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Saturday, April 28, 2012
A's fans falling in love with Cespedes

By Jason Wojciechowski

Yoenis Cespedes
Yoenis Cespedes is hitting .254 with five home runs and 18 RBIs through 21 games.
The relationship between how much fans love a player and that player's actual talent and performance is frequently not straight-forward. Many A's fans grew disgusted watching Jack Cust whiff and whiff and whiff even while he was far and away the team's best hitter. Marco Scutaro became a hero in Oakland on the strength of late-game heroics while serving as a merely decent role player overall. And this video shows what happens when Grant Balfour, a good relief pitcher, but not exactly a future Hall of Famer, comes into the game in Oakland. (Check out, especially, the guy who has completely raged himself into exhaustion at about the 1:16 mark.)

This brings us, as all things about the Oakland A's do in 2012, to Yoenis Cespedes. Over the winter, Oakland fans in our little corners of the Internet asked Billy Beane and the A's front office to take a gamble on Jorge Soler, a very young Cuban outfielder, figuring that the team could raise its payroll (thus appeasing both the teams that fund the A's via revenue sharing and the players association) while acquiring a young player with great upside who could be ready to be an impact major leaguer around the time the team was supposed to be moving to San Jose. Few fans, if any, seriously suggested that the A's sign Cespedes, assuming that a team closer to win-now mode could pay the money he desired. The out-of-the-blue four-year deal he signed with the A's, a deal that will allow him to become a free agent while still reasonably close to his prime, blindsided Oakland fans.

A's devotees have become accustomed to being blindsided over the last decade, as Beane has taken the old Branch Rickey maxim about trading a player a year too early to heart. From Ben Grieve through Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson to this offseason's deals involving Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, Beane has caught A's fans unaware time and time again. You'd think we would learn.

It has been quite a while, though, since the A's snuck up behind and surprised us in a way that did not involve bidding adieu to the team's best players. The Cespedes signing breathed life into a fan base that desperately needed a reason to feel good about turning on the TV or buying tickets. Many of us were going to watch the games one way or the other -- the question was whether we'd feel ill after doing so.

I'm happy to report, in case you haven't turned on "Baseball Tonight" or an A's game in the last three weeks, that the only ailment we can complain of is an elevated heart rate every time Cespedes steps to the plate. Numbers won't tell the whole story of exactly what's getting us so excited, but they're a good place to start.

First, Cespedes currently has a .326 True Average. (Baseball Prospectus' hitter rate stat, TAv measures total offensive contribution and is scaled to batting average, with .260 defined to be the league average.) Before Saturday's games, that ranked 31st in all of baseball among players with 50 plate appearances. The A's have had good hitters in the last few years, hitters who ranked near the top of the league in this stat, but when you compile the list of recent great A's, you get a lot of corner players: Jason Giambi, notably, as well as Erubiel Durazo in 2004 and John Jaha in 1999, both of whom were designated hitters. The last time the A's had an up-the-middle player who finished in the top 20 in TAv was 1988, when Dave Henderson pulled off that feat.

That's the what, though, and the what can't capture the ferocity of Cespedes' swings, the force that brings joy to the hearts of children big and small. Jon Shields of Pro Ball NW once related to me that he loved watching Jose Bautista swing because of the sheer violence of it. Well, Bautista is a piker compared to Cespedes. If he sees a fastball he likes, he will absolutely swing out of his pants to hit it. He doesn't actually hit those pitches terribly often: per FanGraphs, he has the sixth-highest swinging strike rate in the game. Don't misread my tone, though, because the swings-and-misses aren't a "take the bad with the good" issue -- they're a part of the complete aesthetic package. Every time a pitcher with a great fastball starts his windup, I lean forward. When Cespedes likes what he sees and triggers his swing, I edge upward, preparing physically and mentally to leave my seat. And when the whoosh comes, the mighty wind of a Cespedes whiff, I'm blown backwards by the force somehow, pushed into couch as I emit the briefest, softest of "ahhhhs"'.

