From Aug. 13 to Sept. 11, arguably the most valuable hitter in baseball was Yoenis Cespedes. Two weeks into his New York Mets career, Cespedes began a tear that will be remembered by fans for a long time. In a stretch that spanned 27 games, he hit .333, with 24 extra-base hits, including 14 home runs and 33 RBIs. Among them were six hits and seven RBIs in a three-game sweep of the Washington Nationals that put to rest any hopes of the Mets being caught for the NL East lead.
Cespedes has established a reputation as a streaky hitter, and the numbers evened out. In his past 16 games, he didn’t homer and hit .218 with a .606 OPS.
It was proof that there are indeed ways to successfully pitch to and defend against a player capable of having one of the biggest impacts this postseason.
If you’re a left-handed pitcher
Cespedes had an odd season against lefties. With the Detroit Tigers, he hit .183 with a .565 OPS in 82 at-bats against left-handers. With the Mets, he’s hitting them well, with a .281 batting average and five home runs in 57 at-bats. He has more hits and more hard-hit balls against lefties with the Mets than he did with the Tigers in 25 fewer at-bats.
He had the same vulnerability, however, in both places. Since joining the Mets, Cespedes doesn’t have a hit against the 93 pitches he’s seen in the upper-third of the strike zone or above the zone from a left-handed pitcher. He has one hit on a pitch in such location from a left-hander.
That’s the pitch with which lefties finish him off. He has 13 strikeouts against pitches to that area in the past two months. That gives Clayton Kershaw, Brett Anderson, Alex Wood and J.P. Howell an area in which to work.
If you’re a right-handed pitcher
At least this season, there is no platoon advantage for a right-handed pitcher against Cespedes. His numbers against right-handers (.310 batting average with 27 home runs) are as good as anyone’s in baseball.
The lower half of the strike zone and the inner half of the zone are Cespedes’ hot zones. He has a .443 batting average with 14 home runs against pitches in that lower-half/inner-half window from right-handed pitchers. You pitch him there, and you often pay the price.
Cespedes’ weakness against righties is the same as it is against lefties: high heat. The difference is that when Cespedes is able to make contact, he does damage. He has three hits against pitches in that upper-third and above area against righties with the Mets. All three are home runs.
One other thing to keep in mind regarding Cespedes’ tendencies: He rarely swings at the first pitch. His rate of doing so (16 percent of the time) ranked 16th-lowest among 141 batting-title qualifiers.
Cespedes can do this because he doesn't seem to mind being behind in the count, which is very unusual for a major league hitter. He hit .294 with 16 home runs after a count reached 0-1. He hit .263 with 15 home runs after the count was 1-0.
In the field
The first thing to keep in mind if you’re a fielder is to be ready for a hard hit. Cespedes had the fifth-fastest average batted ball velocity in the majors this season (among balls for which data was available) at 93.2 mph. That’s mostly a product of his home runs, but he’s dented a few walls with baseballs, too.
Cespedes is a legitimate candidate to be shifted against. He ranked in the top 25 among batting-title qualifiers in how often he pulls ground balls, and he ranked in the bottom 15 in how often he hits the ball to the opposite field.
Cespedes was 64-for-255 (.251 batting average) in at-bats in which there was a shift against him this season. He hit .315 in his other at-bats.
On the bases
Cespedes runs well, though he is very selective in picking spots on steal attempts. He had four stolen bases in five tries with the Mets after nabbing three in seven attempts with the Tigers. One thing to keep in mind: Cespedes has more career steals of third base (19 in 23 attempts) than he does of second (18-of-32).
Cespedes has fared well in two previous playoff opportunities, hitting .350 with a home run and six RBIs in 40 at-bats. But on both occasions, the opposing team has survived Cespedes’ success and advanced to the next round.