Javier Báez has never been known for his plate discipline. Even in good times, El Mago has consistently had a difficult time laying off pitches outside the zone. Those struggles have continued this year and his chase percentage is right in line with his rates over the past few years, including his MVP runner-up 2018 season.
While chasing pitches out of the zone isn’t exactly a desirable trait, it’s not something that’s gotten in the way of his success in the past. So why have Javy’s struggles from 2020 carried through to the early part of this season?
FanGraphs did a deep dive into this subject, but one particular aspect of their analysis is worth focusing on. Báez isn’t just struggling with pitches out of the zone, he’s struggling to hit offerings in the zone as well.
With the exception of his rookie season, Javy’s highest in-zone whiff rate was 24.7% in 2019. That number jumped to 29.2% in 2020 and sits at a staggering 45% so far in 2021.
Where has that jump come from? Believe it or not, it’s got nothing to do with those sweeping sliders we can so easily picture Javy chasing. Instead, it’s almost entirely driven by a significant increase in swings and missing on fastballs.
Last year’s 30.5% in zone whiff rate on fastballs represented a career high, but that would be a gargantuan improvement over the 63.3% he’s posted in the early going. To see how that looks in action, we need look no further than a recent at-bat against the Brewers’ Freddy Peralta.
While Peralta does have a lot of life on his fastball, hard stuff down the middle has typically been a recipe for success for Javy.
A whiff on a fastball in the zone began the sequence.
A whiff on a fastball in the zone ended the sequence.
This is just one at-bat, but it’s not nearly as much of an outlier as it should be. This season has produced no shortage of examples of Javy swinging through fastballs right in the heart of the strike zone.
The Cubs’ hopes in 2021 depend on Javy being not just good, but being a star. To get there, this part of his game in particular must improve.