Student of the game: Yo shows ability to adjust

Pregame work, revamped approach have Mets slugger thriving

May 26th, 2016

WASHINGTON -- The visitors' batting cage at Nationals Park is a spacious area, with colorless walls contrasting with fake green turf, and a bank of white plastic folding chairs off to one side. Throughout the Mets' recent three-game series with the Nationals, the chairs generally sat empty, unused, save for one consistent occupant.

From clock in to clock out, Yoenis Cespedes ticks off most of his time here, in the cage, regardless of ballpark or city. He does not spend all those hours hitting; to the contrary, Cespedes believes fewer swings can be beneficial, allowing him to focus on the technicalities of his craft. But he is nonetheless a citizen of the cage. While the Mets hit, Cespedes regales them with tales of the differences between Cuban and American baseball. Recently, he used a maps app on his phone to show his teammates where he lived in Cuba before coming to the Majors.

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It is through this habit that Cespedes has made New York home, the Mets his family, the depth of that bond perhaps still misunderstood.

It is also through this habit that Cespedes has become one of the game's most prolific power hitters. When the Mets take the field Friday for a series opener against the Dodgers, he will play his 100th game as a Met. Cespedes' numbers through 99 games stand above and beyond what the front office thought probable when it traded for Cespedes last July: a .292 average, a .354 on-base percentage and a .627 slugging mark in 421 plate appearances, with 32 homers and 22 doubles.

Cespedes' OPS over that span is third in the Majors behind David Ortiz and Bryce Harper. When he stepped off the field Wednesday in Washington, his slugging percentage, OPS, isolated power and weighted OPS all led the National League.

Just how Cespedes went from solid regular to one of the best players in baseball is a study in self-awareness, intelligence and comfort.

"I definitely don't know if I can keep up with this kind of pace for the rest of the season," Cespedes said through an interpreter. "But what I do know is that I'm always going to come in here and I'm going to work hard."

When Cespedes arrived in New York last Aug. 1, his reputation was that of a flawed player: immensely powerful but prone to lapses. A free swinger, his career on-base percentage at the time was .317. At age 29, it seemed unlikely that Cespedes would ever become much better than he already was. Even after he entered a new echelon in August and September, hitting 17 home runs during one 31-game stretch, his career numbers loomed far larger than any two-month sample.

What so many underestimated was Cespedes' ability to adjust. Working with hitting coach Kevin Long this spring, he set a goal to shrink his personal strike zone -- the Cuban zone, he told Long during one cage session, can be four to five baseballs wider on each side of the plate, breeding a culture of free swingers -- and curb his aggression. Though most of the underlying statistical changes are small, Cespedes is swinging at balls outside of the zone slightly less often, hitting those inside of it harder and lifting them into the air more often. Most importantly, he is walking nearly twice as frequently as ever before, forcing pitchers to challenge him or lose him.

"You don't usually see someone at this age making adjustments," said Cespedes, now 30. "However, when you meet someone in this league that's 29 or 30, they've probably also been playing longer than the five years that I have. So I think if they feel like they have to make adjustments, they probably make them earlier in life."

Consider this: Extrapolate Cespedes' numbers through 99 games over a 162-game season, and he would have 52 homers. Even accounting for regular days off, that figure would be in the 40s.

"It's hard to say this and not sound arrogant about a certain player, but he's getting better," Long said. "He's really understanding his self, his swing, his strike zone, what pitches he does more damage on. He's maturing as a player."

Essentially, Cespedes is extending last year's second-half joy ride into an encore season -- the best-case scenario for a Mets front office unwilling to commit four to six years to retain Cespedes last offseason, but amenable to three years and $75 million.

Their return on investment has been sound.

"I hope it is sustainable," assistant general manager John Ricco said. "Whether it is or not, we'll see. But he's certainly proven over his time with us that he is that level of player."

Of course, the unspoken danger is that if Cespedes does maintain this level of production, he will almost certainly opt out of the final two years of his deal. Too much money is at stake.

For now, Cespedes maintains that he does not want to leave -- not this offseason, and perhaps not ever from a place that has forged so much of his new identity.

"Yeah, we're paying him a lot of money -- don't mistake that," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "But he wants to play in New York City and that says a lot, because a lot of guys would shy away from that challenge. He wants to be here and knows what he provides in the middle of that lineup, and we need it. He's a star. He's a good player. He does what stars do."

"It's like I said from when I got here last year, it feels very much at home here," Cespedes said. "It feels as if I've been playing here a very long time. And I could spend the rest of my career with this team."