The 26 year-old Cuban outfielder sent baseballs flying into regions of cavernous Citi Field that had never been traversed before – the third deck in left field (several times), the windows of the Acela Club restaurant, and the vertical back wall of the batter’s eye in centerfield. The latter was his last swing, the one that gave him the title, the exclamation point on an eye-opening evening.
But what does his performance in this mashfest tell us about Cespedes the player?
This isn’t the first time the Oakland A’s outfielder has impressed the baseball world with his physical talents. Before signing with Oakland, the league was abuzz about a YouTube video called “The Showcase: Yoenis Cespedes.” The 20-minute video featured the Granma, Cuba native smashing tape-measure home runs, leg-pressing 1,300 pounds, running a 60-yard dash in 6.3 seconds, making flashy catches in the field, and roasting a pig.
No, seriously. Take a look (The pig roasting bit comes at the 19:22):
The video was his coming out party, meant to entice major league baseball teams to bid on his services. He defected from Cuba in 2011, and was signed by Oakland in 2012 for $36 million over 4 years.
He jumped to the major league club that same year, and had an impressive rookie season. Cespedes hit .292/.356/.505 with 23 home runs and 82 RBIs. He also racked up 25 doubles, 5 triples, and 16 stolen bases (he was only caught 4 times). He was one of the key contributors to the Athletics’ surprising playoff berth last year.
This year, he’s taken a major step back. He’s still hitting for power (15 homers in 341 plate appearances), but he’s hitting only .225/.293/.420. He’s already struck out 80 times at a rate of 23.5% (up from 18.9% last year). He’s only walked at a rate of 7.9% (about the same as last year). His wRC+ (weighted runs created per plate appearance, league and ballpark adjusted, where 100 is the league average) is 94, which is significantly lower than his 136 mark last year. As for his running game, he’s only stolen 5 bases, and has been caught 6 times.
Athleticism is great, but baseball, especially at the highest level, is a game of skill. Fundamental skills like hitting, fielding, throwing, and baserunning are perfected by endless repetition. A nice toolbox isn’t much good if you don’t know how to use a socket wrench.
In football and basketball, players can sometimes survive on athleticism alone, powering through mistakes caused by a lack of fundamental skills. A running back has trouble reading the seams created by the offensive line? No problem – use that big frame to make one yourself. Not a good outside shooter? That’s OK – just drive to the net and place the ball into the basket.
Baseball is also a game of adjustments. No matter how great of a hitter you are, opposing pitchers will eventually find your weakness. The trick is to adjust to their adjustment. It’s baseball’s version of a cold war.
Cespedes likes the ball down in the strikezone – that’s where his isolated power is highest. The league has realized they can get him out by pitching him up. That’s the adjustment he has to make. Either lay off high pitches or learn how to get on top of them.
Cespedes has the talent, and he’s shown he can succeed at the major league level, but the league has found a way to beat him. Now it’s his turn to prove that he can adjust his game and grow as a player. That’s the difference between superstars and batting practice heroes.