There seems to be a strange tradition going on in recent years. A’s players who burst onto the scene as rookies come back in their second season and lose all semblance of the player that captured the hearts and minds of the fans. Dan Johnson was a huge disappointment in 2006, Travis Buck derailed in 2008 and never got back on track, and last season Jemile Weeks looked nothing like the spark plug he was the year before. This season, both Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes have done all they can to continue this newfound custom of stinking up the joint the second time around. Today, I’m going to try to shed some light on Cespedes’ struggles, and perhaps provide a sliver of hope for a late-season rebound.
When the 2013 season began it was impossible to find any baseball fan on the planet who didn’t believe Cespedes was in store for a monster season. He slashed .292/.356/.505 in 487 at-bats in his rookie campaign, showing an intoxicating blend of power (23 homers) and speed (16 steals in 20 attempts). Cespedes would’ve been a lock for the Rookie of the Year Award if not for the historic outburst of Mike Trout. He finished 10th in the AL MVP vote, and everybody assumed he would only climb higher on that ladder this season. Unfortunately for the A’s and Cespedes, he has mostly regressed instead of improve from his dynamic rookie season and has slumped to a .225/.292/.423 slash line so far this year.
When the A’s first signed Cespedes last year the big questions were his ability to handle breaking pitches and be a patient hitter. As the 2012 season wore on we saw Yoenis make adjustments to off-speed pitches and he was consistently making solid contact with both fastballs and breaking balls.
This year has been a completely different story as his pitch values, both weighted and non-weighted, are down significantly across the board, according to FanGraphs. Not only is he having trouble with curves and sliders, he also isn’t murdering fastballs like he was last season. In 2012 his fastball value was 17.5 runs above average, but this year it’s just 5.7. All of his values on breaking pitches are in the negative.
Compounding these problems is the fact that Cespedes isn’t making solid contact when he does put the barrel on the ball. Last year, Cespedes had a line drive rate of 19.6% but this year it has plummeted to 14.2%, while his fly ball percentage has jumped from 39.9% to 47.7%. Simply put, he’s not hitting as many balls as hard as he was last year and he’s had a lot more pop-ups and fly outs. His strikeout percentage has seen a big jump as well, as Cespedes has whiffed in 23.9% of his at-bats compared to 18.9% last year.
Strangely enough, his chase percentage on pitches outside the zone hasn’t changed much (34.2% last year and 34.7% this year) and his overall contract percentage has also remained virtually the same (73.4% last year and 73.2% this year). His walk rate is also pretty much the same, at 7.9% this year and 8% last year. However, it definitely doesn’t help that his BABIP is .255 this year, compared to .326 last season. So it seems that Cespedes is making less solid contact and he’s had some bad luck to boot.
To me, the main problem seems to be Cespedes’ reluctance to alter his approach. He’s always been a hard swinger, but this year he seems to be swinging incredibly hard way more often. Pitchers have been religiously pounding the outside corner, and Cespedes seems content to try to muscle everything up and pull the ball instead of trying to occasionally stay back and push a few the other way. The chart below shows where pitchers are attacking Cespedes, with a huge percentage of the pitches being thrown low and away.
We all know that chicks dig the long ball, but what they don’t dig is swinging too hard at pitches you’d need a hockey stick to reach and striking out constantly. Although his numbers are down the power is still definitely there, he just needs to learn to not try to blast everything 500 feet to left field. Hitters tend to develop bad habits while in a slump, and his rough start to the season has drastically altered his approach as he flails away night after night.
So, is there any chance Cespedes can turn it around and post some respectable numbers during the last month and a half of the season? Of course. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and although he has failed to make many this year, Cespedes has proven in the past he can alter his approach when needed. Although his recent performance hasn’t been encouraging (.189/.250./.378 with 12 strikeouts in 37 at-bats in August) the fact is that Cespedes is an extremely talented five-tool player who can absolutely dominate an opposing pitching staff when he’s on his game. Players of his talent level aren’t going to struggle forever and I truly believe he will get back to where he was last year. The big question is when.