The storybook narratives of 2015 do not limit themselves to the Mets or the Twins or the Rangers or the Astros. Surprises abound each year, usually in the form of a former prospect who finally hit his stride or a journeyman Minor Leaguer who catches lightning in a bottle. Perhaps they’re more surprising, then, when they come from seemingly established players.
For example, Bryce Harper finally evolved into the Bryce Harper of prophecies’ past, basically hitting twice as many home runs as projected. Except the evolution happened, like, two or three or seven years sooner than expected. I don’t know when it was supposed to happen, but surely it wasn’t supposed to happen at 22 years old.
And Carlos Gonzalez, at 29, has hit a career-high 37 home runs, a healthy dozen-or-so more than any of his previous four seasons — all after having arguably the worst April of his career (rivaling 2011).
I’m thankful the Tigers traded Yoenis Cespedes into the National League so I can write about the dude now. Aside from Matthew Kory’s assessment of Cespedes’ chances to win a Most Valuable Player (MVP) award two weeks ago, we have pointed little attention to how Cespedes earned his way into MVP discussions in the first place. The injustice ends here.
Behold, an almost-verbatim cut-and-paste of Cespedes’ dashboard from his player profile:
And the scene is set. There are a lot of numbers there, so for your convenience, I highlighted his career bests and worsts in each category. (Cells highlighted yellow are points of interest I’ll eventually discuss.)
Since his transition from Cuba, Cespedes established himself as a solid offensive asset. He wasn’t spectacular, but as a perennial 30-homer threat with modest wheels and a usually tolerable batting average, he represented a middle-to-upper-tier outfielder with a relatively high floor because of his consistency.
He ebbed and flowed, as all players do. In 2013, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) hurt him. In 2014, his home run power seemed to wane, but his isolated power (ISO) remained fairly constant and a bounty of runs and runs batted in (RBI) buoyed his fantasy value.
Then came 2015 and a massive post-trade deadline display of power from which the Mets greatly benefited. He produced more value than the aforementioned Carlos Gonzalez — he of a career-best 37 home runs and counting — in almost 100 fewer games.
What happened? Hard hits happened, but that’s not the whole story. His batted ball profile raises as many questions as it answers:
Unsurprisingly, 2015 yields mostly career-best batted ball tendencies. Cespedes maximized line drives (LD%) and minimized infield fly balls (IFFB%), two critical components to sustaining an above-average BABIP. After three seasons of remarkably consistent batted ball strength and direction, he converted almost exactly 5 percentage points of soft-hit balls into hard-hit ones, equivalent to roughly 19 more hard-hit (and 24 fewer softly-hit) balls in play than 2014.
I hope you’re as reluctant as I am to believe that 19 extra hard hits accounts for 13 additional home runs, a rate of 68.4 percent. Granted, if we’re looking at HR/FB as an indicator of luck, last season doesn’t make for the fairest comparison. (After hovering somewhere between 14 and 15 percent for two seasons, his home run-to-fly ball rate (HR/FB) plummeted 5 percentage points below average before vaulting 5 percentage points above average. A turbulent couple of seasons later, his career HR/FB rate sits back at 14.3 percent — right where it once was.)
Forty-four more hard-hit balls in 2015 than 2013 yielded nine more home runs (20.5 percent) and 41 more hard-hit balls than 2012 yielded 12 more home runs (29.3 percent). Given a career rate of home runs per hard hit of 18.6 percent, the home run spike seems, at best, difficult to sustain.
Moreover, I’m concerned with Cespedes’ ground ball and fly ball rates (GB%, FB%), both of which represent career-worsts in 2015. You have to hit balls in the air to hit home runs, but a roughly 10-percentage-point swing from fly balls to ground balls between seasons will not help.
I find it incredibly interesting that Cespedes’ 2012 weighted on-base average (wOBA) mirrors his 2015 wOBA identically, as do their weighted runs created above average (136 wRC+, not provided in the table)*. Cespedes basically traded 30 points of on-base percentage (OBP) for 40 points of slugging percentage (SLG), all else remaining largely equal, and he was essentially as productive a hitter this year as he was during his considerably less-dramatic stateside inauguration.
* Cespedes now sports a .371 wOBA and 138 wRC+ after a two-double performance yesterday.
Comparing the Cespedeses of old and new is crucial to understanding how he may perform next year. He is progressively (or, perhaps, digressively) taking fewer and fewer walks each season. The previous paragraph demonstrates, somewhat crudely, the importance of power at the expense of OBP.
Except I can’t reasonably expect Cespedes, entering his age-30 season, will hit 35 or even 30 home runs next year. It’s hard to believe Cespedes’ walk rate (BB%) can drop in any lower, but he has never been to one to shy away from a free-swinger’s challenge. To attest: his chase rate (O-Swing%) has increased every year without fail.
In his defense, however, he makes more contact than he used to; if anything, the evidence points to 2012’s career-best 18.9-percent strikeout rate (K%) being the outlier rate of his career, given the peripherals. In other words, his strikeout rate has likely stabilized alongside his swinging strike and contact rates (SwStr%, Contact%) and probably won’t significantly improve save for a profound change in his approach.
Should he sustain his career-best hard-hit rate, reclaim the fly balls now driven into the dirt and avoid bad-luck BABIP, Cespedes can put up a 2016 line reminiscent of 2013’s 27-homer pace with a triple-slash line similar to his career rates (.270/.310/.500). But I think that may be a bit bullish. I see him being overvalued in drafts next year.
Even if he reverts to being a 3-WAR hitter, at least he still has his bionic cannon arm that can hit the bullseye of a dartboard from 100 yards away off-balance. FanGraphs rates Cespedes’ defense as 5th-best for an outfielder in 2015. That improvement, like many others, may also not stick next year if whoever signs him this offseason insists on playing him in center field occasionally. Leave him in left field, however, and he rates among the best full-time players.