Give Yoenis Cespedes 5 years, you deserve what you get, like -17 in CF as a Met.
(By the way, give the man credit: this tweet reads out in a fairly smooth meter, and rhymes neatly. The legendary scribe is a poet, and (unlike his less rhyme-friendly but delightful Twitter parody account) he doesn’t even know it.)
Gammons probably isn’t totally wrong. The end of a deal that long likely would have been fairly ugly, as the end of deals that long nearly always are—and maybe there is even special risk, given Cespedes’ profile and approach at the plate. It does seem that the Nationals were willing to go that far anyway, but Cespedes chose the richer-per-annum, more flexible deal the Mets gave him.
In the big picture, though, I find fault with the argument Gammons made there. In fact, call me overzealous, but I view that sentiment as symptomatic of a problem that infects a great many evaluations of baseball players. It even sits at the heart of one of my more infamous Twitter missteps, and (relatedly) feeds into many of the mistakes we make when we attempt to evaluate prospects, in particular. In short: Gammons’ tweet (and given the first part of it, his broader perception of Cespedes as an overall asset) focuses way too much on Cespedes’s weaknesses, and way too little on his strengths.
My wife is a social worker, a supervisor and contracted case manager for clients of certain federal waiver programs that support people with developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, or severe mental illness. From her, I’ve learned the nuances of the strength-based approach, a now-interdisciplinary construct that grew out of social work, and specifically, out of the very segment of that field wherein my wife works. If you’re particularly connected to the worlds of education or advocacy, you probably know something about the strength-based approach already. If you’re hearing the term for the first time, rest assured that it’s (mostly) self-explanatory.
I’ve listened to my wife discuss her personal definition and application of the strength-based approach many times, and I read several pieces about it in the course of developing this idea, but sometimes, Wikipedia nails it. Here’s how the page for “strength-based practice” defines the concept:
The strength-based philosophy holds the core belief that all individuals have strengths and resources. The focus of the practice is on a person’s skills, interests and support systems. Its simple premise is to identify what is going well, to do more of it, and to build on it.
In essence, the message of the strength-based approach is that new possibilities and better outcomes become possible when one starts by identifying the things (either within a subject, or around them) that can foster success for them, in whatever endeavor. It seems radical only in its simplicity, but almost no matter what you know about the history of handling people with disabilities and mental illness, I’m sure you can see how it represents a diametric change of perspective.
Applying this to baseball isn’t hard. A lot of modern baseball analysis focuses on players’ deficits—on what they can’t do. In the above tweet, Cespedes comes in for criticism because he struggled badly on defense during his time in center field for the Mets. Gammons doesn’t mention it, but the other big, obvious knock on Cespedes is that he never draws walks. He dipped down to a 4.9-percent walk rate in 2015 (and that’s not even counting his one walk in 56 postseason plate appearances), and has only walked 5.5 percent of the time over the last three years.
Those are real weaknesses, and they shouldn’t be ignored when teams attempt to value a player. On the other hand, consider Cespedes’ strengths. He’s a tremendous power hitter, with a .215 isolated-power figure over his four-year career. That’s the 13th highest among players with at least 2,000 plate appearances over those seasons, right between Josh Donaldson’s and Jay Bruce’s figures. His 251 total extra-base hits are the 12th most in that same span. Those are raw numbers, and Cespedes posted them despite playing largely in parks unfriendly to power hitters (or at least to home run hitters). He also did it without striking out at an elevated rate—just 20.9 percent of his plate appearances, over a span and in environments in which the league-average rate would be 20.1 percent. He’s maintained a strong BABIP (.304, and it’s .324 in the 889 plate appearances he’s had since leaving the A’s), and appears to have an above-average BABIP skill. His overall offensive track record is really impressive: He has a .297 career True Average, which would be one of the league’s 30 highest in any of the last three seasons.
On top of that, Cespedes is a tremendous defensive left fielder, especially thanks to one of the league’s strongest outfield arms. According to Baseball Info Solutions, he co-led MLB left fielders in runs saved with his arm in 2015, despite his one-month sojourn in center field, and he was second in overall Defensive Runs Saved in left. It might be true that Cespedes is a poor center fielder, but that’s just one (somewhat alien, so far) position, and he plays his usual one very, very well.
Unfortunately, of course, the Mets will be using Cespedes more often in center field than in left, at least as long as things go according to plan. That’s a bit of a sin against strength-based thought (or at least the related person-in-environment principle), in that it puts Cespedes in a position to struggle. It would seem that Cespedes’ faults will be on full display over whichever term (one year or three) the deal lasts. Still, I think the right way to view the deal is through the prism of what made it worth the Mets’ while, not what might make it a tad dangerous. (This would have been ameliorated, in my eyes, if the team hadn’t given Cespedes a no-trade clause. They did, though, for all teams and over the entire course of the pact. I assume that was a necessary concession that allowed Cespedes to feel comfortable signing a short-term deal. Still, it stops them from exploring trade options if it becomes clear that their bats-over-gloves outfield alignment isn’t working.)
Let’s move this conversation over to the man who will play next to Cespedes (most of the time) in 2016: Michael Conforto. It’s actually Conforto who inspired this article—or rather, it was my misgiven mistrust in him that did. On July 6th, I wrote this (in a series of tweets) in the wake of the release of our midseason top-50 prospects list, which omitted Conforto:
Mets fans having a hard day. Yes, M Conforto is a valuable player, has avg regular LF for a ceiling. No, he's not a top-50 caliber prospect. One of the hardest things to communicate to baseball fans, who struggle to see beyond their own fences, is the difference between the things that make some prospects irreplaceable, and the things that make most of them interchangeable. Mets fans have a hard time grappling with the fact that half of all orgs have a Conforto-profile guy, just like Twins fans have a hard time grasping that most orgs have a Jorge Polanco.
That series of remarks got badly blown out of proportion, over time, because trolls troll, but at the most basic level, I was wrong that day. I wasn’t wrong to note that, broadly speaking, it’s easier to see players as exceptional when one keeps a narrower lens on them, but I was wrong to use that to take down Conforto. I was definitely wrong to bring up and discuss Conforto only as “not a top-50 caliber prospect.” When I tweeted that day, Conforto had an aggregate 2015 line of .300/.375/.482, split between the Mets’ High-A and Double-A affiliates. Given his league and park factors, that represented not only good pure hitting and command of the strike zone, but fairly impressive power.
Conforto was also the 10th overall pick the previous summer, so it’s not as though his production came from nowhere. It was well established that Conforto has above-average offensive potential, even for a left fielder. (Left fielders only had a .269 aggregate TAv in 2015, so that’s not even the bar to clear that it once was.) If I’d emphasized that apparent strength in my evaluation of Conforto, I’d have better understood his value, and better anticipated his excellent rookie showing after being called up a few weeks later.
As it turns out, Conforto is also a perfectly defensible defender. He struggled at the plate in the playoffs and certainly has adjustments left to make, but “average regular left fielder” isn’t his ceiling anymore. It’s closer to his floor. If I had taken a strength-based approach to my appraisal of him in July, I’d have avoided one of my most regrettable hot takes. By taking that kind of approach, the Mets landed a player the market probably dinged much too hard for his flaws. The Royals have made this sort of thinking a central tenet of their roster management, looking for players with certain key strengths (contact rate for hitters, durability for starting pitchers) and being willing to accept weaknesses that usually scare teams away from those same players (like a dearth of power, or a high flyball rate, or advancing age), to great effect. And if none of that was true, by the way, starting with strengths and working downward would be a much happier, healthier way of talking about the people who play the game that draws so much of our attention.