Is Yariel Rodríguez the next Cuban great? Blue Jays right-hander dazzles in MLB debut

Cole Burston/GettyImages

Boy, does that Yariel Rodríguez ever know how to pitch.

These were the words on the lips of a nation after the highly touted 27-year-old’s stunning big league debut for the Toronto Blue Jays. Yeah, it looks like the guy really knows how to pitch. But in fact, this statement might mean more than you realize …

It is often said that young pitchers must ‘learn how to pitch.’ On the surface, it’s sort of a superfluous statement, but like many things in a sport famous for renowned thinkers like Yogi Berra, the nuance emerges at a deeper level.

Obviously, all pitchers can throw. Learning how to pitch is about hitting spots and changing speeds, about disrupting a hitter’s timing; it’s about maintaining focus, batter after batter, and bearing down with runners on base.

Look even deeper though, and another level emerges, one few pitchers have ever dared to master. This is a level of enhanced intelligence and guile, of aura and intensity. In our lifetimes, it is a level best represented by the brilliant Cuban starters who have graced an MLB mound.

Think of Orlando Hernández, “El Duque,” his hat pulled down low, knee stretching up nearly to his ear during his windup, or his brother Liván, pushing pitch counts up over 150 with ease. Think of the mountainous José Contreras, perhaps the most intimidating pitcher this century, with his absurd forkball and (sometimes) effective wildness. Think even to the legendary Luis Tiant, contorting his body until his back was facing the hitter, “the greatest competitor I’ve ever seen,” according to at least one baseball Hall of Famer. These are pitchers who not only could pitch, but used every tool available, both physical and mental, to get people out.

Why is any of this relevant? Well, in Yariel Rodríguez, it seems as though the Toronto Blue Jays may just have a man ready to assume the mantle of these past greats.

Taking to a big league mound for the first time on Saturday afternoon – and in doing so becoming the first Cuban pitcher in franchise history – Rodríguez showed the Jays no less than everything they had hoped for and more. It was not just the heavy sinker which sat at 96 mph and the wipeout slider. It was the array of double-pumps and hesitations in his delivery, the smorgasbord of arm angles and pitch shapes. More than that, it was a presence on the mound not seen around these parts since the heyday of the 'Stro Show.'

All told, Rodríguez would reach his first-start pitch limit after 3.2 innings of one-run ball, striking out six while inducing a robust 12 swings and misses. Surely the adrenaline was pumping, and indeed, Rodríguez did occasionally miss his spot, leading to four hits allowed and two walks. But with the Rogers Centre rocking, even this felt less like a threat and more like an opportunity to show off the ability to lock in under pressure.

When manager John Schneider finally came out to get him, Rodríguez walked off the mound to rapturous applause from the Blue Jays faithful, his jersey drenched in sweat, removing his cap and raising both hands in earnest acknowledgement.

What a moment.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether this takes a place in Blue Jays lore as the start of something special, or merely as a ‘remember when’ blip on the radar. But for one day at least, there is only one thing which can be said – Yariel Rodríguez sure knows how to pitch.

Where were you when Yariel Rodríguez burst onto the scene for the Blue Jays? Or was this all just a mirage? Let me know on the platform formerly known as Twitter – @WriteFieldDeep.