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Athletics 2014 season review: Appreciating Yoenis Cespedes

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Viva La Potencia
Viva La Potencia
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I've been dreading this one all offseason. What do you say about No. 52, Yoenis Cespedes, that hasn't already been said? He was the unwitting emotional fulcrum of a heartbreaking year and it's hard to think about him without some kind of strong reaction, and this is the time of year to be looking forward to new, happy things. We've already done our second-guessing and come to peace with 2014, at least as much as can be expected to this point, so let's just take one last opportunity to appreciate the ways in which Cespedes is great while looking realistically at what he actually did on the field last year.

Player profile

Name: Yoenis Cespedes, aka La Potencia, or Yo
Position: LF, CF (for two innings)
Stats: 101 games, .256/.303/.464, 17 HR, 67 RBI, 28 BB, 80 Ks, 12 OF assists
WAR: 2.8 bWAR, 2.2 fWAR
How he got here: Signed as a free agent prior to 2012
2014 Salary: $10.5 million
2015 Status: Traded by Boston Red Sox to Detroit Tigers, final year of contract
2015 Salary: $10.5 million

Season summary

We're not here to talk about the trade that sent Cespedes to Boston for Jon Lester. If you'd like to re-hash that, then visit the reviews of Jeff Samardzija (to find out why Billy Beane was trading at all despite having the best record in MLB) and Lester (to find out why Cespedes-for-Lester didn't make a big difference on anything, either last season or in the future):

Jeff Samardzija review
Jon Lester review

There, that's out of the way. Let's talk about Cespedes' production on the field in 2014. We're going to split it into two categories: objective and subjective. It's impossible to accurately analyze Yo without looking at both of those measures.

Objective: Cespedes is a semi-star, not a demigod

On July 31, Cespedes was traded to the Red Sox. That meant that he moved from the pitcher-friendly Coliseum to hitter-friendly Fenway Park. Boston was in the middle of a fire-sale, yes, but the exodus came from the pitching staff; Cespedes still got to hit in between stars like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Mike Napoli. He was still in a good lineup in a favorable park. His full season stats, followed by his career averages (2012-14):

Cespedes, 2014: 152 games, .260/.301/.450, 22 HR, 35 BB (5.4 BB%), 128 Ks (19.8%)
Cespedes, avg: 139 games, .263/.316/.464, 24 HR, 38 BB (6.5%), 122 Ks (20.9%)

After a strong 2012 and a weak 2013, he settled right in the middle in 2014. The player he was last year appears to be more or less the player he really is, and at age 29 and in his fourth year in MLB he's not particularly likely to take any more enormous steps forward. Anything is possible, but the guy we saw last year looked an awful lot like his true talent -- lots of power and fewer strikeouts than you'd expect, but absolutely no plate discipline and an unpalatable OBP.

As usual, Cespedes was at his best in the biggest moments, as all of his splits seem to favor his performance in high-leverage situations. And yet, he still didn't record a single walk-off hit on a team famous for walk-off wins. This isn't the easiest stat to look up, so someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure he only collected one walk-off in three seasons with the A's (a homer against the Dodgers in June of 2012, coincidentally off of Josh Lindblom). For all of his undeniable success in key spots and all the talk of being the heart and soul of the lineup, I would have expected some kind of game-winning heroics over the course of three years. But it was his teammates, Donaldson and Coco and Moss and others, who actually did the work in that department. When we chose nine nominees for "Most Important A's hit of 2014," not a single one was by Cespedes and there wasn't any argument from anyone that he should have been in there.

But I'm straying into the subjective. Here are some hitters who posted similar stats to Cespedes in 2014 (.751 OPS, 110 OPS+, 22 HR):

Cespedes: .751 OPS (110 OPS+)
Trevor Plouffe: .751 OPS (110 OPS+)
Conor Gillaspie: .752 OPS (112 OPS+)
Adam Dunn: .752 OPS (112 OPS+)
Aramis Ramirez: .757 OPS (109 OPS+)

Cespedes has the OPS you would hope for from a solid third baseman, or an aging mid-30s slugger.

Cespedes: 22 homers
Neil Walker: 23 homers (and an .809 OPS!)
Marcel Ozuna: 23 homers (and a .772 OPS!)
Ryan Howard: 23 homers
Marlon Byrd: 25 homers

Walker is a second baseman, Howard is famously old and broken down (and led MLB in strikeouts), and Ozuna (24 years old) was in his first full season in the bigs and playing in the fifth-toughest home park in which to homer. Heck, Brandon Moss pretty much stopped homering for the entire second half and still finished with 25.

