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Checking in on Yoenis Cespedes' hot start

For three seasons, Yoenis Cespedes was trending downward. In 2015 he has changed one key area.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

While the offseason was still in full swing, I wrote an article about Yoenis Cespedes and how his batted ball rates were trending in the wrong directions. I suggested that those trends were important explanations for his declining offensive performance, and how he may not be able to meet the expectations of his new team. This year however, he's gotten off to a very hot start, posting an ISO of .262, a wOBA of .381, and a wRC+ of 142. At this point, it would seem reasonable to expect me to point to a reversal in those trends and say that he has become a more disciplined hitter. But that actually hasn't been the case. While he does seem to have come back a better hitter, the ways in which he's accomplished it are not ordinary.

2012 540 23 8.0% 18.9% 0.214 0.326 0.368 136 2.9
2013 574 26 6.4% 23.9% 0.202 0.274 0.318 102 2.4
2014 645 22 5.4% 19.8% 0.190 0.326 0.326 109 3.3
2015 88 4 3.4% 22.7% 0.262 0.361 0.381 142 0.9
ZiPS 543 24 6.0% 19.5% 0.212 0.308 0.351 122 3.3
Steamer 507 20 6.1% 20.4% 0.200 0.305 0.340 115 2.5

Since 2012, Cespedes' BB% has been trending in a negative direction. In his rookie season, his rate was exactly league average (8.0%) but since then has been cut in more than half to its current rate of 3.4%. Normally, that's concerning because while there are many successful hitters with high strikeout rates, there are far more struggling hitters with low walk rates. Cespedes is in the midst of his best offensive season and bucking his three year trend.

The most likely culprit for his worsening strikeout and walk rates is Cespedes' plate discipline numbers. While there is no magic combination to create the perfect hitter in terms of swing percentages, there are tendencies for each hitter that can help explain what's going on. For Cespedes, conventional wisdom says that the rate at which he swings at pitches outside the strike zone should be a problem.

Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
2012 36.5% 65.3% 48.5% 59.5% 84.0% 73.3%
2013 37.0% 71.8% 52.0% 63.7% 80.4% 73.7%
2014 38.7% 67.8% 51.8% 67.1% 88.9% 80.0%
2015 40.4% 62.2% 49.8% 64.2% 87.3% 76.7%

Each season, Cespedes has become less aware of the strike zone, and as a result his O-Swing% has increased. His willingness to chase pitches outside the strike zone has caused his BB% to decrease and his K% to increase. He is also swinging less in the zone and making less contact, which is another factor for his increased strikeout rate.

Throughout his short career, Cespedes has experienced fluctuations in many offensive categories, but one thing that has always remained above average is his fly ball rate (league average is 35%).

Team GB/FB LD% GB% FB%
2012 1.01 19.6% 40.5% 39.9%
2013 0.83 16.7% 37.7% 45.6%
2014 0.70 18.4% 33.6% 48.0%
2015 0.93 16.9% 40.0% 43.1%

In 2014, according to our very own John Choiniere, the ISO on fly balls was .378. That value, coupled with Cespedes' strong tendency to hit fly balls, makes it seem odd that he was experiencing a power outage. His FB% was 48%, yet he produced an ISO of just .190. But a further examination of a lesser explored area, and one that Statcast will focus on, revealed the answer. His power numbers seemed to be worsening because he wasn't playing to his strengths. Cespedes wasn't pulling the ball to the left side as much as he used toand overall was hitting home runs at a lesser velocity.

Year Avg. TD Avg. Speed Avg. Elevation Angle Avg. Spray Angle Apex
2012 409.08 106.41 26.56 104.48 85.69
2013 402.96 104.69 25.85 94.94 82.88
2014 387.54 101.71 28.82 98.41 89.95
2015 410.25 111.62 24.47 109.25 80.50

The problem wasn't that Cespedes was hitting fewer fly balls, rather that these fly balls weren't going as far as they had in the past. From 2012 to 2014, the average true distance on his home runs had fallen by 21.54 feet. It follows that his fly balls were not traveling as far as they once had and were no longer landing for hits as they had in previous years. At the same time, Cespedes' spray angle had shifted more toward center field and less toward his stronger pull side. In 2015 however he's experienced a renaissance. The average true distance on his HRs has increased by 22.71 feet, and his homers are rocketing off the bat at 9.91 MPH faster.

With his newfound power, Cespedes' fly balls are going farther than ever. On his most recent home run, the ball left the bat at an elevation angle of just 20.6 degrees.

In 2014, that ball undoubtedly would not have left the yard and may have hung up long enough to be caught by the outfielder. Instead, Cespedes was able to knock in three runs by himself because of his rediscovered ability to drive the baseball.

If this power surge can continue, he has the potential to turn in the best offensive season of his career and cash in during the 2015 offseason. He's pulling the ball more than ever and hitting it harder than ever. While it would be nice to see him increase his BB%, there may be some truth to the saying "don't fix it if it ain't broke". As the first month of the season has come to a close, Cespedes is on pace to set career highs in HRs, wRC+, and fWAR. Aside from being fun to watch, he has reminded us that there are indeed unconventional paths to finding offensive success.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, and ESPN Hit Tracker

Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.