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Can Yoenis Cespedes Showcase Talents In MLB?

Yoenis Cespedes made his professional debut Thursday night in the Dominican Winter League. The much-hyped Cuban defector promptly went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a hit by pitch. At least there’s nowhere to go but up.

Although Cespedes has yet to establish residency outside of Cuba and is still ineligible to sign as a free agent, the market has largely cleared (outside of Prince Fielder), and thus the Hot Stove’s attention turns his way. Expect the hype to approach and potentially surpass that which surrounded Aroldis Chapman two years ago — Cespedes may not having something as tangible as a 100 MPH fastball, but he does have The Showcase. He also has a tremendous record as one of the Cuban League’s best hitters at just age 26. But it’s difficult enough to project the performance of solid minor leaguers, where data is largely complete and comparables abound. How can we even begin to filter through the noise in Cespedes’s excellent statistical record?

Start with the facts. Cespedes has been at least good in the Cuban League since his debut in 2004 and has largely destroyed pitchers since 2006.

Year Lge AB H DB TP HR BB SO R RBI SB CS BA OBP SLG
2004 CBA 288 87 17 7 9 28 65 50 42 3 3 0.302 0.379 0.503
2005 CBA 339 106 22 5 15 34 59 69 51 5 2 0.313 0.398 0.540
2006 CBA 339 119 24 4 23 44 43 89 78 8 3 0.351 0.442 0.649
2007 CBA 340 103 24 3 17 42 53 79 66 15 10 0.303 0.398 0.541
2008 CBA 366 104 16 2 26 32 50 82 78 4 4 0.284 0.342 0.552
2009 CBA 328 106 19 0 24 43 40 83 76 4 4 0.323 0.411 0.601
2010 CBA 342 118 19 4 22 42 45 87 67 5 3 0.345 0.426 0.617
2011 CBA 354 118 17 1 33 49 40 89 99 11 3 0.333 0.424 0.667

Although Cespedes shows excellent numbers across the board here, what really stands out is the power. Cespedes has four seasons with at least a .600 slugging percentage and just polished off a 33 home run season in a league where his 354 at-bats was among the league leaders. The pace he set in the 2011 Cubans season was for a whopping 56 home runs. But as Clay Davenport shows us, Cespedes wasn’t the only one to put up big home run totals in the short season.

Cespedes was tied for the record this year by Jose Abreu, who did it in 60% as mnay atbats, and there are a whole slew of players right behind them. This looks like a pretty normal leaderboard, not the leaderboard of a record-setting season – which is how you can be pretty sure the record really belongs to the conditions, not the individual. Give him credit for leading the league in HR, but leave the record talk out of it.

The leaderboard in question:

Name AB HR  
Jose Abreu 212 33
Yoennis Cespedes 354 33
Reutilio Hurtado 321 30
Joan Carlos Pedroso 253 29
Frederich Cepeda 305 28
Alexander Malleta 311 27
Alfredo Despaigne 261 27
Edilse Silva 331 25

So although Cespedes was definitely one of the top power hitters in the Cuban League, his exploits are hardly all-world or necessarily the best in his own country. The Cuban parks seem to be very difficult to pitch in. According to Davenport’s translations — which probably have to be taken with a pound of salt given how few players make the transition from Cuban baseball to American professional baseball — Cespedes’s numbers still work out to above-average major league power. I don’t think this is a terribly surprising conclusion — it’s difficult to hit 33 home runs in 350 at-bats in any league. It just doesn’t necessarily mean a 60-homer season is coming in the states.

The next question relates to plate discipline. Observe, rough (due to the lack of HBP/sacrifice data) walk rates and strikeout rates for Cespedes’ career.

Year BB% K%
2004 8.9 22.6
2005 9.1 17.4
2006 11.5 12.7
2007 11 15.6
2008 8 13.7
2009 11.6 12.2
2010 10.9 13.2
2011 12.2 11.3

Cespedes has shown remarkable improvement from a hack-tastic first season, all the way to the point where he walked more times than he struck out in 2011. However, there is the question of how many of those walks were intentional — he was in the process of setting a new home run record, after all. Either way, Cespedes made excellent contact in each of the past four seasons and although his strikeouts will undoubtedly rise against the higher talent in the MLB, we shouldn’t expect him to be the next Austin Jackson.

It’s tougher to get a grip on his ability to take walks. As mentioned, the number may be a bit inflated by intentional walks. However, the number could be deflated because his talent gave him little reason to work counts and take pitches against Cuban pitchers. When you can hit .330 with mammoth power, the marginal gain of working the count is minimal. It’s tough to say if this has developed habits that will be tough to shed against MLB pitchers who can work corners with more deceptive pitches, or if instead he’ll be able to lay off and take walks when they are offered to him. Either way, a walk rate consistently over 10% is most definitely not a red flag.

Just looking at the statistics Cespedes compiled in Cuba, there isn’t a glaring weakness which looks to tank his game upon landing with an American (or Torontonian) squad. He was as complete as a player can be in any league. Much of his value depends on his ability to play center field, of which there seems to be optimism around scouts. His Cuban numbers seem to suggest above-average power for the position already, and with any sort of plate discipline he has the ability to push an All-Star level in MLB. With his power and his superior athleticism and strength, the risk factor for Cespedes seems lower than with other relative unknown players, and the reward if he reaches his potential could be incredible.