A couple facts about Yoenis Cespedes. He is 31 years, 58 days old as of this writing; he just signed a guaranteed four year contract with the New York Mets worth $110 million dollars; and, most importantly, he is a bona-fide star. Cespedes is 15th in MLB in WAR over the last two years despite being asked to play out of position and battling through some injuries.
In light of the big commitment, one of the most important questions around the Mets now becomes, “how will Cespedes perform over the next four years?” With the Mets appearing unlikely to make a big splash again this offseason, the team will be counting on Cespedes to carry the load this year, and perhaps, beyond. Will Cespedes remain a cornerstone slugger or will aging get the best of him sooner than later?
There are two primary ways in which people make educated guesses about players: through the use of computer projections (like ZiPS or Steamer, both of which are great) or by putting together a cohort of comparable players and checking how they aged. We’ll do both.
Finding Comparable Players
Over the last three years, Cespedes has averaged .277/.326/.506 (126 OPS+) with 29 HR and 97 RBI per year. He’s been even better as a Met, hitting .282/.348/.554 (140 OPS+) with 48 HR and 130 RBI in just 189 games. According to Baseball-Reference, Cespedes has posted 4.1, 6.3 and 2.9 WAR over the last three years. On Fangraphs, it’s 3.3, 6.7 and 3.2 WAR.
Baseball-Reference has an algorithm which automatically puts together a list of comparables. For Cespedes, this list is a little all over the place but includes some interesting names, like Leon Wagner (#1), Carlos Quentin (#3), Reggie Sanders (#6), Moises Alou (#7), and David Justice (#9).
Making a custom list of comparables for Cespedes proved to be a more difficult task than expected. Not many outfielders over the last 30 years have shown his prodigious power (30+ home runs per year) along with an on-base percentage that was merely good.
Here are two lists of outfielders, centered around Cespedes, by OPS+ and OBP.
Based on these lists, I selected a cohort of the five matching players I thought were most suitable for an offensive comp: Leon Wagner, Curtis Granderson, Juan Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, and Carlos Lee.
The Selected Comparable Players Aged Well, When Healthy
In their age 28-30 seasons, the cohort slashed .281/.344/.518 (124 OPS+) and averaged 32 home runs per year. From age 31-34, the same group saw almost no decrease in production whatsoever, batting .275/.339/.484 (122 OPS+) with 24 home runs per year. A visual view shows that these players, on average, maintained offensive production far above league average:
For stars like Cespedes, the challenge from age 31 to 34 is health, not productivity. The selected cohort and the additional comparable players above have a checkered health history, to say the least: Granderson (averaged 133 games played per season from 31 to 34), Cruz (145), Gonzalez (81), Lee (148), Hart (only played 103 more games before retiring), Justice (141), Ludwick (110).
As for projection systems, I asked the great Dan Szymborski over at ESPN to share with me his four-year ZiPS projection for Cespedes:
Obviously, ZiPS isn’t fully bought into the improvements in Cespedes’s plate discipline and on-base percentage. Cespedes has walked in 8.2% of his plate appearances as a Met, but is only forecast to walk in 6.6% of his plate appearances next year (almost identical to his three-year rate). A .317 on-base would be a significant step back from his .354 on-base last year, although the power appears to have been deemed legit.
More importantly, ZiPS projects that Cespedes will only suffer a gradual decline in skills and playing time over the next four years. ZiPS projects Cespedes for an average of 130 games per year over the life of the contract (almost identical to our comparable players) and that he will still be an above-average hitter even at the end of the fourth year of his contract.
Putting It Together
Both the comparables and the projection systems believe that Cespedes will age well in his age 31 through 34 seasons, and that he will be an above-average player when healthy even in the final year. The final key to the analysis is projecting his 2017 performance as a starting point to measure the drop-off.
Steamer projects Cespedes to hit .264/.322/.482 (118 wRC+) next season and post 2.8 WAR. ZiPS projects Cespedes to hit .266/.317/.498 (120 OPS+) and post 4.0 WAR. The discrepancy in WAR between the two systems is attributable almost entirely to defense, where it appears the ZiPS system assumes Cespedes will be back in left field (where he excels) while Steamer projects Cespedes to split time between left and center.
Cespedes has a career +34 DRS and +37 UZR in left field — it is safe to say that he’s good there. He was on pace for about a +10 season in left field last year, so it is a relatively safe assumption that he will be above average there again in 2017 (on the other hand, he is about a -15 defender in center field). If the Mets leave Cespedes in left field, as appears to be the plan, there will be reason for optimism.
As for the batting line, both the Steamer and ZiPS projections would be disappointments for Mets fans, who just saw Cespedes do damage to the National League to the tune of .282/.348/.554 (140 OPS+) over the last two years. Splitting the difference between the projections and his Mets performance gives you a batting line around .270/.335/.520.
If Cespedes plays left field and hits somewhere in that neighborhood, the Mets could have a 5.5 WAR player on their hands in 2017 and a real bargain. Even if you start your projection from the ZiPS estimate of 4.0 WAR, the Mets deal looks like a fair one. With some luck, the Mets can count on Cespedes to be a valuable presence in the lineup for years to come. What will make or break this contract appears to be health.