Yeah, you remember, from Cuba. He was kind of a big thing for a while there. He had that amazing, overproduced video, where over the course of twenty minutes he murdered baseballs, ran track, worked out and was seen roasting a pig. Essentially every team in the league was rumored to be bidding for his services at one point or another, led by the Yankees and those free-spending Marlins (hey, remember them, too?). Then the Oakland Athletics signed him, which was a pretty huge surprise, but — to we non-A’s fans populating the vast, vast majority of the baseball-loving world — kind of a boring one. It did allow us to pay attention (on tape delay) to his Major League debut, as the A’s went out to Japan to play two real baseball games against the Mariners while everyone else was still in spring training. So we saw him double off of Felix Hernandez in his third big-league PA, and hit a long, key seventh-inning home run in his second game.
He was pretty uninspiring for the month or so after that, though, hitting .240/.313/.400 from April 6 to May 6. He’s been very good since then…but that’s it, no one cares, the lustre is gone. Why is that?
Well, one thing, of course, is Mike Trout. It’s hard to make too much of a fuss over a nearly 27-year-old rookie when there’s a just recently 21-year-old rookie in the same division and at basically the same position leads the leagues in WAR, runs scored and stolen bases and is top-ten in most other categories despite missing most of the first month of the season. But then, it’s not like we’re not capable of paying attention to more than one thing at a time (even more than two things, if you want to throw Bryce Harper in there). Just a week ago, I wrote a post highlighting players who I felt had been overlooked while we were all obsessing over Trout and a few others, and not only was Cespedes not among the five at whom I looked, but to be honest, he didn’t even cross my mind. Now, that’s just my own mind, with all its failings, and with most of the space taken up by ancient baseball history and song lyrics, but still. It can’tjust be Trout (or just Trout and Harper).
There’s the fact that (as my friend and colleague Jason pointed out) Cespedes missed significant time with injuries, and at bad times. After the May 6 date not-so-arbitrarily selected above, Cespedes spent the rest of the month on the DL with a bad wrist. He then came back and played each of the A’s first six games of June, but then left in the first inning on June 7th with a hamstring injury, and played only two more innings between then and June 20. In all, then, Cespedes played in six and one-third games between May 7 and June 19. During the same span, Trout played in 39 games and batted .356, Harper played in 36 games and slugged .517, and Cespedes’ own A’s went 17-22 without him, 9.5 games out of first and seven out of the second wild card slot, looking like the most forgettable team ever.
Which leads to another point: he plays in Oakland. They made a movie about the A’s recently that you may have heard of, but a lot of the general sense of the movie was that Oakland was, in its natural state, a pretty dreary place for baseball — small-market, bad facility, no big names — and that’s pretty much how they’re viewed today. You probably know by now that the Athletics have been unstoppable since Cespedes’ return from his second big injury — at 52-26 post-June 19, they’ve got easily the best record in baseball over that stretch — and people still aren’t paying much attention, nationally. Just yesterday (as reported by another friend and colleague, Cee), White Sox fill-in color commentator Tom Paciorek, speaking about those same alm0st-certainly-playoff-bound A’s: “You’ve got to be a big baseball fan to know who those guys are!” In choosing to sign with the A’s, Cespedes gained himself a good deal of money and a chance to start right away, but may have cost himself a chance to immediately be noticed. Their second-half surge has meant that Oakland’s average home attendance is up about 10% and nearly 2000 per game since last year (to 20,428), so there’s that.
Whatever the reason for his disappearance from the public consciousness, though, we’d do well to end it right now and keep in mind that Yoenis Cespedes has really been absolutely everything anyone could reasonably have hoped for. Since that second return from injury on June 20, Cespedes has hit .298/.358/.493 in nearly half a season’s worth of games. He has 13 homers, and has stolen 12 bases in 13 tries. His strikeout rate (61 in 321 PA) has been high but passable, and his unintentional walk rate (19, with 5 IBBs) has been low but passable. For the season, he’s got a 131 OPS+ and a 133 wRC+. His fWAR and rWAR are dragged down by his defense, which UZR and DRS think have cost the A’s 11 runs (though Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA has a more optimistic -2.3, and a 3.3 WARP, good for a rough tie for 15th among AL position players). But he’s certainly got the speed and arm to play good defense, he hasn’t made a ton of errors, and he makes plays like this; it’s entirely possible that those numbers will stabilize and reveal Cespedes to be an average defensive center fielder, or better.
And if that happens and he stays healthy, we could be looking at one of the very best players in baseball over at least the next few years. If you extrapolate his current numbers out to a roughly-full-season worth of 660 plate appearances, not only is he hitting .290/.355/.491 in a pitcher’s park (and largely a pitcher’s division), but he’s got 31 doubles, 4 or 5 triples, 27 homers, 23 steals in 27 tries, with 48 walks against 131 strikeouts and, if you care, 82 runs and an even 100 RBI. That, coupled with averagish defense in center or even pretty good defense in the corners, is a star player. And while 26 (almost 27) is old for a rookie, it’s certainly not too old to keep getting better, especially when you’ve been in the States for, what, seven months? He’s still just figuring things out. Those numbers could be a harbinger of something really, really special.
Moreover, he’s got the potential to be one of the most exciting players to watch in the league. Everyone loves a five-tool player, and Cespedes has the benefit of just looking like a ballplayer — very athletic, obviously, but in a way that makes him look like a baseball player, like he was built specifically to hit and to incidentally do other baseball things. He plays hard and swings incredibly hard and runs everything out, and (according, again, to Jason, the A’s fan I know) seems to have assimilated himself very well into the A’s boisterous and fun-loving clubhouse. He’s the kind of player who, if you can get past the whole plays-for-Oakland thing, could be a huge star; able to do a bit of everything, a lot of fun to watch, and just a damn good ballplayer.
The timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Cespedes to take that step this year. It could happen next year. It could very well happen a few weeks from now, in the playoffs. And unlike Trout and Harper, he doesn’t have a seemingly endless window within which it can happen; not a lot of Hall of Famers get their start at 26. He might be one of those stars that burns short and bright. But whatever. He looks an awful lot like a star about ready to burn.