Javier Baez has stepped up the plate over fifty times this season, but has just ten hits and four walks to show for it (53 wRC+).
Worse, his 32.1% strikeout rate even has some fans worrying that the Baez of old is showing up for the 2017 season, as opposed to the one we all saw improving through the 2016 season, and then breaking out in the playoffs last October/November and in the World Baseball Classic this spring.
Because of those performances, I suspect, Baez’s offensive performance thus far has been quite a dramatic and – perhaps even – unexpected let-down for many fans this season (and remember, he has MANY fans). But while he has struggled at the plate and has even looked lost at times, there are some really important things to note.
1) The expectations for Baez may have gotten completely out of whack,
2) His performance has been a bit better lately, and
3) Joe Maddon is still a believer.
On that last note, you can hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.
“He’s just off a little bit,” Maddon told the Chicago Tribune. “He’s a little over-amped. He’s getting out too quickly. He’ll stop doing it.”
Perhaps Maddon is right. Baez is one heck of an energetic player, and it’s entirely possible that as the strikeouts – and, well, regular outs – continue to pile up, he’ll eventually calm back down and smooth out his performance into something closer to what we saw last postseason. But it can’t (and won’t) just be a natural progression; he’ll have to definitively change some things, starting with, in Maddon’s opinion, developing a “B” hack.
We’ve all seen what Anthony Rizzo does at the plate when he gets down to two strikes: he chokes up, calms his movements down, and does his best to put the ball in play (where he’ll typically have something like a 29% chance of landing a base hit). Whether or not Baez can pull off something similar may be the key to his success.
For what it’s worth, Maddon believes in Baez’s ability to succeed if, for nothing else, because developing that “B” swing is not exactly a physical adjustment, it’s a mental one: “It’s in there. We’ve got to rein him back in there and get him thinking that way.”
Baez has worked his plate appearances down to his last strike 29 different times this season, but has come up with no walks and just 3 hits in the process. If, however, he could’ve found a way to put the ball in play more often, his .322 career BABIP likely would have likely helped him eek out a few more hits. (You’re probably not going to have quite the same BABIP on your “B” hack as on all other swings, but it figures to be an improvement nonetheless.)
THAT’S precisely what Maddon is trying to tap into. After all, Baez runs fast, has great instincts, and makes good contact. If his bat found the ball more often (even if it wouldn’t like end up in extra bases every time), his overall production would shoot up.
That said, Baez has been a bit better lately. Since getting off to a really cold start to the year (-8 wRC+ through his first seven games (no the negative is not an accident)), he’s hit safely in six out of his past eight games, including four doubles and his first home run.
Baez’s strikeout rate is still a really high 33.3% during that stretch, but he’s walking over 6% of the time*, and has hit for a lot of power (.233 ISO). Overall, then, his 93 wRC+ is actually a relatively welcomed sight, because when paired with his defense, he instantly becomes a valuable player. (To put that in perspective, Addison Russell was worth 3.9 WAR last season with a 95 wRC+.) Expectations, then, may actually be his biggest obstacle.
Baez’s story has changed so many times since he first entered the Cubs organization back in 2011 that I don’t think we all know what we’re even supposed to be waiting for anymore.
While he was – at one time – considered a top offensive prospect (whose defense was very rarely even mentioned), that’s no longer the case. To be sure, Baez still has the bat speed, base running abilities, and power to be a well above-average hitter, but he doesn’t need to be that guy to be valuable. Not by a long shot. Instead, if he can just figure out how to make enough contact to be roughly average (or a bit better) offensively, the Cubs may have a 4-5 win, 24-year-old who can play all over the infield. Which, yes, please.
So if you’re looking for some advice as you watch Baez hit over the next few weeks/months/etc., keep some things in mind: First and foremost, his manager believes in him enough to keep sticking him in the lineup when they’re are plenty of other quality options on the bench. Second, Baez has actually been playing a lot better lately, and his numbers will look better once he’s put enough distance between his ice cold start and today.
And finally, check in on your expectations every once in a while. Cubs fans have the benefit of watching one of the scariest lineups in baseball on a daily basis, but that may have clouded our ability to evaluate players. Not everyone is going to be Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, or Addison Russell, and that’s okay.
*[Editor’s note re the walk rate: we didn’t realize at the time of publishing that each of Baez’s walks thus far have been of the intentional variety. My apologies for not noting that, because it’s worth pointing out. That said, you can’t give a guy ZERO credit for intentional walks, both because the bat has been taken out of his hands (hey, maybe he would have walked! maybe he would have socked a dinger!), and also because there are also “intentional unintentional” walks – and four pitch dude-has-totally-lost-it walks – that murky the waters of whether a walk was “earned.” Imagine if Barry Bonds didn’t get credit for all those intentional walks because we drew a line between them and the ones where the pitcher just threw four in the dirt. Don’t get me wrong: Javy ain’t Barry. I just find the IBB/BB distinction a tricky and interesting one in statistical discussions. Nevertheless, as I said, it’s worth noting that none of Baez’s walks this year have been unintentional.]