But Byrd might be the best comp on there. He hit a few more homers but played in an easier home park in Philly, so we'll call it a wash. His park-adjusted OPS+ is the same as Cespedes' (110) and comes from a similar batting line (medium average, .312 OBP, solid power). Byrd's 2013 season (.291 average, 138 OPS+) illustrates what Cespedes can do in a best-case season with some positive batted-ball luck, but that won't happen every year. Byrd is also a consistently above-average fielder in right (formerly in center) and even has 16 outfield assists over the last two years -- not quite as many as Yo's 26, but still enough to show that his arm is a strength.

Cespedes' raw talent is undeniable. He possesses mammoth power and athletic ability. But only part of it shows up on the field, and history is strewn with cautionary tales warning that he doesn't necessarily have to get any better just because untapped talent remains. To this point, a good comp for his real-world production is Marlon Byrd, a one-time All-Star who has never made more than $8 million in a season. How would you have reacted if the A's had traded Byrd to Boston for Lester in July?

Oh, and Byrd was 36 last year.

Subjective: Cespedes is a freak of nature and the reason you pay to watch baseball

If you had a friend who had never watched baseball before and wanted to know what all the fuss was about, I would show that person a bunch of Cespedes highlights. The majestic homers. The impossible laser throws that give new meaning to the phrase "coming out of left field." The pure athleticism. The excitement.

It's easy to see why fans would love this guy. Forget the 7-of-10 times he makes an out; you're gonna remember it when Cespedes does something amazing, and it happens frequently enough that you start to expect it from him. He re-staked his claim on the national stage by winning his second straight Home Run Derby.

That power does show up in real games as well.

But the thing that really stood out in 2014 was his throwing arm. He led all of baseball with his 16 outfield assists, and some of them were truly incredible. Here's a literal highlight reel of only Cespedes throws ... and it only covers about half the season.

Included in there is the time that he threw out two Angels in one inning, as well as the official "Best A's Defensive Play of 2014:"

Yoenis Cespedes throw

(http://i.imgur.com/HfYN5kQ.gif)

He's a sight to behold, and he does things that other people simply can't. He's the kind of guy who makes you pay just a little more attention to the TV when he's on screen, because you don't want to miss something special. He's the kind of guy who could make you love baseball if you didn't already. He's pure, condensed excitement, but it's Cuban Roulette and there are only two excitement bullets loaded in the chamber. Will one spring forth when you pull the trigger? Maybe, maybe not. But you're definitely going to watch and find out, and you're probably going to remember the shots more than the blanks.

***

MLB.com gave five different Cespedes highlights "Must C" status last year, and all five were throws. That's a credit to his arm, but it does make you wonder how a guy with the kind of power he possesses can go a whole season without a single must-see offensive highlight. His best moment with the bat was a great round of batting practice in the Derby. And even his best throws are often preceded by lackadaisically bobbling the ball on the initial pickup.

And that's the paradox of Yoenis Cespedes. You know that he has all the talent in the world and that he can do anything. He doesn't get the job done as often as you remember, and even if you understand that fact you probably don't care because he's still so awe-inspiring. But in terms of actual production he's basically a 36-year-old Marlon Byrd. That is, a good player but not a great one, and not the best one on the 2014 A's or the 2014 Red Sox or the 2015 Tigers.

And yet, I missed him terribly during the last two months of the season, because watching baseball isn't as fun when he's not involved.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: B+ ... It's hard to remember now, but Yo wasn't very good in 2013. We were all hoping for a bounce-back last year, and we got one. He had a 115 OPS+ with Oakland, he hit for power and drove in runs, and his defense was rated quite well. He could have earned an A by taking that next step and producing like a superstar.

2014 season grade, overall: B ... He posted 4.1 bWAR and 3.3 fWAR for the season, which is pretty good. He hit 22 homers and drove in 100 runs with an above-average OPS, which is pretty good. So he gets a B, which is pretty good.

Video highlights

We already saw the good ones above and watching more of them still makes me sad.

***

Cespedes was a lot of fun in Oakland, and I hope that in 10 years that's what I remember about him instead of arguments about the Lester trade.