Game of the Night: White Sox-A’s

Yoenis espedesWe’ve seen enough of Yoenis Cespedes by now to know that everything he does is exciting. He hits the ball a mile and knows how to style afterward. He’ll gun you down on the base paths. Runs like he’s shot out of a cannon. Even his failures are spectacular: Watching him swing at a pitch eight feet out of the zone is incredibly compelling. With apologies to Oakland’s productive no-name pitching staff, Cespedes is the reason you watch A’s baseball.

This might seem obvious now. But it was anything but certain when Oakland gave the 26-year-old Cuban slugger a four-year, $36 million contract two and a half months ago.

There was hype, certainly. Cespedes, we were told, wasn’t just a potential impact player. He could bench 900 pounds! (Presumably.) Do stand-up sit-ups! (Actually true.) Look dashing and athletic through a series of star wipes! (Oh yes.) You watched every second of his 20-minute promotional video, shook your head in wonder, then watched it eight more times, stopping only after your wife’s increasingly ominous threats of divorce.

But there was also doubt.Scouts wondered how this notorious free swinger could adapt to major league pitching. There were suggestions that he spend at least a few weeks, maybe longer, in the minors, getting acclimated to the competition here before testing his mettle against the Justin Verlanders and CC Sabathias of the big leagues. With monster contracts getting doled out to players over 30, players with limited skill sets, and players with scary injury histories, Cespedes had the potential to become a colossal bargain. But given MLB’s much tougher competition, some fretted he’d become a colossal bust instead.

Then you watch games like Wednesday’s 14-inning, 5-4 Oakland win, and think: What the hell was there to doubt?

The A’s center fielder’s big game started not on a hit, steal, or catch, but on a throw. With A.J. Pierzynski at first, Alex Rios drilled a double to the gap in left-center, the ball rolling to near the warning track. Cespedes snared it on the hop, steadied himself in a flash, and fired. This wasn’t some Ichiro hero play, though. It was a perfect strike on a low line, but right into the glove of cutoff man Cliff Pennington. Blessed with a strong arm himself, Pennington pegged the ball home so accurately that White Sox third base coach Joe McEwing held Pierzynski at third after initially giving him the green light. The White Sox would fail to score that inning thanks to Oakland’s defense, not the last time that would happen in this game.

But for all his five-tooledness, Cespedes wouldn’t have landed his big contract if not for his potent bat, and his bat was the big attraction against the Sox. Chris Sale mostly pitched well Wednesday, but he left a fastball up to Cespedes with two strikes, triggering a sharp single up the middle. Moments later Cespedes took off to steal second. Watching him play, it’s striking how short Cespedes is. Listed at 5-foot-10, but he may well be an inch or more shorter than that, looking significantly shorter than multiple teammates you would hardly call giants. This is the physique of a 1,500-yard rusher more than a center fielder: low center of gravity, muscular, powerful but relatively short strides. There’s some Rickey Henderson in Cespedes’s running game; there is no Roberto Clemente. Here, our man had the base stolen. Only Cespedes overran the bag, then got tagged out by White Sox second baseman Eduardo Escobar. Again, even his failures excite. Cespedes exploded into second so hard that his whole body glided over the base, resulting in the out; Pierzynski had no chance otherwise.

In a pitching-and-defense-dominated game that lasted nearly four hours, Cespedes’s subsequent at-bats appeared like offensive oases, forcing you to stop tweeting and glancing at Robot Chicken reruns and pay rapt attention to the game. In the fifth, he cranked a first-pitch fastball to left, a screaming liner that happened to catch Kosuke Fukudome’s glove. In the sixth, Cespedes showed off his trademark plate aggression, waving at a pitch by his ankles and one-handing it foul to run the count to 0-2. Next pitch, a low, 78-mph slider, and Cespedes dinks it off the end of the bat for a run-scoring single, giving the A’s a 2-0 lead.