And when he connects! Hits one like he did against Steve Delabar on April 7 or Ervin Santana on April 18 or Hector Santiago a few days ago, in the 14th inning, with the A's down two runs, then up I leap, and my soft "ahhh" becomes an all-caps "AHHHHHH!" as the ball rockets off to some far-off seat and jubilation is heard throughout the land.

It's an exhilarating experience, one that simply does not compare to that of watching someone like Ryan Sweeney, a perfectly reasonable outfielder with a swing that's all about contact, all about staying alive and dropping a ball in somewhere. Cespedes isn't interested in dropping in a ball anywhere unless a fan is the only person with a chance to catch it.

The batting exploits, though, the power and glory of the bombs and the whiffs, are only part of the package. Cespedes was reputed to have all five tools in his belt, and indeed, he's already flashed some speed, stealing four bases (albeit with two times caught) to go with his five homers. "On pace for" is a silly idea, but Cespedes makes A's fans do silly things, so: with Oakland having played 21 games, let's multiply these five homers and four steals by eight, leaving Cespedes at 40 dingers and 32 thefts for the year. That's a lot! That's really a whole bunch. You probably know who the last A's player to put up that kind of power-speed combination was: Jose Canseco, of course, the original 40/40 man, who managed 42 and 40 in 1988. The A's haven't even had a 20/20 player since Ruben Sierra in 1993.

The mechanics of watching baseball on TV mean that I can't wax rapturous about Cespedes's basestealing the way I do about his hitting -- mostly you just see the end of a stolen base, not the jump, the first step, the acceleration, all the things that make a steal, and, more importantly, that make a steal exciting.

It's similarly difficult to talk about defense as a TV viewer. Even at the park, unless you're specifically watching to see a player's instincts at the crack of the bat, you can really only see the speed, get a sense of the directness of the routes, and keep an eye on the throws. On TV, it can be difficult to judge any of this except the arm. As such, I'm reluctant to say much about Cespedes' defense for fear of flat-out getting it wrong.

To be honest with you, though, I'm also reluctant to speak about Cespedes' defense because I fear that it might be subpar. It's far, far too early to be looking at the advanced defensive statistics, and maybe I'm letting a ball he misplayed into a "triple" in the A's fourth game of the year influence me too much.

That misplay and the few times he's been allowed to show off his arm (which is quite good, if not fully Reddickian) have been a jarring contrast to Coco Crisp, the A's center fielder of the past two years. Crisp made numerous plays rushing back, catching balls over his head, crashing into fences, leaping; and at the same time, Crisp has one of the limpest of limp-noodle arms you'll ever see. Do you know Nichols' Law of Catcher Defense? It states that a catcher's defensive reputation is inversely proportional to his offensive abilities. Interrogating my limitations and biases, my intellectual foibles, I wonder if I'm applying a similar type of misthinking. Cespedes is so radically different from Crisp, in body, in arm, in presence and performance at the plate, even in primary language, that maybe I can't believe they'd be alike in anything, defensive range included.

All of that said, my impression of Cespedes is that unless he grows, he should be able to stay in center field. He may not be a stellar performer there, but a strong bat who can handle center adequately is so much more valuable than one who has to play a corner that it would very likely behoove the A's to leave Cespedes there and live with the occasional misplays, and the slight downgrade on range. I certainly hope Cespedes can stay in center because of the simple fact center fielders are involved in more plays than corner outfielders. I'm greedy. The A's may only have their star for the four years that his contract currently calls for, and I want every possible second of those four years to involve Cespedes on my television.

Really, the long and short of the Yoenis Cespedes Experience is this: Early though it may be, I have literally never had more fun rooting for an individual A's position player, flaws (if the whiffs and the defense are truly that) and all.

Jason Wojciechowski runs Beaneball, a blog about the A's, and contributes to Baseball Prospectus and The Platoon Advantage. Follow him on Twitter @jlwoj.