Yoenis Cespedes never really wanted to leave New York, and now he won’t have to. He’s re-signed with the Mets for four years, and it’ll cost the team $110 million and a no-trade clause. It’s the news of the day, and presumably the news of the week, as Cespedes was considered the best player on the free-agent market. Not even that long ago, one wouldn’t have expected the Mets of all teams to be able to make this sort of splash.
They say Cespedes makes an intangible impact. I don’t have much to say about that. They say Cespedes is the straw that stirs the Mets’ drink. I don’t have much to say about that. They say Cespedes might not age very well now that he has his long-term guarantee. I definitely don’t have much to say about that. I want to talk to you about the details. The stupid little crap that might only matter to readers of FanGraphs. Let’s talk about Yoenis Cespedes’ WAR, and how we might be able to make him look better.
Cespedes’ three-year WAR figures: 3.3, 6.7, 3.2. Over that span, he’s been as valuable as Robinson Cano and Brandon Crawford. He turned 31 years old last month, and Steamer projects him to be worth 3.0 WAR next season. We’ve mentioned before that we have a contract tool, which spits out salary estimates based on projections and reasonable market assumptions. When I plug Cespedes into the tool, I get four years and $76.5 million. That makes it seem like an awfully big Mets overpay. Yikes! Buyer beware, and all that jazz.
Already, you can argue with that. You can argue Cespedes will age better, or you can argue he’ll begin from a higher starting point. You can argue he means more to the Mets than we see on his stats page. In here, I’m going to focus on the defense. This post requires its own assumptions, but I want to talk about how Cespedes might look had the Mets not so frequently played him out of position.
I’m not saying the Mets necessarily made the wrong choice. They had only so many options. But over Cespedes’ year and a half in New York, he saw a lot of center field, and, realistically speaking, he’s not a center fielder. He didn’t feel comfortable in the position, and that’s readily evident in the advanced metrics. I know full well many of you have very reasonable qualms with defensive data! It’s far from perfect, even when you narrow down onto just outfielders, who don’t shift like infielders do. But I’m going forward anyhow, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.
We have UZR information stretching back to 2002, and, since then, 158 defenders have played at least 1,000 innings in left field. Cespedes ranks 17th in UZR per 150 games. That puts him just outside the top 10 percent. Cespedes has been an excellent defensive left fielder.
Meanwhile, 155 defenders have played at least 1,000 innings in center field. Cespedes ranks 153rd in UZR per 150 games. That puts him, clearly, near the bottom. Cespedes has been a lousy defensive center fielder. Mets fans could tell you that. It never went unnoticed.
Any player, obviously, would be expected to do worse in center than in left. Center field is the premium position, and according to our positional adjustments, the difference should be about 10 runs. Cespedes’ difference has been greater than 30 runs (per 150 games), which is extreme, and in fact the most extreme out of those players with at least 1,000 innings in both center and left. Every data sample should be given a chance to regress, but as the evidence suggests, Cespedes just isn’t cut out for the middle. He runs some pretty good routes, but something about the responsibility hasn’t sat well with him.
Two years ago, the Mets played Cespedes in center for more than 300 innings. UZR pegged him at around -3 runs. This past year, the Mets played Cespedes in center for nearly 500 innings. UZR pegged him at around -11 runs. In both years, Cespedes rated as a positive defensive left fielder. Now, when we calculate WAR, we include fielding performance, and a positional adjustment. When you combine the two, you get a Defense rating. As a Met alone, Cespedes’ work in center field has yielded a Defense rating of -12.5 runs.
I promise we’re almost finished. Now, take those innings. What if Cespedes had played left field instead? It’s impossible for us to say what would’ve actually happened, but we can guess. And we can guess by just using Cespedes’ career averages as a left fielder. If you apply those averages to the innings Cespedes actually spent in center, then you take away the -12.5, and you add roughly +3.5. Cespedes might’ve been about 16 runs more valuable over a year and a half in New York.
Yeah, I’ve been making assumptions. Yeah, you can argue these assumptions, too. Maybe I’ve exaggerated Cespedes’ real defensive difference. But the numbers make a strong case that Cespedes just can’t handle center, which the Mets have asked him to do. Using the math I’ve laid out, had Cespedes spent all his time in left, his 2015 WAR could jump from 6.7 to 7.1. And, more significantly, his 2016 WAR could jump from 3.2 to 4.4. Instead of being tied with Ian Desmond and Ryan Braun, he could’ve been tied with George Springer and Christian Yelich.
All I’ve done is tweak some numbers. I haven’t changed anything about Cespedes’ actual skills or profile. I just think this is a worthwhile exercise, given how many people come here to check on the WAR leaderboards. The first thing that catches your eye about Cespedes is his WAR. I feel like it could be underselling him. He’s not really a center fielder, and the Mets played him out of position. They’re not likely to do that again.
As mentioned a long time ago, our contract tool would give Cespedes $76.5 million over four years. That starts with a 2017 performance projection of 3.0 WAR. Bump that up to 3.5 WAR, and the money shoots to $94 million. Go to 4.0 WAR, and then you’re at $111 million. It doesn’t seem like it’s crazy to treat Cespedes like a 4-win player. He was way better than that two years ago, and he was arguably better than that this past season. Over the past two years, he’s hit as well as Manny Machado and Jose Bautista. When he’s been able to stay in left, he’s been effective and reliable.
I don’t know how Cespedes will age, and it’s somewhat troubling that he missed time last year with leg problems. If those keep up, they could hurt his range and his arm, given how much a functional throwing arm depends on angles and timing. You always have to wonder about elite-level defense as players get into their 30s. The Mets know all this, and it’s one of the reasons they preferred to cut things off at four years. They didn’t want to over-extend.
In the end, they didn’t have to. And because of how the Mets used Cespedes in the recent past, you could make the argument that WAR sells him short. Yoenis Cespedes isn’t a center fielder. What he is is many, many other things.