Cespedes' impact on A's can't be overlooked
Baseball is the easy part for Yoenis Cespedes, and, for most of us, that might be difficult to comprehend.The transition to the Major Leagues, we're taught and told, is a daunting and jarring experience. But baseball is the only part of fleeing Cuba and acclimating to the United States that hasn't felt foreign to Cespedes in this rookie season in the bigs. "I've been involved with baseball all my life, since I was 9 years old," he said through interpreter Ariel Prieto. "To be comfortable in baseball is easier for me than being comfortable outside the field." Perhaps this mindset helps explain how Cespedes, save for two stints on the disabled list, has settled in so seamlessly with a potentially playoff-bound Oakland A's team that, frankly, would be lost without him. Mike Trout is the obvious Rookie of the Year in the American League and might even be a presumptive MVP. And so, even within his own division, Cespedes' impact tends to get overlooked. That impact, though, is simply stated: The A's, who currently own the AL's top Wild Card spot and are 4 ½ games ahead of the third-place Angels in West standings, are 61-35 with Cespedes in the lineup, 12-22 without. And this stat is certainly not coincidental. "Trout deserves all the accolades he's getting," manager Bob Melvin said. "But I don't think he means any more to his team than Yoenis means to ours." Indeed, it seems doubtful this A's team -- which, all power potential aside, is rather light in established talent in the lineup -- stuns the baseball world the way it has without making that four-year, $36 million investment in Cespedes. Teammates and opponents alike marvel at the easy adaptability Cespedes has displayed in his rookie season. We knew about his power potential. Many of us saw the 20-minute highlight video on YouTube, showcasing Cespedes as he belted eight consecutive batting-practice home runs, bench pressed 350 pounds and leg pressed 1,300, among other exploits. And when Cespedes arrived to Spring Training camp, his raw power immediately earned the respect of those around him. "I walked out of Spring Training thinking if this kid gets 150 pitches to hit and drive, he could possibly hit 40 of them out of the ballpark," A's hitting coach Chili Davis said. "He's that strong." As if on cue, Cespedes had three homers within his first four Major League games. The second of those blasts traveled 462 feet to straightaway center field in the pitcher-friendly expanses of the Oakland Coliseum. But where the home runs were once the sole focus of Cespedes' offensive output, they are now merely part of the package. Cespedes was batting .236 as recently as June 1 but has hit .327 with a .920 OPS in the time since. His discipline has improved, as evidenced by an 18.5 strikeout percentage in the last three months versus a 24.4 mark the first two. Cespedes still has a long way to go in terms of limiting the strikeouts and increasing his walk rate (currently 7.0), and he's still very much a work in progress in the outfield, having shifted to left to make way for Coco Crisp in center. But within the framework of 2012, he's already come a long, long way. "If you were at Spring Training early in the season and watched us then and came back now," said Melvin, "you'd see a completely different guy." Cespedes' adaptation extends off the field. He's begun driving himself to the ballpark in Oakland -- a small but necessary victory in the attempt to assimilate. He uses the Rosetta Stone program to help him get a grasp on English. He admits, with a smile, that conversations that don't revolve around baseball terminology are completely lost on him, but others appreciate the strides he's made. "Some Latin kids come over and, right away, they pick up English, but some are reluctant to even try to learn the language," Davis said. "To watch him try to use the English he's learning just shows me how smart he is. Because he's starting to pick it up, starting to have full conversations with you." Those conversations don't delve into much detail about Cespedes' family, with whom he is very close. Cespedes fled Cuba with his mother, his aunt and three of his cousins. His young son, Yoenis Jr., stayed behind with the child's mother, to whom Yoenis is not married. "There's a lot of things that go on in his world outside of baseball that we don't know about and he doesn't talk about much," Davis said. "It affects him sometimes, and he gets over it." What Cespedes doesn't shake is an insatiable work ethic. The Athletics knew about his skills, certainly, but they've been blown away by his baseball intelligence and attention to detail. Given all the distractions that come with the life adjustment taking place off the field, his on-field success would not be possible without those other traits. "He's very serious about baseball," Melvin said. "I try to put myself in his shoes, if I was dropped into Cuba to manage a team without knowing the language or the personnel or anything. It's a pretty phenomenal transition he's made." Not many have made this transition so successfully, which is why the A's initial, surprising investment was definitely a gamble. But Cespedes' contributions (a 1.8 WAR mark, according to FanGraphs) have already exceeded the value of the initial year ($6.5 million) of his contract. He and the Orioles' Wei-Yin Chen have been the class of the international rookie crop, ahead of the highly hyped Yu Darvish. Still, Cespedes obviously won't be heading the Rookie of the Year voting. Not in the Year of Mike Trout. Cespedes' numbers aren't up to Trout's level because nobody's numbers are up to that level. But in terms of impact on a club in the thick of the playoff picture? Cespedes' contributions are second to none. That he's made them amidst all the other changes taking place in his world is all the more impressive. "I feel really happy about that," he said. "At the same time, I know there are a lot of Cuban players who have the talent to come over here and play the same way I play."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.