Second-Guessing Starting Yoenis Cespedes in Center

There are a few phrases in baseball that come up from time to time which have no real evidence behind them, but generally inject a little enjoyment to the game as a bit of harmless trivia. One of my favorites is “As so often happens,” employed to describe that sequence when a player makes a great defensive play to close out one half-inning only to begin the next half-inning as the leadoff batter. One hears another such phrase when a defensive player has been going through struggles, perhaps has a bad reputation as a fielder, or might be nursing an injury. On those occasions when the relevant fielder is involved in a play, announcers are quick to note that “The ball will find you.” Last night, the ball found Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes, though turning 30 years old earlier this month, is in just his fourth year of professional baseball in the United States after defecting from Cuba. The Oakland Athletics signed Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million contract and installed him as the team’s center fielder. That particular experiment didn’t last. The A’s, perhaps trying to ease Cespedes’ transition to the majors, moved Coco Crisp from center field to left field so Cespedes could play his preferred center field. By the end of the season, the two outfielders had switched places; Cespedes, in the end, had started just 46 games in center. Until his trade to the Mets, Cespedes had recorded just 19 more starts in center field over two-and-a-half seasons. With Curtis Granderson in right, Michael Conforto in left and no designated hitter, Cespedes took over in center field as his hot bat helped the Mets to a division title.

Whether Cespedes is a more ideal fit for center field or left field is not set in stone, but the evidence we do have suggests left field is better suited to his skills. Cespedes struggled in the field in his initial transition to the majors, in both center and left field, but he adjusted to left field and quickly became one of the better left fielders in Major League Baseball.

Best Left Fielders 2013-2015
Pos Inn ARM RngR ErrR UZR UZR/150
Yoenis Cespedes LF 2914.1 21.4 17.3 -1.7 36.9 17.6
Alex Gordon LF 3601.2 19.1 17.5 3.8 40.4 14.2
Starling Marte LF 3168.1 3.8 19.0 -3.2 19.6 12.0
Christian Yelich LF 2474 -3.9 11.6 2.9 10.6 5.2
Brett Gardner LF 2010 -2.6 2.6 1.4 1.3 1.5

Alex Gordon, with the edge in innings, leads left fielders in UZR over the past three seasons, but on a rate basis, Cespedes nudges him out. Given his great numbers in left, the transition to center field doesn’t immediately look to be one that would challenge Cespedes unduly. We know Cespedes is fast, and he has a great arm. In the absence of more data, however, his capacity to play center field remains a matter of debate. Much of Cespedes’ value in left field is tied up in his arm, where he has thrown runners out at third and home and prevented runners from advancing due to his arm. Taking the chart above and removing his arm from the calculation, we see the following.

Best Left Fielders 2013-2015: UZR Minus ARM(Total)
Alex Gordon LF 3601.2 19.1 17.5 3.8 40.4 21.3
Starling Marte LF 3168.1 3.8 19 -3.2 19.6 15.8
Yoenis Cespedes LF 2914.1 21.4 17.3 -1.7 36.9 15.5
Christian Yelich LF 2474 -3.9 11.6 2.9 10.6 14.5
Matt Holliday LF 2926.1 -14.4 5.5 0.5 -8.3 6.1

Cespedes’ UZR figures as a left fielder remain strong even when his arm is taken out of the equation — maybe 5-6 runs above average over the course of the season — but not elite. Center field removes much of the advantage that his arm gives him, and it renders his above-average range as a corner outfielder much more pedestrian. Kansas City — like Citi Field, Comerica Park, and Oakland’s home field — all have large outfields.

Juan Lagares is an excellent center fielder, but after an injury-filled season, and with Cespedes in the fold, he’s been reduced to a bench role. With everyone healthy, Lagares in center and Cespedes in left is about as good as a team could hope for, potentially rivaling the Royals’ duo of Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon. There is some Statcast information to suggest, as Mike Petriello notes, that Cespedes over Lagares in center, even with the designated hitter, is not a poor choice. Terry Collins chose Kelly Johnson and his average (99 wRC+ in 865 PA against LH 2013-2015) bat over Lagares’ defense and below average bat (career wRC+ of 86). The decision appeared to hurt Terry Collins and the Mets on the very first pitch.

On the play last night, Alcides Escobar struck the ball to deep left-center field. Michael Conforto might have had a play on the ball, but showed deference, as left fielders frequently do, to the center fielder. As the ball fell to the ground, Conforto stopped several feet short to give Cespedes an opportunity to catch it.

He didn’t.

Whether Lagares would have caught Escobar’s fly ball is another question. And it should be noted: it’s possible we’re not even comparing Cespedes to Lagares, in this case. There’s also the question of a healthy Cespedes versus a less healthy one. After injuring himself against the Cubs in the National League Championship Series, Cespedes admitted he was still compromised physically, but expressed confidence he could play, especially in the field.

From a recent piece by ESPN’s Adam Rubin:

“I still feel a little discomfort — nothing compared to what I felt in Chicago, when I had to leave the game,” Cespedes told ESPN Deportes’ Marly Rivera in Spanish on Monday. “It will not prevent me from swinging, but I am not 100 percent. I’m not playing with a full tank.

“If I can’t hit — and I do think I will be able to — I can run, I can field and I can throw. I can do everything else that I know how to do.”

Despite Cespedes’ confidence, it doesn’t take a big leap of logic to imagine that Cespedes’ shoulder injury somehow altered his ability to field Escobar’s fly ball cleanly. While there could have been other factors — miscommunication with Conforto, concern over a possible collision with Conforto, a slightly ineffecient route, a moving ball that altered its course — it certainly appears as though Cespedes also approached the ball awkwardly rather than merely lifting his injured shoulder to grab the ball on the fly. The bounce the ball took might have been bad luck, but it was the failure to make the catch that caused the bounce. Terry Collins likely saw the same thing: Lagares, who got a key hit in the ninth inning of last night’s game, will be playing center field in Game 2 of the World Series.

We have seen managers choose offense over defense throughout the playoffs and have it pay off. Kyle Schwarber was huge for the Cubs over the Cardinals and Cespedes’ bat is an important part of the Mets lineup, but inserting Kelly Johnson in the lineup is a different matter. Collins appears to be correcting his mistake, likely one both of process as well as results, but he might have gotten a bit greedy going for offense in Game 1 and it cost the team a run to start the World Series.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Captain Obvious
6 years ago

Mets are finally starting to Mets again.