Cespedes' struggles make for big Game 5 decision
Outfielder's exit velocity down to season-low 87.8 mph in October
When Terry Collins makes out his lineup card for Sunday's must-win Game 5 (8 p.m. ET on FOX), he's got what seems like a most unbelievable decision to make: Is his best lineup one that does not include Yoenis Cespedes?
It's a question that wouldn't have seemed believable back when Cespedes was tearing up the National League to such an extent in August that there was some discussion about whether he deserved NL Most Valuable Player Award consideration. On the other hand, the Mets making it to the World Series didn't seem all that believable for most of the season, either. Things change.
Let's be totally honest: Benching Cespedes is probably not going to happen. Collins loves to say that he's sticking with what got them here, and Cespedes playing every single day was a big part of that. The problem is that he hasn't hit all month, his defense in center field has cost the Mets multiple runs and after hitting two homers on Saturday night, Michael Conforto absolutely has to start in left against righty Edinson Volquez. Collins should at least have something to ponder.
Cespedes struck out twice in three plate appearances on Saturday, dropping his postseason line to .235/.245/.373, with six of his 12 hits coming in just two games. It's a stunning drop from the heights of August, and for all the talk about Cespedes' sore left shoulder, perhaps that's not the right injury to be focusing on. Back on Sept. 30, Phillies reliever Justin De Fratus hit Cespedes on the left hand, causing the outfielder to drop to the ground in obvious pain.
Check out Cespedes' Statcast™ exit velocity since then -- October just looks nothing like the rest of the season.
But exit velocity assumes contact is made. Look, also, at Cespedes' strikeout percentage since joining the Mets, including their 5-3 loss in Game 4:
August: 16 percent
September/October (regular season): 19 percent
October (postseason): 32 percent
Now, since we haven't heard all that much about the hand being an issue, we can't simply point to that as the cause and be done with it. What we can do is note how differently Cespedes has been pitched. As we noted in a piece before Game 4 about why Chris Young is a tough matchup for the Mets, Cespedes is particularly vulnerable to high fastballs, and teams are starting to notice.
Percentage of fastballs higher than three feet, Cespedes:
2015 (Tigers): 16 percent
2015 (Mets, regular): 17 percent
2015 (Mets, postseason): 21 percent
That postseason figure doesn't include Saturday's Game 4, in which throwing high was clearly a strategy. Take, for example, Cespedes' plate appearances in the fourth and sixth inning, which ended in a strikeout and a flyout, respectively:
When Cespedes singled in the ninth inning off of Wade Davis, it was on a four-seam fastball low in the zone -- and of course, he directly handed that gain back by getting doubled off to end the game on poor baserunning decision.
On defense, Cespedes has clearly been stretched in center field, most notably misplaying Alcides Escobar's drive on the first play of Game 1 into an inside-the-park home run, a play that proved to be enormous given that the game ended up being a one-run extra-inning loss. In Game 4, he kicked a catchable fifth-inning Salvador Perez hit to center to turn it into a double, putting Perez in position to score one hitter later when Alex Gordon singled.
With Cespedes not really contributing on either side of the ball, Collins has a choice to make. Earlier in the Series, we saw him choose to move Cespedes to left in order to get the defensively superior Juan Lagares into the game in center. That necessarily pushed Conforto to the bench, but he was already hitting the ball harder than any Met -- 94.1 mph average exit velocity -- this postseason even before Saturday, though the results hadn't been there. It's difficult to see Conforto not playing on Sunday after homering twice on Saturday.
Over a long period of time, no one doubts that Cespedes is the most talented and athletic of the trio, and we've seen the heights he can reach when he's going right. But right now, and for the entire postseason, Cespedes hasn't been contributing on either side of the ball. Down 3-1, they don't have the luxury of waiting for things to even out. All they have is one game. They have a star who isn't playing like a star, either because of injury or adjustments or both.
You can bet that Collins will start Cespedes. You can also be certain that if he doesn't, he's got more than enough evidence not to.