He dazzles us with a swing that looks like it’s fashioned for a character in the game Backyard Baseball. A leg kick initiates a kinetic chain that includes a fast-twitch wrist twist just before the pitch reaches home plate. Then, in a blur, the bat explodes through the zone, sending a baseball into the sun-spattered bleachers faster than your brain can process what just happened. This is Javy Baez.
But the video-game mechanics are also what hurts the man who burst onto the international stage in last year’s NLCS and then as a star for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. Flashing pearly whites that shine brighter than the gold around his neck, Baez seems at times so close to breaking through into that upper echelon of elite MLB talent. In order to do that, however, he’ll need to harness power of the particle accelerator driving his swing.
Perhaps, though, there is middle ground between Hyper-Aggressive Javy and Two-Strike Approach Javy. Joe Maddon thinks so.
“I’ve already talked to Johnny Mallee about it,” Maddon admitted a short while back. “You wanna tone somebody down, but then if you do, does this good thing go away? You wanna morph into it more slowly here as he gradually understands and creates a different method as he gets into the latter part of counts, runner on third base, just try to score one, not two or three.
“Javy’s got his own way. I think you’re eventually going to see him settle into it, but yes, they’re being developed. They both have to adjust to game situations. In spite of the John Daly hack on occasion, you look at his two-strike numbers, they’re outstanding.”
Maddon is right, Baez’s two-strike numbers are actually good. While the middle infielder’s wOBA on 0-2 and 1-2 counts is less than .200 — like most MLB hitters — Javy’s run production on counts through 2-2 is impressive. He has generated a batting average that is 39 percent higher than the MLB norm while continuing to slug.
Javy sporadically employs a B-hack, similar to Anthony Rizzo’s choked-up secondary swing, when he’s down to his last strike. Rather than gearing up like Pablo from Backyard Baseball, Baez instead tones things down by gently picking up his front toe and better stabilizing his upper half.
His double on a 2-2 pitch against the Miami Marlins is my favorite hit of his all year. Look at the catcher set up outside and raise his glove up in the zone. The pitcher hits his target perfectly, only for Javy to take the pitch to the opposite field over Giancarlo Stanton’s head. Beautiful.
Entering Saturday’s contest against the Nationals, Baez owns a .323 wOBA with 15 homers in 321 plate appearances. He’s on pace to knock over 20 homers for the first time in his career. Without context, any front office would be happy with that performance.
Except the 25-year-old’s contact rate is 65.4 percent this year, which is fourth worst in MLB and represents a sharp decline from his 72.1 percent rate in 2015. Although much of the difference in contact between the World Series championship season and this one is on pitches outside the zone (2016: O-contact of 60.5 percent; 2017: O-contact of 48.0 percent), Javy is whiffing four percent more against in-zone pitches, too. Adjustments have to be made.
You can see when hyper-aggressive Javy mode has been engaged. There’s no stopping it. You just have to hope the talented hitter continues to learn, much like he did after an abysmal rookie season. Maybe Javy will eventually be able to fuse or find a happy medium between his disparate approaches. If he can do so successfully, oh boy.
Until then, we’ll be pulling our hair out at times because we know just how close he is to superstardom.