Last night, in the first inning of Game 3 of the Oakland-Detroit American League Division Series, Yoenis Cespedes knocked in what would prove to be the winning run. In Game 2 of that series, Yoenis Cespedes led off the top of the eighth inning with a single. Then he stole second. And third, without drawing a throw. Then he scored the tying run on a wild pitch.1
Throughout that sequence, the A’s radio broadcasters (I believe Ray Fosse and Ken Korach) couldn’t stop invoking the name of St. Rickey. They talked about the Henderson-esque explosiveness of Cespedes’ steal of second and how Rickey would often swipe third without a throw.
Now unless Cespedes magically doubles his walk rate, halves his K rate, and quintuples his stolen bases, he’ll never be Rickey Henderson. But Korach and Fosse weren’t wrongâ€‹â€‹—Cespedes embodies a rare and extremely valuable combination of speed and power. Unfortunately for him, however, he had the misfortune of making his major-league debut in the same year as Mike Trout, a player six years his junior who might be the only player of his generation to warrant an Actual Rickey Henderson Comp.
Cespedes has been completely overshadowed by Trout this year, and justifiably so. Trout doubled Cespedes’ WARP (9.1 for Trout vs. 4.3 for Cespedes), and Trout is making the big-league minimum, while Cespedes will be paid $36 million over the life of his four-year contract with Oakland. But the fact that Trout is a freakish outlier in every respect shouldn’t blind us to how good Cespedes’ “rookie” campaign was—nor what a bargain he’s been for a notoriously thrifty Oakland ballclub.
What we knew was the kid had tools. There was the plus power: He co-led the Cuba Serie Nacional in home runs in 2011, his 25-year-old season, with 33. We also knew he had raw speed: Cespedes stole only 11 bags in ‘11, but the Showcase video uhhh … showcased … his ample footspeed. Would either of these tools translate to major-league baseball and, if so, how long would the adjustment take?
His defense was another open question. Again, the raw tools were there: the speed and the arm both graded out above average, but how would he fare against the very best baseball players in the world? Whichever big-league club signed him would be taking a significant risk.
You never dreamed that club would be Oakland.
We all thought he’d land in Chicago or with some other large-market team with deep pockets. But nope, Billy Beane (and David Forst and Sam Geaney) surprised us by inking Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal.2 I guess when you have the second-lowest overall payroll in baseball (‘round about $54 million, $2 million more than the Pirates), you can splurge a little bit.3
The flipside of that is that the A’s, because of their financial situation, really couldn’t afford to get this one wrong. They were going all in, whereas the Cubs or the Rangers would just be calling. Oakland needed Cespedes to succeed.
The Rookie Campaign
Luckily for Oakland, Cespedes succeeded. PECOTA projected Cespedes to produce 3.2 WARP in 586 plate appearances; he ended the regular season with 4.3 WARP in 540 PA. He missed 22 games with a left hand injury; had he not sustained that injury, it’s likely he would have approached 5 WAR.
It’s no surprise that much of Cespedes’ value derives from his power: he slugged .505 and hit 23 bombs while playing half his games in a park that dramatically suppresses home runs. But the other two-thirds of his slash line were something of a revelation: his .292 AVG and .356 OBP are both well north of what PECOTA predicted. Throw in 16 steals (in 20 attempts) from a guy who’s not yet 27, and $9 million per year starts to look downright cheap, especially if Cespedes has room to improve.4, 5
And we have every reason to believe that he could get better. Cespedes has already proven he can hit big-league pitching (and surprised the vast majority of us with both his batting average and on-base percentage). I think it’s fair to assume that the quality of instruction he’ll receive with Oakland will be superior to that which he had in Cuba, and he’ll also have access to more and better resources, including athletic training, video, you name it. (Although he’ll still have to buy his own sodas, apparently.)
He’ll also be 27 for the entirety of the 2013. Will opposing pitchers be able to adjust? According to his PITCHf/x Hitter Profile card, there’s not a lot he can’t cover.6
What’s an opposing pitcher to do? He demolishes the inside pitch, and, as long as he continues to improve his pitch-recognition and plate discipline,7 he’ll be one of the tougher outs in baseball. Whether he'll be in green and gold, well, that remains to be seen.
1 The A's would go on to lose this game in heartbreaking fashion, of course.
2 Sadly we aren’t privy to what went on between the Oakland front office and Mr. Cespedes and his representatives: How many other teams were seriously in on him? What was Oakland’s initial offer? What was their absolute ceiling, in dollars and in years? All we know is the final result: Oakland would control Cespedes for his first four big-league seasons.
3 I don’t know about you, but I immediately starting wondering when Beane & Co. would end up flipping Cespedes for prospects. Would he wait two full seasons? Trade Cespedes at the deadline in 2013? Heck, his value might never be higher than it is right now—would Beane consider trading him after the playoffs?
4 It’s not quite Chooch-level value—the Phillies wrung 4.9 WARP from Carlos Ruiz in 2012 while paying him less than $3 million per year in average annual value. Philadelphia ended up paying him $790,000 per WARP over the life of his three-year contract, and the team has a 2013 option, which they will undoubtedly exercise for a (relatively) paltry $5 million.
5 The Oakland A’s compensation page is kind of fascinating. If you sort by WARP/$M, you can see just how savvy Oakland’s free-agent signings have been. (Caveat: Our compensation page uses the $6.5 million Cespedes technically made this year, whereas I’ve used average annual value throughout this story.) You see immediately that Jonny Gomes has been far and away Oakland’s best free-agent signing, delivering at a rate of $459,000/WARP. One also wonders how much lower Bartolo Colon’s WARP/$M rate would have plunged had he pitched a full season.
6 That whole “away” column, if you view it as a column (fourth from the left, the outer third of the plate to a RHH) is fascinating. .221 TAv on that thigh-high pitch away, but .460 TAv at the belt, and .308 TAv at the knees. Gotta be a sample-size issue, right? Or is it possible to have a hole in one’s swing right there?
7 No one values these skills more than Oakland, so I assume he’ll get a heavy dose of instruction in this area.