Yoennis Cespedes has made quite a splash since leaving the communist paradise of Cuba, aligning himself with some very clever marketers and well-produced promotional videos. Scouts are raving about his power and his speed, and there is some anticipation of a bidding war for his services once he clears the regulatory hurdles that come with being a Cuban emigre.
As well there should be. While I was initially pessimistic about his past performances, and the projections that can be reasonably made from them, I discovered a few things about how the system works. Those influences were holding him back, so to speak, for what I’m pretty sure were bad reasons. He looks like he should be a solidly above-average major league player – not likely to be a Hall of Famer and maybe not even an All-Star, but someone who could place in the top third of starting center fielders for the next several years.
I am not basing that conclusion on the videos prepared by his agents, nor on the reports of scouts. What I have, that no one else seems to have done yet, is to compile his performance history from the Cuban Serie Nacional, along with the stats of everyone else in the Cuban leagues, and subject those statistics to the same kind of review we have for players in the American minor leagues. I have what I think is a complete record back to 2001 of Cuban batting and pitching performances, and fielding numbers from 2006 to now. You can see all of them by going through the ‘DTs by League’ tab; the drop-down menus will allow you to change the league to “Cuban Serie Nacional” (its at the bottom of the list) , to change the year (the Cuban League typically runs from November to April; the year given is the calendar year in which the league finished, so “2011″ is the 2010-2011 season), to switch between hitting or pitching stats, and to switch between Real stats, Translated stats, and Peak Translated Stats. The latter isn’t as useful for Cuba as it is for American leagues, since there are so many players whose age is unknown – at least, unknown to me. Even some of the ones we think we know turn out to be wrong. The drop-down menus also have a ‘Splits’ menu, but that won’t work with the Cuban stats – all I have are the top-line ‘ALL’ numbers.
Each of those pages are sortable. The stats for the entire league occupy the top of the page, with separate sortable stat boxes for each team down below. Each player is linked to his own page – accessible through the league pages, or through the search box at the top of any of the player pages. At least I think I have them all on their own page – the Cuban culture apparently takes a very lackadaisical attitude towards consistent spelling, which made it an enormous chore to link player stats from one season to the next together. I am almost certain that there is somebody whose stats are split in two because I didn’t catch on that Yoandry Malleta and Joandi Mayeta were, in fact, the same person. Having these pages gives us a chance to look at what Yoennis Cespedes has actually done on the baseball field in a competitive environment.
His real statistics are reasonably impressive – a consistent .300 eqa, averaging 35 HR per 650 PA (the sum lines are scaled down to 650 PA to ease interpretation), with excellent center field defense. He’s pulling 350-ish atbats a year, which – given that the Cuban season is 90 games, and the league leader in AB is around 380 – speaks well to his durability.
The 33 home runs he hit in 2011 represented a new Cuban league record. I have said before, that records, as often as not, are not the product of a great individual effort, but a good effort carried out in especially favorable circumstances. Cespedes’ home run record is undoubtedly the latter. Having the full stats in hand allows us to look at the trend in total HR hit over the last few years in Cuba: how they’ve gone from 669 in 2007, to 1192, then 1292, 1498, and finally 1449 in 2011, all with roughly the same number of games and plate appearances. From 2001 to 2007, no hitter in Cuba had more than 28 home runs; its happened nine teams in the last four years. In addition, Cespedes plays with Granma, which has had the highest park factors in Cuba over the last three years. (To be fair, he did hit 18 of his 33 home runs on the road, so the record is not simply a park effect). But a look at the leader board for home runs in 2011 makes it crystal clear:
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.
(Aside: you really, really should click on Abreu’s link and look at his numbers. If I were an MLB exec I’d be tempted to hire an extraction team to go in and kidnap the guy so he could play for me).
