Image via hj_west, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Image via hj_west, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
For a baseball prospect, tools and minor-league performance are what they are — trying to decide if they’ll become anything is like reading a crystal ball off a funhouse mirror.
Prospects are exciting because they hold possibilities, but they’re also maddeningly difficult to pin down. A guy with blazing speed might eventually become fun, but that won’t matter much if he can’t get on base or develop baserunning instincts. The qualities that mark those prospects as worth watching don’t necessarily translate to reality — until, a player actually becomes a dependable pro, those tools are just tools and their prior stats are just prior stats. We watch because we hope the player might actualize his potential, not because he has a lot of muscles or runs fast. Until then, we don’t know. All projection is a guess, even if hindsight pretends a career path was inevitable.
Oakland A’s centerfielder Yoenis Céspedes is not a typical prospect: he played in Cuba, where we couldn’t watch him; impressed in a few bits of international competition, which was too small a sample size to take much from his stats; and is listed at 26 years old, an age when it’s usually clear if and how much a player can contribute. We’ve only really experienced Yoenis in the context of American baseball for ten games. And yet in that very short time, he has shown himself to be one of the most watchable outfielders game. What makes him especially worth discussing is that he’s done so without really giving any indication of how good he might be. With Céspedes, the tools and physical attributes are somehow enough.
Up until he debuted in Japan a few weeks ago, the most notable thing about Yoenis was his 20-minute introductory highlight video, an orgiastic presentation of grainy highlights, workout routines, backing tracks ranging from Christopher Cross to Juelz Santana, and a random photo of new friend and former All-Pro running back Ahman Green. It was ridiculous in a way that pretty much all YouTube highlight mixes are, except in this case the player himself was responsible for it. It was also effective, in that it marked Céspedes as a distinct personality, or at least the rare Cuban defector who doesn’t want to be known primarily as a Cuban defector. As I argued at the time, that desire for individuality set Céspedes apart from his expatriate forebears, but it also set him apart for a high-profile fall. The video didn’t just make him a notable baseball player—he was suddenly a player whose potential failure would be explained by his personality as much as by his irregular path to the majors.
Small sample sizes are notoriously misleading, but there’s no doubting that his first couple weeks of MLB play have validated that initial interest. In 33 at-bats, he has three homers and an .895 OPS, numbers that would make him an All-Star if extrapolated. But the stats haven’t said as much as his style, which is readily apparent in a way few baseball players achieve. His home runs have been bombs, the sort that announce themselves as such right off the bat. That’s especially true of his second, a mammoth shot in the A’s home opener that recalls Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco’s deepest blasts in Oakland. In seconds, Céspedes turned around a Jason Vargas fastball off the face of the second deck. The A’s lost the game 7-3, but all anyone could talk about after was the quick-strike power of Céspedes. In just one game, he showed every A’s fan that his at-bats can’t be missed. No matter the score, he might do something we’ve never seen before.
That’s not to say that Céspedes is a sure thing, or even particularly good. He’s piled up 15 strikeouts in those same 33 at-bats and has seen his average drop to .212. His swing mechanics are a mess, and he pulls his head off the ball more regularly than good high school hitters. The power will always be there, as will the potential for instantaneous highlights. But there are indications that Céspedes will struggle to put together long stretches of success and many looming questions about how he’ll fare when advance scouts pick up on more of his tendencies. As exciting as he is, those moments of greatness might become rarer as this season—let alone his career—moves along.
Baseball has a long history of short-term superstars, from Mark Fidrych to Jeff Francoeur to Warholian case study Sam Fuld. Some have crapped out due to injury; others just weren’t very good and got talked up because of a fluke hot streak. Céspedes might eventually become one of these busts, coasting on the fame of his highlight video and first-week homers over years of mediocrity.
But whether or not that fall happens, he stands out from past busts—especially the recent ones—because he lacks history. Prospect projection, whether grounded in long-gestating firsthand appraisals or rigorous statistical analysis, requires some kind of gaze into the past to predict the future. If the culture of baseball is simultaneously obsessed with its past and future, then it’s sometimes hard to ground players in the present. With Céspedes, everything occurs in the present tense—we haven’t seen him enough or learned enough about Cuban stats to project him effectively. All we can do is fixate on his obvious physical superiority and consider his at-bats as they occur. There are no past and presumed future to weigh against the present. Instead, the present creates our entire conception of his past and future.
That’s not to say that Céspedes is somehow purer than his peers—I don’t want to fetishize the fact that he played behind the curtain of international conflict for close to a decade. Not knowing his past or being unable to predict his future doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Watching Céspedes serves as a reminder that baseball is as much about the uncertainty of a particular moment as weighing statistical data and checking events against their predictive likelihoods. Sometimes it’s enough just to be surprised. And while Céspedes will eventually become more familiar, what he did in these first few weeks—and the sheer joy of discovering what he can do—won’t go away.