Yoenis Cespedes and the BABIP Spike

While “won the trade” is usually an internet meme, the Tigers front office is probably saying that about the Porcello for Cespedes swap they pulled off last winter. It wasn’t a heist by any means, but with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like the positives outweigh the negatives. Cespedes has been great and Porcello hasn’t shined, but how much should we buy the Cespedes stardom going forward?

In a very basic sense, Yoenis Cespedes has already given the Tigers 2.7 fWAR (all numbers entering Wednesday) to Porcello’s 0.7. Throw in Wilson’s fine 0.5 fWAR and you’ve got a two and a half win lead over less than half a season. That’s an easy win for the Tigers, and it’s probably exactly what they were hoping would happen. Cespedes is hitting and Rick Porcello has developed a bit of a homer problem after dramatically altering his approach. Wilson is the cherry on top.

From a raw production standpoint, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers losing the deal at this point. Porcello stumbled, Cespedes has been hot, and Alex Wilson is a critical piece of the bullpen. But let’s leave aside winning and losing, looking only at Cespedes’ performance so far. What exactly do the Tigers have in left field?

Right now, Cespedes has a .309/.342/.504 line, which is good for a 133 wRC+. He’s been a run above average on the bases and the defensive metrics like him for +8 to +9 runs above the average left fielder so far. Package that all up and you’re somewhere between 2.5 and 3.0 WAR for just 263 PA. That’s an excellent start to the season and it’s clearly his best season so far.

Let’s start with the easy part. He’s a good base runner and the statistics there are right in line with the expectation. On defense, everyone agrees he’s a good corner outfielder, but his career norms are in the +10 to +15 range in left rather than the +22 pace he’s on. It’s not unreasonable to suggest he’s gotten better or that he’s just having a good season, but the odds favor a return to normal. Let’s call him +15 for the season overall. Maybe he can squeeze 0.5 to 1.0 wins out of his glove above and beyond his history, but we’ll forecast conservatively.

In other words, he’s getting a little help, but it’s mostly about his bat. This year’s 133 wRC+ is his best mark since his rookie campaign. That year he hit 136 wRC+ before two years between 100-110 wRC+. His flaw as a hitter is aggression. He doesn’t walk much, strikes out a fair bit, and that leads him to low OBP, high slugging marks. He has the potential to do damage, but he hasn’t been on base enough in his career.

So this year’s improvement is exciting. Cespedes is a good player if he’s a 110 wRC+ with great defense in left, but he’s a potential MVP if he’s at 130 wRC+ with the same glove. Are we buying that Cespedes has grown into the player we want him to be? After all, his OBP is up 40 or 50 points compare to the last couple of seasons.

He’s the thing. His walks haven’t improved. His strikeout rate is higher this year than last. And his ISO is virtually the same. In other words, he’s not putting the ball in play more often or reaching base via walk and he’s not getting more extra bases per hit than before. He’s just getting more hits on balls in play. Ah, our old friend BABIP.

His BABIP this year is .364 after maxing out at .326 in 2012 and never cracking .300 in the two years since. This jump above .350 is pretty easy to dismiss. To make the case that Cespedes has actually improved, you have to argue that he’s started to hit the ball in a way that will lead to move hits on contact than in previous seasons.

Basically, if you can’t explain the BABIP spike, you’re going to bet on regression to the mean. Regression to the mean is fine. He’s a good player at 110 wRC+, but we should investigate to see if he’s doing anything different that might lead us to be more optimistic.

One thing you notice right off the bat is that he’s pulling the ball more. He has a career high 48.7% pull percentage and a career low 17.1% opposite field percentage. This is potentially meaningful because pulled balls are typically hit harder. Speaking of hard hits, while Cespedes hard hit percentage is unchanged over the last couple years, he’s traded some soft hit balls for medium hit balls using the Baseball Info Solutions classifications.

Slightly harder contact and more contact to the pull field. That’s potentially interesting. On top of that, his ground ball rate is at a career high 47% while his fly ball rate fell to a career low 34%. That might seem rough for a power hitter, but remember his ISO is just fine. For that reason, you wonder if Cespedes has traded some weak opposite field fly balls for hard ground balls to the left side. Would that help?

The average BABIP on a right-handed opposite field fly ball is .147 (.601 OPS). For pulled ground balls, it’s .216 (.464 OPS). These are obviously approximations based on carving up the field into arbitrary zones, but the idea is pretty simple. A pulled grounder is about six percentage points more likely to fall for a hit than an opposite field fly ball. If you hit more of one than the other, your BABIP should change.

The difference between a .360 BABIP and a .300 BABIP is 11 hits for Cespedes so far. It’s a tiny sample. The most likely outcome is that nothing is different and he’ll be his old self going forward. We’re only 263 PA into the season and fewer than 200 balls in play. That’s not enough data to believe in a change, especially when the difference is about one hit per week.

If you look at his production in the strike zone, he’s been much improved on pitches down and in. That also happens to correspond to an increase in ground balls in that part of the zone.

It’s too soon to say if this is a change that’s going to continue or if it’s going to continue to lead to good results. It’s worth watching, however, as Cespedes at 130 wRC+ is obviously a much more interesting player than a Cespedes at 110 wRC+. If you’re looking for him to stay hot, watch what he does with the low and in pitch.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to The Hardball Times, the Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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