The Incomparable Osmani Urrutia

UrrutiassIn a May 5 posting which summarized the National Series 2007 season I remarked on the phenomenal hitting of Cuban national team star Osmani Urrutia, suggesting that Urrutia was a batting nonpareil who was liking unmatched in any of baseball’s several distinct universes (including the major league version of the sport that preoccupies most Stateside fanatics). Cuba’s all-time career batting average leader (.371 after 14 seasons) may indeed not face major league level pitching on home soil or in international tournaments, and it may well be difficult to argue that his stratospheic hitting marks should be compared with those of sluggers in "The Show." Yet the brief glimpse of Urrutia in the WBC (where he hit .345) and the overall performance of the Cubans in that venue do certainly raise some serious questions about just how far behind the majors the Cuban brand of play actually is. Certainly anyone smacking the ball at a .422-clip for any five-season span at any level of play has to possess a good dose of raw hitting talent. And as one who has watched Urrutia for more than half a decade, I must add my voice to the growing chorus attesting that Urrutia’s swing is one of the sweetest anywhere on the planet.

The Las Tunas slugger is enough of a hitting rarity that he certainly rates further exposure to North American fans. So let me merely repeat here what I wrote about him in A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006, immediately after the close of his sensational five-season plus-.400 hitting string. To quote my earlier tribute:

"Pudgy right-handed hitting machine Osmani Urrutia, a 29-year-old veteran (now 31) of a dozen National Series campaigns with Las Tunas, seems a prime example of the ability to generate almost endless supplies of big-level-talent on an island boasting a population barely equivalent to New York City. Across the first five seasons of the new century Urrutia has generated the biggest headlines in National Series play with a multi-season batting streak that has no parallel in organized baseball history. Grabbing four straight batting titles between 2001 and 2004, the chucky righty with a picture-perfect compact swing strung together four seasons of plus-.400 hitting, a feat never accomplished in the majors and to my knowledge also never duplicated at any level of legitimate organized baseball. ‘The streak’ began with a .431 mark in 2001 that was the third highest in National Series history. Urrutia’s .469 average three years later would easily outdistance Pedro Luis Rodriguez’s .446 ledger (1988) as the all-time league mark. In 2003 Urrutia became the first National Series slugger to take home the league batting title three years running; his sensational 2004 season would next extend the record to four uninterrupted batting crowns."

"Urrutia’s improbable effort to run the string of .400-plus seasons to five fell painfully short during the recent 2005 campaign when a late-year slump left him with .385 at season’s end. In mid-February, with but five weeks remaining, Urrutia had surged to .414 but couldn’t maintain the momentum, though he did walk away once more as league batting champion. Batting .400-plus for Cuban League seasons of only 90 games is not the same thing, of course, as pulling off the feat over a much longer big league campaign; yet Urrutia’s recent five-series string does nonetheless represent the 450-game equivalent of two and two-thirds major league years. While no claim comparing Cuban League and big league competition would rest on very solid ground, there is only one near-equivalent feat (in mere raw numbers at least) that can be culled from big league history. Hall-of-famer Rogers Hornsby (for many the best right-handed swinger in big league history) surpassed the .400 barrier in three of five campaigns (1921-1925) during his own phenomenal run of six consecutive National League batting championships. The St. Louis Cardinals slugging wonder averaged .402 over his five stellar campaigns (compared with Urrutia’s .422 in five shorter campaigns) yet strung together only two back-to-back .400 outings (1921=.397, 1922=.401, 1923=.384, 1924=.424, 1925=.403). Urrutia thus remains the only four-time-consecutive .400-plus slugger at any level of organized baseball or anything approaching the stature of organized baseball."

Osmani Urrutia’s Unparalled Five Seasons (plus the two following years)

Year (*=Batting Champion)

2000-2001, .431* BA, 290 AB, 125 H, 16 HR, .645 Slg. Ave.

2001-2002, .408* BA, 240 AB, 98 H, 6 HR, .508 Slg. Ave.

2002-2003, .421* BA, 292 AB, 123 H, 13 HR, .616 Slg. Ave.

2003-2004, .469* BA, 258 AB, 121 H, 8 HR, .760 Slg. Ave.

2004-2005, .385* BA, 291 AB, 112 H, 16 HR, .636 Slg. Ave.

2005-2006, .425 BA, 318 AB, 135 H, 13 HR, .616 Slg. Ave.

2006-2007, .371* BA, 326 AB, 121 H, 8 HR, —–

Note: In the two seasons following his sensational five-year run, Urrutia again batted .425 in 2006 although he lost the hitting crown to Michel Enriquez, then bounced back to hit .371 in 2007 and thus capture his sixth title in seven seasons.

"Urrutiadive2One remarkable footnote to Osmani Urrutia’s ongoing string of batting titles is the fact that he has remained an unknown on the international scene, overshadowed on the current national team by younger sluggers like Yulieski Gourriel and Michel Enriquez. Urrutia has not been the same dominant basher in his Olympic and World Cup outings, though he did post a respectable .333 hitting mark in Athens as the starting right fielder and delivered a number of clutch hits in the recent Holland World Cup of 2005 (where his .417 BA trailed only Eduardo Paret’s .632 and Enriquez’s .455). Part of the reason may be his positioning deep in the power-laden Cuban batting order. The line-up featured by manager Higinio Velez’s team in Holland in September 2005 likely represented the only occasion in baseball’s long history (at any level, in any epoch) which witnessed a batter with a five-year string of .400-plus occupying the seventh slot in his own team’s batting order."

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