseball Development Group (BBDG), whose self-appointed mission “is to continue to promote, foster, and develop baseball in Brazil in a sustainable and responsible manner.” BBDG focuses its efforts on player development, scouting, infrastructure, and institutional development within the country. Just as importantly, BBDG also maintains, operates, and updates what it calls the most comprehensive Brazilian player database available today: BRBASEBALL. Unfortunately for us, BRBASEBALL is closed off and can only be accessed as a service provided by BBDG. Fortunately for us, BRBASEBALL might be end up being the foundation for years of stats vs. narratives arguments to come in a completely different country than the U.S.
Since its inception in February of 1990, the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation (CBBS) has grown to include 120 affiliated clubs and over 30,000 baseball and softball players. CBBS dedicates itself to spreading an appreciation for baseball throughout Brazil and to opening up the sport to a wider audience, as interest and participation has been largely confined to the Japanese population within the country. Much like MLB in the U.S., CBBS also conducts outreach programs to underprivileged children, using baseball and softball to keep kids off the streets and help them discover passion (and talent) for the sports.
On the international front, MLB teams have begun to develop talent within Brazil. The Rays constructed a baseball academy in a city north of São Paulo and hired Andres Reiner to lead the team’s efforts at molding players there. As Jorge Arangure Jr. of ESPN the Magazine notes:
"If you don’t know Reiner, perhaps you should. With a limited budget in the late-1980s and ’90s, Reiner was instrumental in making Venezuela a hotbed for MLB talent. Every successful Venezuelan player from that generation — Bobby Abreu, Johan Santana, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and Melvin Mora, among others — either was signed by Reiner or passed through his Houston Astros’ academy in Valencia.”
Over the last three years, the league as a whole, through Major League Baseball International (MLBI), has invested in building the scene within Brazil. MLBI hosted its first baseball camp in the country in 2011, and since then continues to partner with the CBBS to host camps for 14 to 17 year old players, which helps both organizations identify talented young players. In the coming months, spanning the end of 2013 into the beginning of 2014, both Yan Gomes and LaTroy Hawkins will travel to Brazil as official MLB Ambassadors to further promote baseball, hold training clinics, and ultimately instruct players in the MLB Brazil Elite Camp.
Andre Rienzo is another São Paulo native currently leaving his mark on MLB as a pitcher for the White Sox. Rienzo signed with the team in 2006 but didn’t make it to Rookie Ball until 2009 and didn’t get a taste of the Show until this past season, when he was called up on July 30th to make a spot start for the about-to-be-traded-now-Duckboat-owner Jake Peavy. Rienzo threw seven solid innings en route to a no decision, and he went on to make nine more starts before the season ended. Rienzo finished the year 2 – 3 with a 4.82 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. More importantly for our purposes, Rienzo was the first Brazilian-born pitcher to appear in a major league game. Baseball Prospectus projects Rienzo to settle in as a mid-rotation starter, noting that he packs a power fastball but lacks true swing-and-miss stuff.
Neither Gomes nor Rienzo was ever considered an elite prospect, but each player is making his presence felt in the Majors. Gomes will certainly hope to build on the success he found in 2013, while Rienzo will look to translate his experience last year into success this year. Baseball is far from becoming a national pastime in Brazil on par with soccer. But continued investment by organizations such as the BBDG and CBBS, as well as international support from MLBI and individual MLB clubs, the sport can at least find a niche in a country undergoing a great deal of change.
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