Normally, we spend this time of the year thinking about good things. The Baby New Year brings with it a fresh outlook. We look excitedly upon our team’s signings and dream of the upcoming season. We hope.
And yet, this is also the time of year when projections come out. Dark, foreboding things, those projections. Rooted only in the harsh reality of numbers, they are a sobering dash of cold water.
Those projections have a particularly tough message of Yoenis Cespedes and his fans. The flashy, powerful outfielder has the biggest gap between last year’s production and next year’s projections. He’s supposed to fall off nearly four wins in production next year by FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement statistic, as projected by Steamer. As a free agent, that’s rough thing to be known for.
But the harder you look at this fact, the more it tells you about what Cespedes does well, what he doesn’t do well, and how those strengths line up with how projections work.
What Cespedes Does Well
When you think of Cespedes, probably the first thing that comes to mind are those moon shots he hit when he won the Home Run Derby twice. And he did have top-twenty power by at least one measure last year.
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But last year was his best even in that regard. He was 20% better than he’d ever been before. Projections always regress a player to the mean they’ve shown — the most basic projection systems merely take last year’s work (times five), the year before (times three), and the year before (times two), and then divides the whole thing by ten. That weights recent performance the most, but it also averages it out against his baseline production. If you perform that math with his isolated power numbers, you get .223 for next year, or just barely better than his .215 career number.
He’s projected for a .207 ISO, though. So why is he projected for worse than a simple projection would produce? Cespedes is 30 now, and it looks like power ages poorly. Whether you use batted ball distance, or isolated slugging percentage, or home runs per fly ball, it looks like power peaks at 25 of 26. Maybe it hangs on until 27. But by 31, it’s in clear decline.
Power is not the only thing that Cespedes does well, of course. He runs the bases well, and he has a great arm. He’s added almost four wins of production over his career with those aspects. Steamer projections him to be above-average with the wheels (and worth a tenth of a win as a result), but the defense? After a career year with the glove, he’s projected to be league average next year, despite the arm. That’s probably because defense peaks early — it peaks around 26.
What Cespedes Doesn’t Do Well
Cespedes doesn’t walk much, and that takes away from his on-base percentage. Those are outs he’s creating. But that’s been baked into his whole career value so far, and he didn’t walk last year. And he was still great.
Look on the other side of plate discipline, and you’ll see why the projections don’t favor him as much next year. Cespedes has struck out at about a league average rate for the last two years, and he’s projected to be worse than that next year. Why?
Cespedes reaches at pitches outside of the strike zone too much. Only 12 batters reached more often than he did last year. So far, he’s been better than average at making contact on those pitches — last year he was 5% better than league average at that skill. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he was 14th in well-hit average on pitches outside the zone.
That sounds like something he does well, almost. Except there’s this: contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone ages worse than perhaps any skill a batter owns. It takes a dive after the batter turns 28. When that starts to go for Cespedes, all that reaching is going to lead to more strikeouts, which will steal value.
But each of the things he does well needs to be placed into the context of his aging process. That power, and that contact on pitches outside of the zone, those things have not aged well in the context of the history of baseball. Since his next team will be buying his seasons after he turns 30, they’ll be interested to know that no other player in baseball is supposed to take as large a step backwards next year as Cespedes. Consider this, perhaps before January second, when all that hope has gone away temporarily.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.