He’s just seeing fewer strikes. And for good reason, since he’s crushing everything.
I hate to rain on the “Cespedes has improved his plate discipline!” parade, but I’ve read two articles recently by two great writers that have left me unconvinced.
One of the articles, by Brian Duricy of Baseball Prospectus, proudly stated that “As his career has progressed, Cespedes has become a more patient player at the plate.” He cited Cespedes’s pitches per plate appearance and said that he’s swinging at fewer pitches in two- and three-ball counts. The other, by Marc Carig of Newsday, observed that Cespedes is more selective, “no longer flailing at the high heater.”
On the contrary, however, it doesn’t appear that Cespedes has changed anything. It’s pitchers who have changed.
According to PITCHf/x, Cespedes’s swing rate on balls in the strike zone is 66.2%, right in line with his 65.1% rate for his career. His rate of swinging at non-strikes is 34.6%, which is close to his career rate of 36.4% (and Fangraphs has is even higher, at 35.6%).
The number which PITCHf/x tells us has changed most drastically is the percentage of pitches he’s seen that are strikes, which is a career low 44.4%, below his career rate of 46.2%. This is even more stark when you drill down into three ball counts: on three ball counts prior to July 2015, pitchers threw fastballs outside the zone to Cespedes 25.6% of the time. This year, it’s 33.3% of the time.
Let’s take a look at the swing rate heat maps for Cespedes. The top image is his career swing rate in all counts, the bottom is his 2016 swing rate in all counts. As you’ll see from the colors, as well as the percentages, Cespedes has barely changed his approach:
His performance in three-ball situations has remained steady as well, too. In fact, he might even be more aggressive going outside the zone in three ball counts in 2016 than he has been in his career:
That tabular data would appear to back this up as well. From his debut to June 2015, Cespedes has swung at 63.08% of fastballs, 69.3% of sliders, and 56.7% of sinkers he’s seen in three ball counts. Those figures are 63%, 100% (out of four) and 80% today.
If there is an outlier in Cespedes’s career, it’s actually the second half of last season with the Mets when he went on a torrid run similar to the one he’s having this year. From July 15th through the end of last season, Cespedes swung at a whopping 84.5% of fastballs, 66.7% of sinkers, and 83.3% of sliders in three ball counts.
He’s also crushing National League pitching. Through June 2015, his three zones with the most devastating slugging percentages were all down and middle-in, with slugging percentages ranging from .677 to .822. Since then, he has six zones where he is slugging above .800, including three zones where he is slugging .971 or higher. (Go look)
What is the conclusion here? I can’t say for certain, but I don’t think it’s that Cespedes is more selective. I would guess that he’s just getting the respect he rightly deserves from National League pitching.