What Yoenis Cespedes adjusted to become a more dangerous hitter

Mike Piazza was blunt last spring. The Mets’ Hall of Fame catcher came to Port St. Lucie for spring training with a message for the team’s current slugger Yoenis Cespedes: take a walk — or two or three.

Piazza bluntly and publicly said that to become a better player Cespedes needed to have a better plate discipline.

It seems the Cuban slugger was listening. Maybe it was Piazza’s hitting advice or the fact the Mets had been harping on it all along, but he got the results they all wanted.

Cespedes had already shown that he could make improvements in his game. When he first arrived in the U.S., scouts noted he struggled hitting breaking balls, but within a year, they saw he had made adjustments.

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“He will work hard when he has someone that can explain what he needs to do,” said a scout who watched him improve in those early years. “He works hard when he is focused on making a change.”

And in the last two years, Cespedes has proven that. After hitting around 20 home runs a season for his first three years in the majors, Cespedes made an adjustment to his swing that resulted in more power, hitting 35 in 2015 and 31 in 2016.

Last season, however, hey may have made his most impressive improvement yet: Cespedes set a career-high with 51 walks.

That willingness to work on a weakness was one reason the Mets were confident in re-signing the 31-year-old to a four-year, $110 million deal.

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“He made a conscious effort to work on his strike zone and I know he worked hard on it,” Terry Collins said. “He really tried to lay off those high fastballs and focus on the pitches he could really do damage with. So then he gets better pitches to hit and when he puts the ball in play, he does real damage.

“When he has a better strike zone, he is dangerous,” the Mets manager said, “really dangerous.”

That had been what Piazza wanted Cespedes to understand back in February when he sent that message through the media.

“I hope he’s able to discipline himself and refine his strike zone, and realize that when the pitchers aren’t pitching to him, he’s got to take his walks,” Piazza said during the first of his three days in camp. “I think you saw that in the World Series a little bit. He just got too anxious, trying to do too much. He was just swinging, trying to hit the ball out of the stadium.”

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Piazza also took time to talk to Cespedes about hitting privately last spring, but Collins and Mets hitting coach Kevin Long saw a commitment to improving his strike zone early on.

Last season, Yoenis Cespedes hits a walk-off home run in the 10th inning against the Marlins.

Last season, Yoenis Cespedes hits a walk-off home run in the 10th inning against the Marlins.

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

In 2015, Cespedes drew 33 walks in 676 plate appearances, for a career-low walk rate of 4.9%. In 2016, the 31-year old drew a career-high 51 bases on balls in 543 plate appearances, or a walk rate of 9.4%.

That boosted his on-base percentage to .354, almost 20 points higher than the previous season.

It is not a fluke, Long said, and it’s not just because the Mets lacked protection around him at times this season.

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“He set out to improve his strike zone,” Long said. “And he really did a tremendous job.”

He has bought into the Mets’ philosophy of laying off the pitches he has trouble with and looking for pitches he can do damage with.

Long points to the high fastball that Cespedes has struggled with throughout most of his career. According to Fangraphs, Cespedes’ swing percentage on high pitches directly over the plate dropped 12 percentage points from 2015 to 2016. With two strikes on him, Cespedes’ swing percentage on the same pitch dropped almost 20 points.

Back in spring training, Long and assistant hitting coach Pat Rossiter appealed to Cespedes. They pointed out that his tendency to be a free swinger that he was particularly susceptible on the high fastball were hurting him. As he has with other hitters, Long worked on Cespedes shrinking his strike zone, showing him he would get better pitches to hit. They told him with the improvement in his on-base would eventually affect his OPS, the stat that earns sluggers big contracts.

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Clearly Cespedes listened. He finished with the 12th best OPS in the National League and the second best among the power-hitting free agents on the market behind Edwin Encarnacion.

The question about Cespedes, however, was is this a sustainable change?

Long certainly believes in the work they did with Cespedes over the entire year. Like the changes he made with former Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, helping him add power to his game and earn a long-term deal with the Nationals. He sees similar improvement and feels Cespedes has made changes that he will carry with him through his career.

“I think he’ll be able to sustain it,” Long said.

That would make Piazza proud, the Mets happy with their investment and Cespedes an even more dangerous part of the lineup.

Tags:
mlb
new york mets
yoenis cespedes
mike piazza

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