The picture on the left serves two purposes. The first is that it’s downright hilarious and sounds like something that could have worked its way into Moneyball. The second is that it does a good job illustrating an important point; Billy Beane wants you to get on base. If you’ve read the book, or seen the movie adaptation of Moneyball, then you know just how important on base percentage is to the Athletics GM.
Hit the jump to see why Beane was OK trading the Cuban slugger, and what to expect from Yoenis Cespedes going forward.
Cespedes broke into MLB during the 2012 season and was an immediate sensation. In his first full year of action, he owned a triple slash line of .292/.356/.505 to go along with 70 runs scored, 23 homeruns and 82 RBI in 129 games played. Essentially, he was Billy Beane’s perfect player. He got on base at an above average rate, flashed incredible power, and as shown recently, has an arm fit for a god. Billy Beane however lives in the present, and is a “what have you done for me lately” type of guy, which meant that unfortunately for Cespedes, it was time to leave Oakland. While some fans and even some executives were of the opinion (and may still wind up being right) that Cespedes will figure out his problems and return to his 2012 production levels, Beane understands that this may be his best chance to finally win a ring and is not going to wait for Cespedes.
In his first season, Cespedes had an on-base percentage of .356, well above the MLB average of .320. However since 2012, Cespedes has been plain awful at getting an base, and was likely a strong factor in Beane’s willingness to let go of the Cuban slugger. In 238 games between 2013 and the trade with Boston, Cespedes only got on base at a rate of .298, or 29.8% of the time. Fangraphs considers an OBP of .300 as “poor” while anything at .290 or below is “awful”. So go find a thesaurus and pick your own word for what’s between poor and awful, but no matter which one you settle on, the fact is that Cespedes was no longer adept at a skill that his GM loves.
There are a few reasons for this dip in on-base percentage that were likely red flags for Beane. The first is that Cespedes’s walk rate has always been what is considered below average, and decreased after his first season. In 2012 his BB% was 8.0%, and followed that up with seasons of 6.4% and 6.6% respectively. Another factor in his declining OBP was undoubtedly his BAbip and LD%. In 2012, Cespedes had his highest BAbip and LD% at .326 and 19.6%, also the year in which he had his highest OBP. It’s unlikely that this relationship is meaningless, and in fact does a good job of explaining his declining OBP. Line drives are much more likely to fall in for base hits, and result in a batting average of .670. As such, it makes sense that the higher LD% would result in a higher BAbip, and ultimately a higher batting average and on-base percentage.
The final, and potentially underlying factor for all of this, is that the league has slowly adjusted to Cespedes since his debut. In his first year of MLB action, this is how his opponents attacked the zone.
The heatmap shows a steady diet of outside pitches, which is understandable for someone with as much power as Cespedes. He’s always had a strong tendency to pull the ball, so it makes sense that pitchers would try and get him to roll over on pitches on the outside part of the plate. In his 2nd season, that philosophy grew stronger, and pitchers began to attack Cespedes even farther off the outside.
In 2014, that trend continued and even evolved some. In addition to throwing pitches off the outside part of the plate, it seems that pitchers have started to creep back inside against Cespedes. This suggests that he is either having trouble handling the inside pitch, or that because of the last 2.5 seasons he’s no longer looking inside and is letting pitches go by. Baseball is often referred to as the “Thinking Man’s Game” and is a constant game of adjustments. It seems for Cespedes however, that those adjustments haven’t been made yet.
After all this, it no longer seems ridiculous that Beane traded away his all-star right fielder. The question that remains is how will Cespedes do in Boston? Unfortunately for his owners, there’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about on a purely statistical basis, but don’t misunderstand that and think I’m saying there’s no value left in him. As I said earlier in this piece, one of the aspects of Cespedes’ game that no one has ever doubted is his immense power. As the reigning Home Run Derby Champion, and routine blasts like this, we’ve always known that he can hit the crap out of a baseball. His power should play very well in Boston, and has remained at an elite level since he broke into the league. ISO measures a player’s “isolated power” by subtracting their batting average from their slugging percentage. According to Fangraphs, MLB average rests at .145, while great is considered .200 and above. From 2012-2014, Cespedes has recorded ISO’s of .214, .202, and .204 respectively.
Finally there’s one last reason for optimism that Cespedes can become an all around elite player once again; David Ortiz. This is a long shot, and not backed up by any statistics whatsoever, but rather more of a hopeful thought. Over the course of Ortiz’s career, he’s owned an OBP of .379 and an ISO of .261. More simply, Ortiz gets on base at very high rate, and is legendary in the power department. While at the end of the day, everything comes down to what Cespedes can and cannot do, it is possible that with some help from Big Papi, he could make the necessary adjustments. Over the years we’ve seen various examples of teammates helping each other out, and hopefully for the Red Sox and Cespedes owners everywhere, this can become another example.
With everything I’ve looked at, the chance that Cespedes can become elite again looks small, but not impossible. If he can increase his walk rate, and make better contact, his OBP should recover and return to above average rates. As the trade deadline approaches in fantasy leagues, it might be a good idea to take a page out of Beane’s playbook and trade Cespedes. There’s no arguing against his power, but if you can get a premier starting pitcher or fill some needs elsewhere, I’d recommend doing so.