The thing is, while there are certainly some high quality players in the Cuban league, enough to fill out an All-Star team that is strong in world competitions, the quality depth just isn’t there – a problem that isn’t helped by the continual exodus of top players like Cespedes (let us please leave the moral issues, governmental ideologies, personal freedoms, what is right and what is wrong out of this; I am explicitly and only considering the baseball issue here). In past analyses I have graded the Cuban league, as a whole, to be on par with low A ball in the States. This means that the translation process is going to take some very big bites out of these Cuban statistics, which you can see for yourself in the Regular DT portion of his page and which I’ve reproduced here:
Yoennis Cespedes Born 19851018 Age 25 Bats R Throws R Height 70 Weight 200 Regular DT Year Team Lge AB H DB TP HR BB SO R RBI SB CS Out BA OBP SLG EqA EqR POW SPD KRt WRt BIP Defense 2004 Granma______ CBA 300 73 17 4 8 23 86 40 34 3 1 233 .243 .302 .407 .246 35 5 0 -18 -3 4 77-DH 0 2005 Granma______ CBA 358 92 22 3 13 26 83 55 42 4 1 273 .257 .314 .444 .261 48 10 1 -8 -3 0 93-DH 0 2006 Granma______ CBA 360 101 23 2 19 31 68 66 58 6 1 262 .281 .344 .514 .289 59 17 3 -1 -1 0 87-CF -3 2007 Granma______ CBA 361 91 22 2 17 30 84 67 57 12 5 278 .252 .317 .465 .267 51 15 8 -8 -2 -4 77-CF 8 2008 Granma______ CBA 378 82 14 1 18 21 79 57 52 3 2 301 .217 .258 .402 .225 36 13 3 -6 -6 -21 76-CF 9 1-LF 1 2009 Granma______ CBA 348 87 14 1 18 28 60 58 54 4 2 270 .250 .307 .451 .260 47 14 1 2 -2 -13 65-CF 2 2010 Granma______ CBA 358 93 19 3 14 30 70 61 45 4 1 267 .260 .321 .447 .264 48 9 2 -2 -2 -3 75-CF -9 2011 Granma______ CBA 375 92 16 1 22 34 67 60 65 8 1 287 .245 .311 .469 .267 53 18 2 1 -1 -16 85-CF 16 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Minors 591 148 31 4 27 46 124 97 85 9 3 2171 .251 .309 .451 .260 78 13 2 -5 -2 -7 97-CF 5
What we have is a guy who (over a 162-game season) has 25-30 HR power, which is worth roughly 15 runs more than an average major league player. The only evidence for good speed, which was on prominent display in his videos, are his fielding ratings – it is not apparent from his hit distribution or stolen base totals. Statistically speaking, he only rates as slightly speedier than average. His strikeout and walk rates both rate as “poor”, although his K rate has improved in recent years. Initially, at least, and especially so if a team tries to move him straight to the majors, the K rates are likely to be worse than this. The really bad mark on his record are his BIP numbers, which have become sharply worse recently, with a score at least 13 runs worse than major league average in three of the last four years. I am still in the process of understanding the way BIP fluctuates. The BIP score, by a wide margin, has the least continuity from one year to the next of the five component stats I have listed: correlations are only about 0.4, instead of the 0.8 ratings the others enjoy. While there are tendencies for different hitters, there is a pretty good chance that this rating numbers will improve in the US.
So yes, the overall projection is for good power, low BA and OBA, and a good CF, with an overall EQA in the .260-.270 range. Per the EqA report, the average EqA for major league center fielders last year was .269.
There is a major league player who is, statistically, quite comparable to Cespedes. He is also a center fielder, has a Gold Glove, and is only about 2.5 months older. Compare their 2011 DTs, enlarging Cespedes’ to the same plate appearance total:
. ab h db tp hr bb so sb cs ba oba slg eqa
Cespedes 544 133 23 1 32 49 97 12 1 .244 .307 .467 .267
ML Player 562 162 25 2 25 31 100 11 5 .288 .325 .473 .274
The major league player gets more 24 hits, but gives most of that advantage back by drawing 20 fewer walks. He’s had major league EqAs of .246, .265, .262, and .274 in his career, and there is a near-constant expectation for him to break out and have a great season. Instead, we have a string of seasons which place him as the 7-10th best CF in the majors – very good, but short of All-Star caliber. The hype of what we expect from Adam Jones and the reality we’ve gotten seems to me like a very good lesson for Yoennis Cespedes.
When I run a projection for Cespedes – and, for that matter, Jones – I get a forecast that carries them from their current .270ish figure to something more .280ish. Combine that with being good-fielding center fielders, and you’re talking about 4-5 WARP, right on the border of All-Star status. A 4.3 WARP, which is his 50% projection, would have made him the 6th best CF in 2011, 5th in 2010, or 4th in 2009. The overwhelming majority of players with similar stats are in the majors; the Improve percentage and breakout/collapse ratios are both in his favor for the next few seasons.
Cespedes’ comps are interesting, in that there isn’t a lot range to it. None of them are in the Hall of Fame, but a couple of them get mentioned in Hall discussions. Seven of the ten were very, very good – and the remaining three did just about nothing, with no gradation between the two groups. His ten best comps (based on performances from ages 23-25) :
“Year” corresponds to the “current season”; WARP and VORP are career totals; EQAlast3 is the players translated EQA for the three seasons prior to “Year” (e.g., 1973-75 for Hendrick), while EQAnext3 is for Year plus the next 2 seasons (1976-78 for Hendrick); the component scores are also for the prior three seasons.
George Hendrick, not surprisingly, also comes up as Adam Jones’ #1 comp.
One thing that is always a question with Cuban players is age – how much do these stats change if Cespedes is not actually going on 26, but is in fact several years older? It actually isn’t that bad for him, compared to other players who were reportedly something like 22 when coming to the States. He’s reached what you might call the plateau portion of the aging curve, where expected performance stays fairly level for about six years. Changing his current age had almost no affect on the projections for 2012 or 2013; where it does have an affect is in how long he can play before he goes into the downhill portion of the aging curve. You can see in his projection that the breakout/collapse ratio goes below 1 at age 29, and continues getting worse; that’s a good indication of where his comps have tended to lose it.