Yoenis Cespedes’s Big Strike Zone Problem

If you were watching the Mets play in the postseason and you thought Yoenis Cespedes was swinging at everything: you were right. And it might cost him tens of millions of dollars in free agency.

Cespedes was an anchor in the postseason for the Mets this year. Aside from his costly error in Game 1 of the World Series, or getting picked off in Game 4, Cespedes slashed only .286/.333/.357 in the Championship Series and only .150/.143/.150 in the World Series. In the playoffs overall, Cespedes struck out 17 times and only walked once.

Many observers want to lay blame for this poor performance on his shoulder, but there another obvious culprit as well. Pitchers simply stopped throwing Cespedes strikes — and he couldn’t lay off. Whether it was the pressure of the playoffs or a general problem with discipline, Cespedes’s control of the strike zone was nonexistent for a month.

This is Cespedes’s strike zone plot showing every pitch he saw in the playoffs. To call it ugly would be an understatement.

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(All of these zone charts are courtesy of the great Brooks Baseball).

Only 31% of the pitches Cespedes saw in the playoffs were strikes. The average Zone% for the major leagues is 45.3%. The number tends to only fluctuate between 40%-50% for individual hitters depending on how threatening they are (e.g. Martin Prado and Johnny Giovatella see around 49% strikes while Bryce Harper and Anthony Rizzo see 39%). Cespedes’s strike rate was a degree lower than we’d ever normally see.

Only 40% of the first pitches Cespedes saw were strikes, while league average is 60.9%. The opposing teams were begging to walk Cespedes, but he would not allow it. Furthermore, as you know from watching the games, once Cespedes got to two strikes, he was hopeless. Below is his swing chart with two strikes in the playoffs:

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There’s an awful lot of red in that chart, and that’s because Cespedes swung at just about everything. With two strikes, Cespedes saw 83% balls. He managed to swing at 63% of all two-strike offerings anyway.

I know it’s hard to lay off on a two strike pitch, when the pitcher is throwing you his nastiest stuff. But when there were two strikes on Cespedes, there was almost no chance that he was going to see a strike. Nonetheless, he swung almost all the time. He was unable to identify balls and strikes, as he swung 60% of the time when they were balls.

All of these issues were magnified further in the World Series.

According to Brooks Baseball, Cespedes only saw 28% strikes for the World Series (16/41). He swung at 48% of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone (20/41) and only 56% of the ones that were strikes.

His O-Swing% (swing percentage at balls outside of the zone) of 48% was way above the league average of 31.3%, while his Z-Swing% (swing percentage at balls inside the zone) of 56% was way below the league average of 66.9%. Not only is that terrible compared to the league, but it is terrible compared to his usual self — his regular season O-Swing% is 39.1% and Z-Swing% was 65.1%. He was not himself in the playoffs.

Ready for a real mind-blower? Cespedes only saw ten pitches all postseason in three ball counts. Four of them were strikes, and he swung at all of them. Six of them were ball four — and he swung at five of them:

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The pitch that Cespedes fouled off his leg in Game 5 of the World Series and which ended his postseason? It was, of course, a ball. But not only that – it was about an entire foot inside:

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Like all Mets fans and all baseball fans, I love Yoenis Cespedes. He’s a cool guy, with tremendous talent, and with a flair for the game which makes all of his at-bats a must-see event. But the guy the Mets were batting in the cleanup spot in the playoffs was not Yoenis Cespedes. In his place was a player who was completely lost — with no ability to distinguish balls from strikes, just hacking away at everything. 

Steamer projects Cespedes to hit .266/.312/.473 next season, which sounds right. Remember, before putting up a .287/.337/.604 slash line with the Mets, he had a career .263/.316/.464 slash line in the American League from 2012 to 2014. Once Cespedes was done ambushing the National League throughout August and September, it may be possible that we began to see the same guy that American League pitchers were familiar with.

I wish Cespedes the best of luck, and we will always have his legendary August-September tear. But, unfortunately for Mets fans, we are left most recently with another case of what-if.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives in New York City

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Postscript: I went through the box scores and Cespedes saw more than 57 pitches in the World Series. I’m not sure why Brooks Baseball hasn’t logged all the pitches or why the figure is wrong. I’m also not sure whether it calls the rest of the charts into question either. I welcome anyone’s input as to why Brooks might be incomplete or if I somehow erred in collecting the data and I will gladly update the article.