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Player Background

Even before Cespedes made headlines for sending his 18-minute promotional video to all 30 major-league teams prior to the 2012 season, the baseball world had been aware of him for years based on his performances both in Cuba and international play. In 2009, Cespedes started for Cuba in center field during the World Baseball Classic and hit a double, three triples, and two home runs in six games. The next season in Cuba he hit .345/.426/.617 with 22 home runs in 87 games. He followed that up with a .323/.424/.667 line in 90 games in 2010-2011 and hit 33 home runs, tying Jose Abreu for the league lead. Just before the next season, Cespedes defected from Cuba. He went to the Dominican Republic to establish residency and eventually signed a deal worth $36 million over four years with the Oakland Athletics in February 2012.

While there was no doubting his athleticism after watching just a few minutes of “Yoenis Cespedes: The Showcase,” there were doubts about the rest of his game. Some felt that he would benefit from spending some time in the minor leagues, but he broke camp with the big club. He was sidelined by a hand injury in May, but didn’t take long to find his stroke upon his return, as he had his best month in June, hitting .343 with four home runs. He also closed out his rookie year on a high note by blasting seven home runs in September.

While Cespedes’ rookie season was a bit of a rocky trip with the hand injury, there were more than a few positives. He hit 23 home runs, stole 16 bases in 20 tries, and had a .292 AVG in just 129 games. Cespedes flashed the immense potential people had seen in both his tape and workouts in the Dominican, but rather than build on his impressive initial showing, he largely struggled for the next two seasons as the league adjusted to him. His strikeout percentage increased from 18.9 percent in his rookie season to 23.9 percent in 2013, and his .326 BABIP proved unrepeatable as it declined by .052 points, saddling him with a .240 AVG. Cespedes’ AVG would only recover slightly in 2014, as he hit .260 in a career-high 152 games played, though the added playing time allowed him to reach 100 RBI for the first time. His walk percentage has declined every season of his career and he hasn’t stolen more than seven bases since his rookie year.

After being traded by the Athletics to the Boston Red Sox for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes during the pennant race last year, Cespedes was traded again in the offseason for a pitcher, going to Detroit—where the Tigers were rumored to be heavily interested in signing him before 2012—for right-hander Rick Porcello.

What’s Happened So Far

Cespedes is enjoying his best year in MLB so far this season as he’s tied his career-best 3.3 WAR in just 88 games. I already mentioned that his walk percentage has declined each year of his career, but that’s essentially the only area where he’s struggled this year. His AVG, OBP, SLG, line-drive percentage, hard-hit percentage, ISO, and BABIP are all higher than in each of the last two seasons. He also has a career-best eight percent infield-flyball percentage and is even having his best season in the field, according to both FRAA and Fangraphs’ UZR.

Year

AVG

OBP

SLG

LD%

Hard%

ISO

BABIP

2012

.292

.356

.505

19.6%

33.0%

.214

.326

2013

.240

.294

.442

16.7%

31.6%

.202

.274

2014

.260

.301

.450

18.4%

31.1%

.190

.293

2015

.297

.322

.499

20.6%

33.8%

.202

.347

As you can see, it took Cespedes some time to recover his line-drive percentage after the league adjusted to him following his rookie season. He needed to make adjustments of his own to combat the way he was being pitched, and that’s what we started to see last year, as his line-drive percentage against breaking pitches soared.

His line-drive percentage against breaking pitches went from 19 percent in 2013 to 29 percent in 2014, and he’s been able to carry the 29 percent line-drive rate against breaking balls into this season. His LD clip against offspeed pitches has increased from 16 percent last year to 19 percent this year, too. Cespedes’ added line drives have begun to pay off this season, as his BABIP and AVG are on pace to set career highs.

What to Expect the Rest of 2015

While there are indicators that show he’s hitting about as well as he ever has in the major leagues this year, it’s still difficult to completely ignore that Cespedes is posting a career-worst 3.8 percent walk rate, 21.6 percent strikeout percentage, and career-high .347 BABIP. He’s had a good first half, to be sure. His production isn’t entirely predicated on BABIP luck, but it’s there. Cespedes’ lowest BABIP in a single month this season is .333. In April and May, he hit .283 with seven home runs, a .203 ISO, an 11-to-50 BB:K ratio, and a .340 BABIP in 52 games. Since then, he’s hit .315 with six home runs, a .202 ISO, a 3-to-29 BB:K, and a .357 BABIP in 36 games.

Player

AVG

R

HR

RBI

SB

TAv

Yoenis Cespedes

.269

33

11

27

4

.286

As you can see from Cespedes’ rest-of-season PECOTA projection above, we shouldn’t drastically change our expectations of his performance just because of his hot first half. It’d be one thing if Cespedes had a history of high-BABIP seasons in his past, but he’s only posted a BABIP above .293 once before this year and his career BABIP is merely .306. Unless his high BABIP is a new skill, it’s likely that Cespedes will regress some in the second half and his AVG will suffer as a result, even if he is able to reduce his strikeout percentage.

The Great Beyond

Cespedes is set to hit the free agent market this offseason for the first time since he was a relative unknown. While there has always been a lot of hype and fanfare surrounding Cespedes in his career, he hasn’t necessarily earned that recognition. What he can do on the field is certainly exciting—he repeated as the Home Run Derby champion and might have the strongest outfield arm in baseball—but he’s perhaps not quite the superstar player many expected. How Cespedes finishes this season will likely have a big impact on what his next contract looks like, but even with a strong finish, it would be unwise to overpay him for having his best year at the right time.

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