Yoenis Cespedes and the Mike Trout Treatment

We all learned something about Mike Trout last year. If you didn’t, that means you weren’t reading enough Jeff Sullivan, and that’s your first mistake. Trout’s natural swing plane carries through the bottom of the zone, making him one of the game’s best low-ball hitters. No swing is without holes, though, and so what we learned is that Trout had something of a vulnerability against the high heat. When the league began to figure this out, the league began to adjust, as it’s wont to do. Sullivan covered this league-wide adjustment to Trout at length last season. The nuts and bolts are as follows: at the beginning of 2014, Trout was getting high fastballs about 29% percent of the time — an entirely unexceptional rate. By the end of the season, he was seeing them around 40% of the time, by far the highest in the league. First came the information, and then came the subsequent approach. Pitchers were able to gain a bit of an edge against Trout, and any edge against the best player in the world is welcome, from the pitcher’s standpoint.

Here is a heatmap similar to one Sullivan used in the original Trout piece, from 2014:

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 10.39.10 AM

Now here’s a heatmap of Yoenis Cespedes, from this season:

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 8.58.02 AM

Trout looks like he can cover the outer half of the plate a bit better on pitches down. Cespedes looks like he chases the high pitch a bit more. The heatmaps have their individual differences, but by quick glance they’re largely indiscernible, because the thing that jumps out at you is the same. Both batters feast on pitches down and in. Both batters struggle with pitches high.

To put Cespedes’ struggles into context, I ran a pair of Baseball Savant queries. The first one was simply slugging percentage, overall, for all qualified batters. The next one was slugging percentage, vs. elevated fastballs, for that same group of batters. With some quick work in Excel, we can compare these two numbers against one another to get an idea of which batters saw the biggest increase in production when given a high fastball, and which batters saw the biggest dropoff in production when given a high fastball. The top and the bottom of that leaderboard looks like this:

The best and worst hitters vs. elevated fastballs
Player Overall_SLG% HighFB_SLG% HighFB_SLG%+
Kole Calhoun 0.422 0.607 144
Manny Machado 0.502 0.722 144
Shin-Soo Choo 0.463 0.650 140
Brandon Crawford 0.464 0.651 140
Brian Dozier 0.444 0.621 140
Trevor Plouffe 0.433 0.326 75
Ian Desmond 0.385 0.286 74
Yoenis Cespedes 0.542 0.390 72
Kolten Wong 0.386 0.271 70
Derek Norris 0.402 0.273 68
SOURCE: baseballsavant.com
“Elevated fastballs” defined as: 2.5 feet off the ground, or higher

For the season, Cespedes slugged .542, same as Yoenis Cespedes. Against elevated fastballs, Cespedes slugged just .390, same as Billy Burns. The league, I’m sure, knows about this. Cespedes was one of the best hitters in baseball this season, and he’s got a weakness about as glaring as anyone’s. Teams tend to pick up on these things fairly quickly.

After a July game in Boston when Cespedes was still with the Tigers, Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa hinted at this knowledge:

With each successive fastball, Tazawa elevated the pitch even more — to the top of the strike zone and beyond. Cespedes fouled off the next three pitches.

“I knew the high fastball was key,” Tazawa said. “And when I kept getting foul balls, I knew I had a good fastball.”

In that at-bat, Tazawa threw Cespedes nine consecutive elevated fastballs, eventually getting a swinging strikeout on a 95-mph heater at the eyes. As time went on, Tazawa pitched Cespedes higher and higher. The interesting thing is, the league hasn’t really done the same.

Cespedes’ rate of elevated fastballs, by year, are as such:

  • 2012: 25%
  • 2013: 28%
  • 2014: 24%
  • 2015: 28%

There are some hints of an increase. Before this season, Cespedes’ career rate was 25%, and three percentage points up from that rate is a noteworthy jump. But the rate he saw this year was the same rate he saw back in 2013, when his production against elevated fastballs wasn’t much different than his overall production. This year, Cespedes’ weakness against the high fastball was more drastic than ever before, and it coincided with him having his best season at the plate. In other words, Cespedes was beating pitchers more everywhere else, making it all the more important for them to pitch to Cespedes carefully, focusing more on his cold zones. With that said, it feels somewhat surprising that this hole in his swing wasn’t more exploited.

Trout led the league in high fastball rate, at 33%, and there was a time last year where it was hovering around 40%. Down at the bottom of this year’s leaderboard is Brian Dozier, at 22%. Cespedes found himself near the middle at just 28%, with league average standing at 26%.

Major league pitchers, almost certainly, have a better understanding of how to attack Yoenis Cespedes than I. Cespedes is also known for an inability to lay off breaking balls away and in the dirt, so perhaps the difference between the approach against Trout and the approach against Cespedes is that Cespedes has two weaknesses, whereas Trout had just one, and pitchers are a little more comfortable trying to exploit Cespedes with breaking pitches in the dirt than they are challenging him with high fastballs. You could say there’s less margin for error in trying to challenge Cespedes with the heat.

Few players looked less like themselves against the high heat than Yoenis Cespedes this season. It’s always been something of a problem for Cespedes, but this year, that problem was exacerbated. Cespedes’ weakness appears almost identical to Mike Trout’s, and we know how the league responded to that. The league, maybe surprisingly, hasn’t responded quite the same way to Cespedes, but then again no two players are the same. Cespedes has another problem area, so pitchers have at least have another option. The elevated fastball feels like the bigger weakness, the one that’s more exploitable, but maybe it’s also riskier. The interesting part, now, is seeing which route the Royals choose to take.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Eric R
6 years ago

“For the season, Cespedes slugged .542, same as Yoenis Cespedes.”


John Elway
6 years ago
Reply to  Eric R
6 years ago
Reply to  Eric R

It’s a tautology!