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Cespedes's strikeout rate in 2012 fell almost monthly, from 25% in March and April to 15% in September and October. In other words, he began the season whiffing as frequently as Josh Hamilton and ended it whiffing as infrequently as Buster Posey. To Cespedes this was no big deal. "I just had to recognize what kind of pitches they had, because it's a completely different league with a lot better pitchers than in Cuba, but right after I started doing that, that's when I started seeing the ball," he says with a shrug.
To the A's it was a huge deal. "Let's put it this way: That aptitude wasn't really part of the projection," says Zaidi. "In a weird way, he went from being, at the early part of the season, at one extreme end of what we expected—which was a guy who would maybe struggle with plate discipline, still hit for power but have some holes that could be exploited—all the way to the other end. If you asked me, I would have said the guy you get on Day One is probably the guy you're getting at the end of the season, because it's so rare for guys to improve that much over the course of the season. That's something that's sort of an out-of-sample result.
"What he did, overall, was closer to the upper end of what we expected, probably close to the 75th or 80th percentile," adds Zaidi. "It was at the aggressive end of what we thought was really plausible, if you weren't dreaming." This seems to be about as excited as Tools Police gets.
The end of 2012, for the A's, came later than anyone, including the team, expected. The unlikely AL West champs lost their division series to the Tigers in five games, but not for a lack of effort from the man who'd done more than any other to carry them there. In the eighth inning of Game 2, for example, Cespedes singled to rightfield, stole second, stole third—and then scored the game-tying run on a wild pitch. "You were like, What are we all doing out here? Why is anyone else here?" recalls pitcher Brett Anderson.
For Anderson, Cespedes is "as close to Mike Trout as you can probably get, talentwise." Trout, who was the unanimous American League Rookie of the Year last season (Cespedes finished second), counts himself as an admirer. "I like his approach when he's up at the box," says the Angels' budding superstar. "He's all out, 100 percent. He plays the game hard, and he's going out there for one thing, which is to win."
The course of Cespedes's 2012 season was all the more impressive in that he was dealing with personal issues that extended beyond adapting to American pitchers and customs. Members of his family, including his mother and about a dozen other relatives, were trapped in an immigration nightmare as they tried to join him in the U.S. They were detained in the Turks and Caicos last Oct. 2, just five days before that stunning sequence against the Tigers. "I could tell something was wrong with him—you just get a sense of it," says Reddick, "but he didn't give me the full extent."
In March, Cespedes's family made it to Miami, and the A's let him take a day off from spring training to surprise them there. "It weighed on my mind a lot last season," he told reporters upon his return. "Sometimes I went three or four days where I didn't know where they were. They had disappeared."
The bottom line? "My mind will be completely clear knowing they are in this country."
The A's are eager to see what a clear-minded Cespedes will do for them. At 27, he has plenty of room to improve: He still lunges at pitches, as Billy Owens noted three years ago in Puerto Rico. He can further refine his batting eye. He is somewhat unpolished in the outfield. The rest of baseball, meanwhile, wonders if there might be more players just like him, in light of the outstanding minor league debuts of other recent defectors such as the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig and the Cubs' Jorge Soler.
"I think it's too soon to tell," says Zaidi. "Even guys like Puig and Soler, I think, are pretty unique in Cuba. I don't think there are 100 more of those guys running around. It's probably opened people's eyes, to the extent that there are teams that are less active in that market—maybe they'll look at the next guys more carefully. Right now it's really case-by-case. It's hard to say that this market represents a safe investment."