Russian baseball has just finished a busy year with the annual Russian Series to determine its domestic champion. Along the way, the federation sent squads to compete at the European B-Level Championship and Pool 2 of the Under-18 European Championship Qualifier, finishing a heart-breaking second in both. Russia has a single promising minor leaguer, while it has nationalised a number of former professionals, both from former members of the Soviet Bloc and Cuba. Given all the action, we thought a quick on Russian baseball would be in order.
Any discussion of Russian baseball on the international scene has to start with Anton Kuznetsov. The first true prospect the country has ever produced, the 21-year old left-hander had excelled in the Phillies’ system, turning in a 0.36 and 1.91 ERA in his two seasons with regular work (most of 2018 was lost to injury). Add in 1.7 walks per nine innings and a .219 batting average against in 62.1 innings and one can see why the southpaw is intriguing.
Unlike most European pitchers, particularly those from the eastern half of the continent, Kuznetsov is polished, with strong mechanics and an excellent ‘feel’ for pitching. Scouts and managers have been continually impressed with the ease with which he pitches and the confidence he mixes his change-up with his fastball, which tops out at 90.
Along with a fringy curveball, Kuznetsov might have just enough to climb the system and get a shot as a lefty-focussed reliever. An assignment to Single-A Lakewood in 2020 would provide the challenge of a full season and more experienced batters. MLB.com had a nice feature on the Russian lefty for those that want to know more [link].
It turns out that Kuznetsov, or Антон Кузнецов in Russian, is not just a weapon on the mound, however. In the 2019 Russian Series, which concluded this past weekend, the right-handed hitter played all seven games, spending his time at first base when he was not on the mound. Hitting against the best pitchers in Russia, including a former minor leaguer, Kuznetsov went 10-for-24 with two home runs and a double, plus three walks and eight runs. He even swiped a base, while whiffing four times. His final line at the plate: .417/.481/.708.
The results on the mound for Kuznetsov were a bit more mixed, with five earned runs (3.86 ERA) on seven hits, three walks (one intentional), and a wild pitch in 11.2 innings, with 12 Ks. The result led to him being names “Most Useful Player” (MVP). Box scores for the Series are at baseballrussia.ru (in Russian).
Former Twins minor leaguer and native Moldovan Vadim Balan was stellar for RusStar: 17 innings, 10 hits, five earned runs (2.65 ERA), seven walks, and 25 strikeouts. Balan pitched in 10 games in ’15 & ’17. His younger brother, Petru Balan, is still in the Twins’ system (8.25 ERA in ’19). Vadim gave up three runs on four walks, two wild pitches, a home run, and a single in 3.2 frames at the B-Level Euros, though he did strike out five. Petru faired little better, walking seven in three frames and allowing two runs, though he did send down six on strikes.
The only other former minor leaguer in the Russian Series was Belarus’ Alexey Lukashevich, who put up interesting numbers for the GCL Pirates in 2012. For RusStar, the losers of the series, he gave up five earned on seven hits and nine walks in eight innings, striking out 9.
The Russian Series also included a number of Cubans, seven of which have naturalised. Cubalite, a Cuban news site, reports on the careers of the following players, including several long-time veterans of the National Series and one Cuban national teamer [link].
Five of those players managed to obtain citizenship between June 12, when Asere reported that they “plan to obtain” Russian nationality [link], and the B-Level Championship that began on July 1.
Russia’s Sports Minister, Pavel Kolobkov, had told reporters on May 20 [link], “There is nothing unusual about…assimilation for those who wish to play for the Russian national team, regardless of the sport.” Kolobkov noted that he intended to help the development of the still “exotic” sport.
Five of those players made the roster, with four holding down spots in the starting lineup and two others starting games for Russia. As one would expect of former Cuban professionals, most had excellent performances, including David Castillo’s tournament-leading .583 average and six home runs (in 24 at bats!).
Other players had similar accomplishments: Frank Bulté hit .556 and did not strike out in 21 plate appearances. [Editor’s note: Bulté did not play in the National Series and was not one of the players mentioned above.] Geidys Soler slashed .364/.462/.727 with three stolen bases in five games and Luis Valiente slugged a pair of dingers. Rody Castello and Adrian Rodriguez were not quite as sharp on the mound, but almost delivered Russia a promotion to Europe’s top division of national teams. ADN Cuba even went so far as to describe the team as a “‘Cubanised’ Russia” [link].
Eventual winners Israel barely escaped Russia in pool play, needing 10 innings to topple the team, 13-12. In that game, the National Series veterans were 8-for-21 with a home run, two walks, and no strikeouts. The promotion final was another thrilling game, with Israel rallying for three runs in the bottom of the eighth and holding on for a 5-3 victory. The recently naturalised Russians were only 4-for-15 with a home run, two walks, and a strikeout, potentially proving the difference.
It is worth noting that a loss to Russia in either game could have ended Israel’s Road to Tokyo at the B-Level Championships, but after gathering reinforcements (including big league veteran Danny Valencia), it survived the European (‘A-Level’) Championship. Israel then won the Europe-Africa Olympic Qualifier, from which we reported live, but a “Cubanised” Russia almost re-wrote the story.
The Under-18 Championships were a different story, where a Russian squad full of domestic players finished second to the juggernaut that was Austria. Top prospect Andrey Pekhotkin, a left-hander, underwhelmed, but burly catcher-right fielder Ivan Bobkin hit .400/.571/.467 and Artem Logunov hit .412 with two home runs and a 3.12 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 8.2 innings (along with 10 walks).
Russia lost to Slovenia on day one, recovered with back-to-back drubbings of Ukraine and Hungary, squeaked by Poland, and then lost a 5-3 game to Austria to finish pool play. The champions pitched ace and pro prospect Konstantin Teufel, and only Bobkin could manage a hit in the 7-1 loss. Russia did not have any players invited to the MLB Elite Tournament in June or the World Select Team for this month’s competition.
Back in Moscow, several clubs have seen significant local investment, including RusStar’s beautiful new ballpark, as shown on the broadcasts from the Russian Series [link, with Kuznetsov on the mound for Game One]. Long-time Russian baseball statistician Sergei Borisov provided the link, along with commentary on the changes in regulations to allow the Cubans to play in the International Baseball sub-Reddit, which we highly recommend you join [link].
Although Borisov, the Cuban papers, and comments by Kolobkov suggest that there is quite a lot under the surface, there is no doubt that the quality of baseball is improving in Russia. A significant part of that are the new parks, the influx of veterans, and more money in the game. The final piece from the Moscow Times linked here is a hopeful look into the sport through the eyes of national teamers that took on the game as children (and worth checking out just for the photo of the absolutely terrified RusStar first baseman) [list].