Baseball players are human beings and – here’s some bad news about the human race – human beings are flawed. Perfection in human form does not exist and, consequently, neither does perfection in baseball-player form. The greatest players the world has ever known still have weaknesses on the field (and off it, for that matter). Some weaknesses are unfixable – sorry, Ben Revere, but you’re never going to be a power hitter – but some weaknesses can be addressed. Players who make improvements can elevate their projected value, which can come in handy during free agency. This year, one free agent who has answered questions about a long-standing perceived weakness and stands to benefit financially is Yoenis Cespedes.
A year ago, Cespedes underwent a power surge. He’d always been a 20-homer guy, but, for the first time, he crossed the 30-homer threshold. He also set a career high in isolated power (ISO) with a .251 mark that ranked 12th among 141 qualified hitters. The great news for Cespedes is that he’s been able to sustain his heightened level of power this year by putting up a .251 ISO for the second consecutive season.
The better news for Cespsedes, though, is that, in addition to strengthening an area in which he’d always shown some ability, he also demonstrated impressive improvement in an area of perceived weakness: walks and on-base percentage (OBP). From 2013 to 2014, Cespedes’ OBP hovered around .300; last year it increased to .328 thanks in large part to the influx of home runs (and their effect on his batting average). This year, however, Cespedes brought his OBP up to .354, a level he hasn’t reached since he posted a .356 OBP in his rookie season. The obvious cause of this impressive boost has been a dramatic reversal in his walk-rate trend.
In 2015, Cespedes’ walk rate bottomed out at 4.9%; this past year, it soared to a new career high of 9.4%. One of the key questions facing teams interested in signing Cespedes this winter, then, is whether the boost is real. It goes without saying that a player with good power and decent OBP will be worth more to a team than a player with good power and poor OBP. Which type of player should teams expect from Cespedes going forward?
In trying to decide where the improvement is sustainable, the first question to ask is: what changed for Cespedes this season? Did he make any clear adjustments that spurred the improvement or was it just a fluke?
As August Fagerstrom recently pointed out (and Madison Bumgarner recently exploited), Cespedes has historically struggled with high fastballs. With that in mind, he demonstrated a really encouraging trend this season. In the graphic below, look at his swing rate on pitches up in the zone, first from 2013 to 2015 (on the left) and then in 2016 (right):
Now look at this graphic, which features roughly the same thing, except only as it pertains to two-strike pitches:
Two birds, one stone. Cespedes is laying off pitches that he doesn’t hit well and focusing instead on areas of the strike zone he can pound. As a result, he’s hitting better when he does make contact – his 39.3% hard-contact rate this year was the highest of his career – and he’s putting himself in a better position to walk.
The next question is whether this type of improvement is typically sustained. From 2015 to 2016, Cespedes’ walk rate jumped from 4.9% to 9.4% — an increase of 4.5 percentage points. I looked at qualified players from 2013 to 2015 to find those who experienced similar walk-rate surges from one year to the next and found just seven such players. I then checked to see whether they maintained the improvement the following year and the results weren’t tremendously encouraging.
|Name||Year 1 BB%||Year 2 BB%||Change||Year 3 BB%|
|’14-’16 Miguel Cabrera||8.8%||15.1%||6.3%||11.0%|
|’13-’15 Brian Dozier||8.2%||12.6%||4.4%||8.7%|
|’12-’14 Shin-Soo Choo||10.6%||15.7%||5.1%||11.0%|
|’12-’14 Mike Trout||10.5%||15.4%||4.9%||11.8%|
|’12-’14 Miguel Cabrera||9.5%||13.8%||4.3%||8.8%|
|’12-’14 Yunel Escobar||5.8%||9.9%||4.1%||8.1%|
|’12-’14 Chris Davis||6.6%||10.7%||4.1%||11.4%|
The only player who truly sustained the improvement was Chris Davis. The good news is that Cespedes and Davis do have one thing in common, which is that their improvement in walk-rate was accompanied by a power surge. If pitchers are more careful with Cespedes due to the increasing threat that he’ll knock it out of the park, that could make it more possible that he’ll be able to maintain this improvement going forward.
The more likely scenario, however, is that his walk rate will fall back towards his career norms next season. Current Steamer projections have Cespedes at a 7.3% walk rate next season. Although that would be a notable dip from his 9.4% mark this year, it would still be better than the walk rate he posted in any season between 2013 and 2015. The fact that this change has coincided with a power surge and with an indication that he’s actively avoiding swinging at pitches that are his kryptonite provides some encouragement that the improvement is more than just a mirage.
The wonderful thing about free agency from a player’s perspective is that Cespedes only has to convince one team that his improvements are sustainable and real. If he gets that one team to buy in on the steps forward he has taken over the past two seasons, then he will be able to secure the big contract he no doubt seeks.
Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.