As the Oakland Athletics prepare to defend their second consecutive AL West title for the second time since the turn of the millennium, general manager Billy Beane and manager Bob Melvin have to be asking themselves: What in the world happened to Yoenis Cespedes last season?
Inking the Cuban defector to a four-year, $36 million deal about this time two years ago, the Athletics couldn’t have asked for much more from Cespedes in his first season, posting a .292/.356/.505 line over 129 games en route to a top-10 finish in the American League MVP voting. The then 26-year-old outfielder was in elite offensive company that year, accruing a 24.5 offense (batting plus base running) rating that ranked tenth-best among qualified hitters, according to FanGraphs. His 2013 campaign yielded vastly different results from the batter’s box, however, as Cespedes generated a .240/.294/.442 line that resulted in a 2.4 offense rating, which was only eighth-best on his own team.
How could Cespedes go from being a consensus top-10 player in the league (according to the data and Baseball Writer’s Association) to being an offensive liability in one season’s time? Opposing pitchers began attacking the outer half of the plate: A region of the zone in which Cespedes can’t seem to put bat on ball at a consistent enough rate.
Yoenis Cespedes’ Swing-and-Miss Rate by pitch location, 2012
Yoenis Cespedes’ Swing-and-Miss Rate by pitch location, 2013
Cespedes’ overall swinging strike rate increased from 13.2% in 2012 to 14.1% in 2013, and his swinging strike rate to the outer half of the plate jumped from 15.5% in 2012 to 16.0% last season. While these may not seem like significant increases, they have affected his statistical output in that portion of the zone. Cespedes’ outer-half in play rate stood at 35.4% last season, a decrease from 40.4% in 2012. His line-drive rate in that area also declined from 22% to 17% (well below the 22.4% league average outer-half line drive rate) and his well-hit average dropped from .251 two seasons ago to .191 in 2013. Give credit to opposition pitchers, too — they recognized Cespedes’ outer-half struggles, and consequently located 59.2% of their offerings to that region of the zone, an increase from 56.9% in 2012.
As one of the best pure athletes in the game today, Cespedes won’t reach his potential in the majors if he continues to rely almost exclusively on inner-half stuff (.365 career wOBA) and pulling the baseball (.461 career wOBA when doing this). Proving he can place quality contact on outer-half stuff while not swinging through those offerings so frequently will be the next step in his development.