Yoenis Cespedes kicked off his career with a bang in 2012, hitting .292/.356/.505 with 23 home runs and 82 RBI in 540 plate appearances for the Oakland Athletics. Had it not been for a guy named Mike Trout, Cespedes would have walked away with the AL Rookie of the Year award. His 136 wRC+ ranked 21st among qualified MLB hitters that season, though iffy defensive numbers left him with 2.9 WAR in 129 games played.
The last two seasons haven't been as eye-popping. Cespedes struggled quite a bit in 2013, finishing the year with a 102 wRC+. His walk rate dipped, his strikeout rate rose, and he was swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone. Things were looking up in 2014 when he hit .256/.303/.464 with 17 home runs and 67 RBI in 101 games with the A's. His walk rate was holding steady at 6.5 percent, and he had cut his strikeout rate to 2012 levels. Something with Boston didn't agree with him, though. His numbers nosedived, and he walked just 3.3 percent of the time with a .154 ISO, well below his career mark of .201.
The walk rate may just be a blip on the radar, but what happened to Cespedes' prodigious power? Matt Goldman of Beyond the Box Score looked into Cespedes' struggles and found that he was getting underneath the ball a bit more than in previous years.
Unfortunately for Cespedes, all of these individual measures are trending in the wrong direction. The average exit velocity of his home runs, which in 2012 was 106.41 MPH, fell by almost 5 MPH by last season to 101.71 MPH. Simultaneously, balls are leaving his bat at higher angles of elevation by 8.53%. Decreasing exit velocity and increasing elevation have caused the trajectory of Cespedes’ fly balls to change. They climb more steeply, but for less distance overall.
Part of it could have been his home ballparks, as Goldman alluded to at the end of his article. O.Co Coliseum is recognized as a brutal environment for hitters, especially when the marine layers settles in during night games. Balls don't carry as well, and Cespedes still made it look like his personal playground at times.
Meanwhile, Fenway Park is generally considered a hitter's paradise. Basic park factors rated Fenway as the third-most hitter-friendly park in the majors last season, while O.Co Coliseum was one of the more pitcher-friendly venues. Comerica Park was around average, but tilted slightly towards hitters.
However, when we look into the specific components that make up the park factors, we see where Cespedes could gain an edge playing in Detroit. Comerica Park is considered a league average environment for home runs, while both Fenway and O.Co were skewed towards pitchers. Fenway Park has a decisive advantage for doubles, especially for right-handed hitters. This is largely because of the Green Monster, a structure that Cespedes is not as equipped to take advantage of as you might think.
While Cespedes' "happy zone" is on pitches low and inside, he tends to spray line drives and fly balls fairly evenly from foul line to foul line.
This even distribution plays into Cespedes' hands more at Comerica Park than it did in Oakland or Boston. Comerica Park has been the most hitter-friendly venue in baseball on fly balls since 2008. Meanwhile, Cespedes hit fly balls at a 48 percent clip last year, the fifth-highest rate in baseball. Comerica was also the second-most triples-friendly park in the majors last season thanks to the expansive gap in right-center field. It also rated as more homer-friendly for lefties than either Fenway or O.Co Coliseum. When Cespedes goes the opposite way at home this season, he may have more success than he did in 2014.
Cespedes is in the final season of a four year, $36 million contract that he signed with the Oakland A's prior to the 2011 season. He will be paid $10.5 million this year, and will become a free agent after the season. A clause in Cespedes' contract prevents the Tigers from extending him a qualifying offer, so they will be unable to recoup a compensatory draft pick if he departs via free agency.
Stats and projections
Both ZiPS and Steamer project a slight rebound in walk rate and power for Cespedes in 2015, which seems about right. The park factors detailed above, while advantageous for Cespedes' skill set, won't make a huge difference in his overall numbers. He is still going to swing at a lot of pitches, hit more pop-ups than we would like (he popped up more than Ian Kinsler last year), and draw walks at a low rate.
However, he's also going to hit for power, and will be a valuable bat in the Tigers' lineup. Cespedes had a 116 wRC+ for the A's before he was traded last July and was on pace for another 25-homer season. All signs point to him batting sixth in the Tigers' lineup this year, which could also provide him more chances to steal bases than in the past couple years. Cespedes swiped 16 bases in his rookie season, but totaled just 14 steals over the past two years. The Tigers may be more apt to turn him loose with the bottom of the order behind him than if he were hitting in front of J.D. Martinez.
Cespedes will also provide plenty of value with his glove. An above average defender in left field throughout his career, Cespedes posted the highest WAR total of his career in 2014 when he was finally not asked to play center field. He shouldn't see any time in center in 2015, and his arm should catch more than a handful of daring baserunners along the way. Pencil Cespedes in for at least 3.0 WAR in 2015, with a decent chance he puts up a new career high by season's end.