Ednel Javier Baez is a phenom whose exploits on the diamond frequently defy explanation. The swing, the glove, the slide, all indicative of a preternatural feel for the game and a superior athleticism that allows him to do things most people can’t even dream of, let alone perform. Yet all the while there’s been a but big enough to make LL Cool J leave you.
He’s got light tower power…but he’s always swinging for the fences.
He’s got Gold Glove potential…but he’s trying to do too much at times.
He’s so fast on the bases…but he’s reckless with that headfirst slide.
Many of the gripes have fallen by the wayside as Baez has seemingly tamed the worst of his tendencies in an effort to become a better hitter. He’s also gone from shortstop of the future to utility man capable of making every play near him with grace and awareness. The .278 batting average is better than expected and the 24.8% strikeout rate, while higher than anyone who’s not a starting pitching or Chris Coghlan, is a massive improvement over last year’s 30% and 2014’s 41.5% debacle.
So things are trending up, right? Well, yeah, but there are a few troubling peripherals that Javy’s going to need to shore up in order to keep things moving onward and upward. I know that sounds strange to some of you in light of what appears to be vastly improved performance at the plate, so just bear with me here.
The big knock on Baez early on was that he’d swing at anything. He had little to no pitch recognition and just took those massive hacks hoping for a mistake. The decreased K-rate is indicative of some improvement in that area and is driven by a swinging-strike rate that has dropped dramatically, from 19.2% to 16.4% to 15.0% over the last three campaigns. That’s good stuff, don’t get me wrong, but it obscures some serious holes in Javy’s approach.
While his swing rate in that ill-fated first call-up was 46.6%, it has actually increased to 51.5% last season and 53.7% in 2016. Much of that comes from marked jumps in his Z-swing (swinging at pitches in the zone) numbers, which have gone from 58.7% as a rookie to 68.4% this season. In short, he was looking at a lot of good pitches early and is swinging at more of them now.
Um, Evan, you’re not exactly making a strong case for a lack of improvement here.
Yeah, sorry, getting to that.
If you’ve looked into this matter for yourself, you want to point to Javy’s .340 BABIP as an argument in favor of his inevitable statistical regression. Well, I’m not going to use that because I don’t think it’s valid here. A league-average BABIP is .304, but a player with good power and speed to burn can easily sustain a number that is significantly higher than that. My concern lies more with Baez’s awareness and control of the strike zone.
You may have noticed that Baez isn’t a guy who’s going to walk a lot. He’s up there to hit, that’s just who he is, and you’ll take that aggressiveness because of all the other things he brings to the table. Thing is, though, even when he was flailing and missing at an historic rate, he was walking in 6.6% of his plate appearances. That number dropped to 5.0% in limited action last season and is currently sitting at 3.7%.
What this tells us is that Baez isn’t just swinging at more pitches in the zone, he’s swinging at a lot more outside the zone as well. It’s not as dramatic a jump as his Z-swing%, but he’s swinging at 44.4% of the balls he sees this season, up from 39.3% and 39.5% in previous campaigns. Not a big deal, right? Well, until you see that Baez is making contact with 63.5% of those offerings, a huge leap from last year’s 48.6% or 42.2% from 2014.
The O-contact rate in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem, as Baez is in the middle of the pack among Cubs hitters and is almost exactly in line with league average (63.7%) in that regard. The trouble comes when you combine that with how often he’s swinging. For instance, Ben Zobrist has a 75.8% O-contact rate but only swings at 20.9% of the balls he sees. Jason Heyward’s O-contact is 73.9% but he’s only got a 26.1% O-swing. Is this making sense?
No other Cub with at least 90 at-bats has an O-swing% higher than 33.4% (Willson Contreras) and only Jorge Soler has a swinging-strike percentage that matches Javy’s. So while Baez is striking out less overall and is improving his contact rates, he’s still swinging far too often at bad pitches. Consider that while he sees a first-pitch strike in 60.9% of his plate appearances, he gets fewer total pitches in the zone (38.9%) than any of his teammates. That’s less because pitchers are scared of him and more because they know he’ll chase.
See more bad pitches, swing at more bad pitches, hit more bad pitches, see more bad pitches. Wash, rinse, repeat.
As I see it, the .278 average is a bit of a red herring. The results look great if we focus only on those numbers that show up in a box score, but the metrics that underpin those results may be cause for alarm. Or at least mild concern. Thing is, the kid is so talented that he’s able to cover up a lot of the inherent flaws in his game. And therein lies both the dark cloud and the silver lining to all this.
While I do believe Baez is growing and improving over what we saw when he first came up, he’s still got a lot of work to do in terms of honing his approach. I wrote much of the same about Kris Bryant prior to the start of the season, specifically about his need to improve contact rates to maintain his performance in the face of some loss of luck in the BABIP area. When it comes to freakish ability and aptitude for the game, Bryant and Baez are very similar.
One thing that may hamper Baez in his development is not being a regular, per se. The best way to improve as a hitter is to get consistent at-bats, which really isn’t going to happen with the roster constructed as it is now. That’s not to say Baez can’t get better, just that his growth will be stunted. In the meantime, his tremendous skills allow him more margin for error than that afforded most mortals.
I’m not doom and gloom on the young man, but I’m not all sunshine and roses either. If I’m forced to continue the weather forecast analogy, I’d put it at partly sunny with a chance of showers. He’ll shorten up in two-strike counts from time to time and he’ll poke the ball the other way, but he’ll also swing at balls in the dirt with maddening frequency. Of course, he’s only 23 years old and there’s no reason to doubt he will make the necessary adjustments his plate approach over time.
And that’s why Javy Baez has gone from afterthought to indispensable this season. Even if he eventually plateaus as a .250 hitter with decent pop, you can be sure he’s going to be good for a highlight-reel play every couple days at any one of three positions. If he can put it all together, though, he could be truly special.