Oakland left fielder Yoenis Cespedes stepped to the plate in the ninth inning last night with a runner on second and two out, the A’s down a run. Any ball hit safely to the outfield would tie the game and anything else would likely have ended it. On the mound was Rangers closer Joakim Soria, whom he had never faced before.
Cespedes is not much of a patient hitter and the fear here is that Soria would exploit his desire to be a hero. It’s a common criticism of Cespedes that he tries to do too much against good pitches. If he is subject to over-aggressiveness, then this is the kind of high-stakes at-bat where that tendency would rear its ugly head.
But the first pitch is a fastball tailing off the plate away for a ball. A good take by Cespedes, but on the next pitch it is obvious he misjudges the ball from the way he gets his hands out of the way.
Perhaps he was just surprised by the slow curve, only 65 mph. There are maybe a dozen pitchers that through a curveball that slow. Soria throws it right after his 90 mph fastball, which is not fast in its own right, but still imbues the following pitch with a disorienting sluggishness. Cespedes watches it, not in any place to swing.
Soria throws a slider that catches just enough of the outside corner to go for a strike. Cespedes could not do much with it except shoot it the other way, and that’s not what he’s looking to do, not with the count in his favor 2-0. In this situation he was looking for a pitch he could drive, likely the fastball, focusing in on some favored area of the strikezone, certainly not where that ball ended up. Soria threw that ball where pitchers normally try to throw balls against Cespedes, down and away, where he will chase breaking balls more often than the average hitter.
Cespedes is chafed that pitch is called a strike, but he maintains his display of patience by taking the following pitch, another fastball, above the zone. No two consecutive pitches from Soria have been within 13 mph of each other in terms of velocity. Soria has never pitched to Cespedes before and cannot afford to let him time a pitch correctly. In place of stuff he has tried to rely on guile and the scouting report. Even so, Cespedes is ahead in the count 3-1, and he can afford to look for one pitch.
He gets a slider down the middle and takes his first swing as if he had been charging it up the last four pitches. Again, no two consecutive pitches of similar speeds, and the strategy seems to be working out for Soria, because of the wild imbalance of Cespedes’ swing. He waited on it but not long enough.
Soria presses his advantage on the next pitch. By now it is evident that Cespedes can be enticed into a big swing, and all he does is drop another breaking ball in about the same place as the last pitch, only a little lower and a little slower. Cespedes gets caught out in front–that is, he transferred his weight forward too soon–and the ball flies lamely to left field. Game over.
While the result of this at-bat is impactful and possibly concerning, try to forget about it as a source of anxiety about Cespedes. If it weren’t for that one wild swing this at-bat wouldn’t register on anyone’s radar. Three of the four balls Cespedes took at the start of the at-bat were close pitches, and he set himself up for not one but two hitters’ counts with his patience, counts where he could sit on one pitch and swing from his heels if he gets it. So far this season he has been swinging less at pitches outside the strikezone and making contact more, two signs of a more controlled approach. Footage of the gif above defies that claim but it is true. A controlled approach at the beginning of the bat gives him the chance to unleash hell on a more predictable pitch later. Perhaps it is the case that Cespedes could benefit from some restraint appropriate to the one-run deficit the A’s faced tonight, but if your team’s best power hitter isn’t going to swing for the fences in the bottom of the ninth then he isn’t much of a power hitter.