MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals

Cespedes’ Improvement In Queens Isn’t Just About Power

For the vast majority of May, Bryce Harper held a mid-.200s average with above an OPS of 1.000; for  most of that period, he was something of an outlier. Were the season to have ended on any of those days, he would’ve set the record of having the lowest seasonal batting average with an OPS that high. But, although there have only been 32 such seasons of lower than a .300 batting average with an OPS of 1.000 or more, Harper was not alone in this mark thus far in 2016. Until he strung together 7-for-15 stretch from May 21-24, Yoenis Cespedes had also put together a qualifying season. But while much has been made of Harper’s Passion Pit policy (aka “Take a Walk”), only Cespedes’ power has gotten coverage. OPS, however, is a stat that reflects smart plate discipline in addition to the benefits of 15 home runs in 42 games.

As his career has progressed, Cespedes has become a more patient player at the plate. Only recently, though, has this manifested itself in an increased walk rate. Per ESPN, his pitches/plate appearance numbers have moved thusly (yearly ranks in parenthesis): 2012 – 3.66 (109th), 2013 – 3.78 (83rd), 2014 – 3.74 (94th), 2015 – 4.03 (32nd), 2016 – 4.08 (50th). But it’s been during his time with the Mets where this number has been highest, as his stint in Queens in 2015 saw him seeing an average of 4.15 pitches per plate appearance, which would have been good for 13th were it constituting his whole season. Even during this stretch, it took until 2016 for his walk rate to actually increase over the previous season. The increase during his portion of 2015 with the Mets was relatively small (5.6 percent compared to 4.5 percent with the Detroit Tigers), but 2016 has seen more than double the rate of 2015 as a whole; he’s up to 9.9 percent in 2016 compared to 4.9 percent in 2015.

I decided to look at counts with two and three balls and compare swing percentages for his career up to 2016 and then the 2016 season itself. For counts with two balls, he is swinging at fewer fastballs, changeups, and sliders, while holding similar to his numbers on sinkers, curves, and cutters up to 2016. For counts with three balls, fastballs, changeups, and curves are swung on less this year than in his career up to that point. On pitches outside the zone, Cespedes is swinging at fewer pitches than any year since his rookie season of 2012. The percentage differentials are by no means eye-popping numbers, but even a few percentage points here or there can dramatically affect a player’s stat line. Cespedes has struck enough fear into pitchers this season that he can be more selective. This has led to his OBP being .055 points above his career average, hovering there for most of the season. The way he’s playing, there’s no reason to believe it will significantly decrease.

I looked back at last year’s team to see if Cespedes was indicative of a team-wide trend. It does not appear so, as the team’s 0.311 OBP mark is all of 0.001 lower than last year’s team. The growth is (mostly) all Cespedes, and this is a welcome sign. Adding patience to a fearsome bat gives pitchers increasingly fewer options when they face him. If they remain in the strike zone, they have to contend with a player leading the National League in slugging and second in TAv among qualified batters. If they pitch him outside, he’s less likely to chase. Improved discipline begets elite production.

For a team scoring the 23rd-most runs in baseball, it is clear that Yoenis Cespedes cannot do it all on his own. With the pitching staff putting up collectively impressive numbers, the run support needed is rarely too much to ask. And as we’ve seen, Cespedes is putting himself in the position to score not just with his own bat, but by getting help from his teammates. Now, it remains to be seen if they can take advantage of the new Cespedes.

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

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