Fast-forward eight innings and two-plus hours and Oakland’s down to its last two outs, following a late White Sox rally and an Alexei Ramirez two-run double in the top of the 14th. Up stepped Cespedes, the man who needed about 12 seconds to convince his manager to move him up to cleanup after batting a conservative sixth to start the year. Things looked grim at first. On a 1-1 count, White Sox lefty closer Hector Santiago fired a high 94-mph fastball, prompting a Cespedes swing so violent you expected him to get corkscrewed into the ground. Strike two. Just four strikes away from defeat, with underwhelming left-handed hitter Seth Smith on deck, the next pitch could well have decided the game. Santiago threw a screwball a couple inches off the outside corner. A normal hitter would take a defensive swing at such a pitch, trying to bloop it in for an opposite-field single or even just foul it off to stay alive. Not our man Cespedes. Not only did he nearly swing himself out of his shoes, he swung to pull, on a pitch that’s an automatic groundout to short for most hitters who dare try that. The result was a little better than a groundout to short. Cespedes’s deep homer to left-center tied the game. His bullpen spent, Robin Ventura had little choice but to leave Santiago in; three batters later, Kila Ka’aihue flared a ball just inside the line in shallow left, scoring the winning run for the A’s.

You’d like to be optimistic about a team with such stealthily good pitching, a ball club that’s clawed its way back to .500 and sits in second place in what increasingly appears to be a Texas-or-bust division. Truth is, the A’s almost certainly aren’t going anywhere. So we’re left to marvel at Cespedes and his impressive .269/.367/.537 results, the only major bright spot in a lineup that has five (five!!!) full-time or frequent platoon players hitting at or below the Mendoza line. More than sheer numbers, we’ll get to enjoy the aesthetic beauty of Cespedes’s game, all vicious swings, maniacal dashes around the base paths, and furious throws from the outfield. Maybe you can’t get to $36 million on “Holy Shit!” factor alone. But if you could, Yoenis Cespedes would be the guy to do it.

A few other thoughts from a very compelling game:

• Chris Sale pitched well: 8 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 5 K. He threw 101 pitches, 71 of them for strikes, 44 of the off-speed or breaking-ball variety. Here’s a rare case where announcers’ tendency to call any non-fastball or changeup a breaking ball actually serves a purpose. PITCHf/x defines the sweeper Sale throws as a slider. But it sure as hell looks like a curve, with big, breaking action, rarely topping 80 mph on this night, and causing fits for multiple hitters. Sale is the physical opposite of Cespedes: Tall and incredibly lanky at 6-foot-6, 180 pounds, he’s a herky-jerky bundle of nervous arms and legs in his windup, making his slow, sweeping whatchamajigger a befuddler of the highest order. So far so good on Sale’s RP-to-SP conversion.

• Jarrod Parker had plenty of moments of his own in his second big league start. It seemed like he set up every hitter with fastballs, then went to the changeup for a strikeout each time. In fact, Parker threw only 18 changeups on the day … but it sure looked pretty when it worked.

• No sympathy here for Alejandro De Aza on that wicked, game-opening strikeout. You wear Tim Raines’s no. 30 after him in any city where he played, you get what you deserve.

• Big-time congrats to Paul Konerko for cranking his 400th career homer, a game-tying shot in the ninth that nearly made Hawk Harrelson run naked over the Bay Bridge no less. True story: Whenever my wife wants to make fun of my fantasy baseball obsession, she exclaims the words “Paul Konerko!” because years ago, before Konerko was as good as he is now, I regaled her with a thrilling story of how I acquired this half-decent first baseman for my fantasy team in some convoluted trade. She walked into the room right as Konerko’s 400th cleared the left-field wall. “Paul Konerko has hit 400 home runs?!” she asked, incredulously. Yup, after once being known as little more than the guy who was traded for Jeff Shaw, “Paul Konerko!” has really made something of himself.

• This game featured multiple outs on the base paths from White Sox base runners.

Second inning, ball scoots (substantially) by Kurt Suzuki. Konerko and the piano on his back take off for second. Suzuki grabs the ball, and in one motion whips it to second without really looking at the base. Perfect strike, Konerko is out at second. Are we allowed to repeat lines from Twitter? If so, Paul Konerko’s slower than evolution.

