Tigers Daily-ish: Yoenis Cespedes Needs To Get Airborne

by Jon Erkkila | Posted on Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015
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The Detroit Tigers offense has been in constant flux so far in 2015. They’ve put up some decent stats but, more importantly, have struggled to score runs on a consistent basis.

Yoenis Cespedes was brought aboard this past off-season in the Rick Porcello deal in order to avoid some of this. Despite a rather pronounced need for some left-handed lineup balance, Cespedes’ righty power potential was coveted by Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski. A deal with the Boston Red Sox was agreed upon as a 3-for-1 package with pitchers Alex Wilson and Gabe Speier arriving in Detroit with Cespedes.

As the season enters the month of June, the early returns for the Tigers appear solid. Wilson has become an effective reliever in long stints for the Detroit bullpen. Speier is in Low A ball and is a long ways off, but he is performing in fine fashion at West Michigan.

Meanwhile Cespedes has immediately bolstered the Tigers outfield defense. He’s a noticeable upgrade patrolling left-field over the likes of Rajai Davis and J.D. Martinez last season. Leaving the rather cozy left-field confines of Oakland and Boston has really allowed Cespedes to stretch his legs and show solid range to go along with his bazooka throwing arm.

However it was offense that Cespedes was brought aboard to provide. How has he done? It’s been solid but not quite spectacular. Cespedes currently is sporting a slash-line of .278/.311/.475 good for a wRC+ of 114. His 24 cumulative extra-base hits has ranked him near the AL lead for most of the season. There isn’t a lot to complain about there. It’s also not quite as dynamic as perhaps some fans envisioned. He’s definitely a tick below “All Star” to this point. What’s holding Cespedes slightly in check to this point? We’ll get to that in a moment.

The Eventual Road to the Motor City

Yoenis Cespedes was nearly a Detroit Tiger in 2012, sometimes that gets forgotten over time. Cespedes was on the open market after leaving Cuba that off-season prior to the ’12 campaign. Cespedes’ camp released the oft-hilarious video of the slugger training in various situations (including with former Green Bay Packers All-Pro running back Ahman Green) jumping over things, lifting things, running really fast, and enjoying a lovely barbeque because…yeah.

The Tigers were in the running according to various sources until the end. Speculation was rampant for weeks on end that the Tigers were the possibly the front-runners to take the dive into the Cuban talent pool about to open for MLB.

But a crazy turn of events moved the Tigers in another direction. Victor Martinez blew his ACL in a training session and suddenly Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was signing off on a gargantuan free agent deal for the very available Prince Fielder. Cespedes would be free to talk elsewhere and he landed in Oakland.

Cespedes would burst on the scene with a statistical rookie year that would prove to be his best to this point. He slashed a rock-solid .292/.356/.505 (wRC+ 136) that season while also posting his best walk-rate and his career low K-rate. It was impressive and I’m sure Oakland fans the best was yet to come.

However Cespedes’ offensive game regressed a bit over the next two years. He was still productive and the Oakland offense still had great use for him. But GM Billy Beane decided to “go for it” and add quality arms to his rotation at the 2014 trade deadline. Cespedes was moved in part to acquire Jon Lester.

Cespedes had a yawn of an experience in Boston. It was a club going nowhere and one focused more on the future than contending in ’14. As they looked to overhaul their mix, Cespedes was used as a trade chip to acquire Porcello (who has inked a long term deal in Beantown).

Tapping the breaks

So why is Cespedes “good and not great” so far in Detroit?

A few things seem just a bit off in terms of some career norms. Luckily for Detroit they seem to be things that Cespedes and hitting coach Wally Joyner could work to adjust during the summer’s early months.

A number that jumps off the page is Cespedes’ ground-ball rate of 44%. It’s at a career high level and it’s jumped a full 11 percentage points from 2014. Naturally there is a corresponding drop in his fly ball rate by nearly 10 points to a career low 37%. An airborne Cespedes poke always has a chance to be one of his frightening blasts that can rocket into the bleacher seats. Body armor should be passed out to front row patrons in some stadiums when Cespedes is about to detonate one of those.

But a Cespedes ground-ball is just another grounder. He has speed to beat out the occasional infield hit, but his calling card is the power game. He needs the ball in flight more often to be that guy.

A cause of his ground-ball happy ways this season might be seen in another measure at Fangraphs. Cespedes is hitting the ball to the opposite field at a career low pace. It would seem he’s perhaps a bit pull happy and he’s rolling over some pitches to create his excess grounders. He’s putting only 16.6% of balls in play to right-field. In his first three seasons he’s never been below 21.6% with a high in ’14 of 24.4%./ To match the trend Cespedes is putting a career high 47.7% rate of balls in play to the pull field.

Where it goes from here

The Tigers offense isn’t really swooning consistently because Cespedes isn’t doing his job. He’s not been a particularly big part of the problem. But they desperately need him to become a bigger part of the solution. They need a breakout from him.

Call it a contact year push. Just call it hot streak. The Tigers would take him ripping off a summer surge of power production to break open some innings that hasn’t been happening enough to this point. The Tigers are short of power overall. They need Cespedes to provide a higher percentage of bombs down the stretch.

Cespedes and Joyner need to work quickly to get some more consistent lift in his swing. They need an airborne assault, not the infantry in this case. Perhaps a more concerted effort to work the ball to all fields will eliminate some of those grounders to shortstop that have been a bit commonplace. Turning just six or seven grounders per week into line-drives or fly balls would make all the difference over the course of the season.

Is that work being done? Is Cespedes receptive to such ideas? We’ll just have to see.

The Future in Detroit or Parts Unknown?

Will the Tigers make a concerted effort to re-sign Cespedes? My initial inclination is to just enjoy him now while he’s a Tiger. He’s so close to free agency, it seems like a good bet that his camp will want to see what’s out there. This doesn’t preclude the Tigers from eventually retaining him. This happened with Anibal Sanchez a couple of years back when Sanchez made it to the market only to have Dombrowski swoop in and take him away from the Chicago Cubs.

But Cespedes has never, to this point, quite lived up to that rookie year. He’s good. He’s certainly not boring. Better yet, it should be said, he’s fascinating to watch and as exciting as any player the Tigers have had not named “Miguel” in some time. The next step to that premium level hasn’t occurred though. His initial 4-year/$36M deal has been a huge bargain, but what will we one day call the next sheet he inks in MLB?

Should the Tigers really commit what will possibly be a 5-year/$110M contract to a corner outfielder on the wrong side of 30 who has some flaws to his game? It’s far from an easy call either way. Calling it 50/50 is cop out perhaps…but you can easily make arguments both ways on this one.

For now, the Tigers need to concentrate on the present. If they want that fifth straight AL Central crown, they could really use a burst of power from Cespedes to terrorize division pitching staffs. He needs to lay off a few low and away sliders, pick up his walk-rate a bit, and most importantly get the ball off the ground and heading into the air and the awaiting seats. He hasn’t been to blame so far, but the room for improvement is definitely in his skill set.

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Jon Erkkila
About the Author

Jon Erkkila is a native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan. Currently living in MLB Blackout Hell, otherwise known as Iowa. Follow him on twitter @yooper_ia

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