The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. They say a lot of things though, don’t they? But since Bill Cosby isn’t walking through that door anytime soon, I took it upon myself to cook up a little batch. This whole idea actually got started from an online conversation last night* that inspired me to look up some stats.
It’s no secret that offense is at a premium in Major League Baseball right now, to the extent that even mouth-breathing troglodytes like me recognize it. I’ve even written about it, both here and here. But one factor I hadn’t really taken into consideration is the proliferation of advanced scouting and ease of the dissemination of said information.
Once upon a time, when scouting reports were collected with a pad and pen, it might take a while for a young ballplayer’s “book” to catch up with him. The game was one of the five senses, particularly when it came to the eye test and word of mouth.
Now, however, data can be sent around the world and back in a matter of moments, data dissected and reconfigured across myriad metrics in order to tell a guy’s story before his first cup of coffee has even cooled to a drinkable temperature.
Twenty years ago, a player like Javier Baez would have set the world on fire before the bucket brigade of scouts could deliver the water necessary to douse the blaze. And he’d have made adjustments of his own by then anyway, laughing at the obsolescence of the reports and turning them to ash as they fueled the flames.
Now, however, the widespread availability and highly-detailed nature of advanced scouting serves as an aluminized proximity suit of sorts, mitigating much of the guerrilla advantage a hitter like Baez might have previously enjoyed. But does that means he’s helpless against the spread of knowledge, doomed to survive on mistake pitches like a mongrel on refuse?
Hardly. What it means is that he’s going to have to do some homework of his own; after all, scouting reports are compiled solely on hitters. Baez must improve his understanding of different pitchers’ tendencies along with his pitch recognition in general. This is where that prodigious bat speed can be such an asset, allowing him those extra few nanoseconds of time to read and react to an offering.
The metaphorical heat generated by that swing may just be enough to help him burn through even the most highly-insulated reports. But is there anything to give us hope that such a turn-around is possible? First, it’s important to recognize that a 52-game sample is nowhere near enough upon which to base an accurate projection for a player’s career.
Just the same, I wanted to see whether I could find parallels in recent baseball history. In the interest of brevity, I kept my comparisons simple, focusing on only two other players who also struggled with contact early. That poor performance ended up making both expendable and they’ve since gone on to make other teams very happy. Given the Cubs’ glut of middle infielders and the possibility of a trade, I found this particularly fitting.
Below are some charts comparing the performance of Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Carlos Gonzalez upon first being called up.
While Baez’s struggles are more pronounced, his numbers most closely match those of the man playing just a few feet to his left with the Cubs. For that reason, I’m going to focus on just Rizzo and his plate discipline metrics over the course of his young career.
What jumps out right away is the marked improvements of both in-the-zone (+12.2%) and overall (10.7%) contact rates. Rizzo’s swinging strike rate dropped by 5.6% and pitchers haven’t challenged him as often with early strikes. What’s more, he’s swinging at fewer of those out-of-the-zone offerings but making better contact when he does.
Please keep in mind that this is not a direct comp; making that leap would bring baseball junkies down upon me like a plague of locusts. This is simply an example of a highly-touted prospect who came up, struggled early, and was able to adjust. It helps that he did so in the current era and that Cubs fans are obviously very familiar with him.
Baez is unique though and his struggles are somewhat historic. In fact, a recent piece by Joseph Werner of Beyond the Box Score discusses the rarefied status of of Javy’s strikeout rate, painting a bleak picture of the young Cub’s future. But it’s also a picture that’s far from complete.
With that in mind, I hope this serves as a cautionary tale, albeit a very brief one without a great deal of support. In that, it’s like a version of “Because I said so.” Before you get too adamant that the Cubs need cut their losses and ship this young man out for pitching, consider what would happen if he’s moved and goes on to turn things around elsewhere.
Because if Baez is able to make the necessary adjustments, well, opposing pitchers might need to start taking the mound in Vermiculite suits.
*Thanks to Stan Croussett, Adam Miller and Rice Cube