September 11, 2012
Céspedes Won't Be Leaving to Join Devo
It has been a while since I've thought about Yoenis Céspedes. That isn't entirely true. I think about him quite often, in a purely platonic way, but it has been a while since I've put those thoughts into words. The last time came toward the end of July, while marveling at Oakland's ability to win games at the last possible moment. Included in that piece was the tale of a Céspedes walk-off homer against the Dodgers on June 21.
I also wrote about him back in April, when we all still wondered why the A's would sign a 26-year-old outfielder from Cuba to a four-year, $36 million deal. Between those two articles, Céspedes displayed his abundant talents and made it apparent that Billy Beane—backlash in the wake of being portrayed by Brad Pitt in Moneyball notwithstanding—might know a thing or 52 about baseball.
The expectation was that, if Céspedes succeeded, it would be due to his secondary skills. The batting average might be low, but his power and speed would compensate. He was seen as a raw talent who could struggle against big-league pitching at first.
Céspedes might yet take his lumps—he's in the midst of a late-season mini-swoon as I write this—but for the most part, he has rendered preseason concerns about his game moot. Aside from staying healthy, he hasn't faced any insurmountable obstacles as a rookie. Well, except for Mike Trout. Talk about picking a bad year to break into the American League.
But Trout's otherworldliness takes nothing away from what Céspedes is doing. Consider players who debuted in the big leagues during their age-26 campaign. As of this writing, there have been 1,412 such players since 1901. Of those, 43 qualified for his league's batting title—from Lefty Davis, John Dobbs, and Hobe Ferris in 1901 to Céspedes in 2012 (assuming he remains on his current pace).
You don't find many 26-year-old debutantes garnering material playing time these days. In the so-called Expansion Era (since 1961), only six players have met the criteria outlined above: Chris Sabo, 1988; Chris Singleton, 1999; David Eckstein, 2001; Dan Uggla, 2006; Alexei Ramirez, 2008; Céspedes, 2012 (projected). This excludes players who may have received the proverbial cup of coffee prior to their age-26 season but gives us an idea of how unusual Céspedes' season has been. Assuming he collects enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, he will have done something remarkable, without even accounting for the fact that he has played well.
The other names on this list aren't terribly inspiring. Sabo enjoyed a few nice years before leaving to replace Mark Mothersbaugh in Devo. Singleton did less than that. Eckstein took forever to reach the big leagues because evaluators focused more on his weaknesses than his strengths, Uggla was a Rule 5 pick with a spotty minor-league record (who hits .258/.301/.353 as a 24-year-old at El Paso and lives to tell about it?), and Ramirez has little in common with Céspedes other than country of birth.
The full list going back to 1901 features some guys who had good careers: Ferris Fain, Miller Huggins, Vic Power, Wally Westlake, a few others. Here are the top five in OPS+ through September 8, 2012:
This isn't predictive of anything, of course—Christensen had 57 games left in his career and didn't do much with those—but the point is that Céspedes is doing something unusual. Which raises the question: What exactly is he doing?
I always enjoy looking at a player's splits. Monthly splits are fun because they give the illusion of breaking things down into discrete, meaningful pieces. As if some human construct loosely based on the lunar cycle cares.
But what if we examine game logs? In some ways, this is even more fun because we can cherry pick precise dates to make our point as compelling as possible. Ooh, magic. I say this because I'm about to cherry pick dates and not make a point. Well, beyond the fact that Céspedes has had some impressive streaks this year:
What I like about the third stretch is that it came after big-league pitchers had faced him 222 times. They even seemed to have solved him in the stretch immediately preceding it, but baseball—as we have heard ad nauseum—is a game of adjustments (just because something makes us want to vomit doesn't mean it's not true; vodka, for example).
The strikeout-to-walk ratio is on the scary side, but making hard contact forgives a lot. And it's clear that Céspedes is making hard contact. He has hit the two longest home runs of the year by an A's player. ESPN's Home Run Tracker lists his April 6 blast against Jason Vargas at 462 feet, and his July 21 shot against Philip Hughes at 458 feet. Here's a grouping of Céspedes' homers by true distance:
Context? Here is how Céspedes compares to MLB average in true distance and speed off bat, another indicator of how hard the ball was hit:
Looks like hard contact to me.
Another split I find fascinating is Céspedes' home/road numbers:
Why does Céspedes hit so much better at the Oakland Coliseum, which typically depresses offense, than he does away from it? And what's up with his plate discipline on the road?
There could be many reasons for this latter fact. Or there could be no reasons. But it's interesting and worth watching. We often think of adjusting to pitchers, but what about adjusting to unfamiliar cities in different time zones?
Great, we've moved from lunar cycles to circadian rhythms.
One more split worth noting is how Céspedes does when he plays different positions. Early in the year, he played center field. Since June, however, he has seen more action in left field and at DH. Here are Céspedes' numbers at each position, in descending order of OPS:
Here's the part where we talk about the physical demands of each position, defensive spectrum... yadda, yadda, yadda. Then we counter with small sample sizes, causation vs. correlation, etc. Maybe there's something to these splits, maybe not. As with the other numbers we've examined, they're more interesting at this point than anything else. For the record, Céspedes strongly prefers to play center.
Platoon splits? Negligible. Well, his PITCHf/x card indicates that lefties have been able to handle him down in the zone or on the inner third, although anything is possible in 21 plate appearances. And if they miss too far down or too far in, he becomes dangerous. Interestingly, Céspedes tattoos right-handers who work him down and in. I don't know why there is such a pronounced difference in those zones depending on the pitcher's handedness, but there you go.
The thing about Céspedes is that he's still learning about baseball in the United States. And we're still learning about him. He might yet have untapped potential, which is scary considering how well he's doing already. The power/speed combination is enticing. More walks would be nice. So would better health and a permanent position.
In terms of expectations, though, Céspedes has met or exceeded all of them. Without ever having faced a big-league pitcher before this season, he has hit them as well as, say, Ryan Zimmerman:
Zimmerman has more plate appearances and a tighter strike zone, but back in April, did you envision these two players having such similar numbers? I didn't.
Among active players, Céspedes' age-26 season bears strong resemblance to those of Melky Cabrera (.305/.339/.470) and Matthew Joyce (.277/.347/.478) from 2011. Even accounting for Cabrera's subsequent drug suspension, this is nice company to keep.
The larger point of such comparisons, and of everything else we've examined here, is that Céspedes is a darned good ballplayer. He might improve, although the likelihood and degree of such improvement remain open to debate. He could plateau where he is, which would make him a useful enough player throughout the duration of his current contract. Or he could regress, which, given his demonstrated ability to adjust as a rookie seems unlikely unless injuries continue to be an issue.
If you're a fan of the A's, maybe give a little toast to his health, because he could make a difference in the coming seasons. And if you're a fan of baseball, consider doing the same, because he is all kinds of fun to watch. Which, other than that whole winning thing, is kind of the point.