Then, two incidents in the 13th. Adam Dunn leads off the inning with a double. Brent Lillibridge runs for him. Paul Konerko walked intentionally. Gordon Beckham runs for him. Pierzynski steps to the plate … and tries to bunt. Fails. Suzuki picks off Lillibridge second. Managers do a bad enough job of considering run expectancy when calling for certain plays, like sacrifice bunts. But they also often do a piss-poor job considering who the actual human being at the plate is. In Ventura’s mind he no doubt pictured Pierzynski getting the bunt down and setting up runners on second and third with one out, where a flyball scores the crucial go-ahead run. In reality it’s A.J. Pierzynski, author of 26 sacrifice bunts in his 15-year career. Yes, maybe Lillibridge shouldn’t have been so aggressive anticipating the bunt; he broke for third like it was a squeeze play. But Pierzynski pulled the bat back on a very buntable pitch. That’s what you get when you try to shoehorn a strategy into a situation where it very well might fail.

The other 13-inning base-running out, on the other hand, was all about the defense. Rios smashes a ball down the left-field line, and it looks like the White Sox will finally turn a Rios double into a run-scorer. The ball rattles around in the Coliseum’s vast foul territory as Beckham heads for third. Pennington nabs the ball and makes a quick, one-hop throw to Eric Sogard as Beckham heads for home. Sogard fields it right next to the third-base coach’s box, chucks it to Suzuki, and Beckham is toast at the plate. The A’s finished 25th in MLB in UZR last year, and their three best defenders from last year per UZR, David DeJesus, Mark Ellis, and Kevin Kouzmanoff, are all gone now. Tough to say how this year’s team will fare in advanced defensive metrics. But man, sure seems like they can throw. Cespedes and Josh Reddick carry bazookas in the outfield. And Pennington’s got a strong arm at short, Suzuki can throw, and based on the smallest sample size possible, Sogard looks like he knows what he’s doing with his arm too. As a baseball kid whose earliest memories included Andre Dawson and/or Ellis Valentine executing base runners at will, the thought of a team full of rocket arms is an enticing one.

• They look good when they do it too. Love the gold A’s unis with green trim and the old Charlie Finley elephant patch on the sleeve. Super sharp.

• The original thought behind covering this game in particular this week, other than getting to see Parker’s first start after his call-up, was this e-mail from Simmons:

Hey – I think you need to write a blog post about the White Sox bullpen this week (maybe even framing it around their pitching coach). If Santiago didn’t have that 2-HR inning they’d basically be lights-out for April. Throw in Peavy/Humber/Sale and that’s a legit sleeper. I like this team.

I do love me some Don Cooper, and agree that there’s a compelling story here in digging into Pale Hose pitching. In this case, though, Peavy and Humber didn’t pitch, Sale got overshadowed by Cespedes and even Parker to some extent, and the White Sox ended their road trip on a sour note with two straight losses. So we’ll have to try again another time, boss.

But we can certainly mention the bullpen here. Ventura churned through five pitchers before finally going to his supposed bullpen ace, Santiago. This is one of the oldest and dumbest managerial moves in the book: Saving your closer (who we’re told is supposed to be your best reliever) for a save situation when on the road, even if it means not using him deep into extra innings and relying on mediocre middle relievers instead. Using Addison Reed and Matt Thornton in relief ahead of Santiago was fine, since both Reed and Thornton are closer-worthy relievers in their own right. After that, there was no excuse to keep saving Santiago. So there was some measure of tactical justice in play when Santiago yielded five straight hits, including the Cespedes homer, en route to blowing the game.

Funny thing. Ventura had never managed at any level before getting the White Sox job last fall. So let’s give the new skipper some credit. When it comes to picking up the stubborn, counterproductive practices that managers ride until their death, Ventura’s obviously a quick study.

Filed Under: Chicago White Sox, MLB, Oakland A's

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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