We’ve talked about a variety of changes to Javier Baez’s game over the past few months – swing changes, plate approach changes, positional changes, weight changes (he lost upwards of 25 pounds) – and it’s enough to make your head spin. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for the 22-year-old infielder, whose 2014 season featured a big Spring Training, a disappointing move to AAA, an injury, struggles at AAA, success at AAA, an exciting promotion to the big leagues, massive struggles with contact in the big leagues, and about a dozen voices in his ear trying to help him correct various issues.
We should keep all of that in mind as we evaluate Baez’s progress going forward.
Tom Verducci has a great read on Baez at Sports Illustrated, and it’s well worth your time. Verducci gets into all of the above, but also drills down into some of the specific swing changes, which I find fascinating. The Cubs have been experimenting not only with Baez’s hand height as he readies his swing, but also his lateral hand position (i.e., moving them further forward – picture the difference between Baez’s bat waggle way behind his head, and Gary Sheffield’s waggle slightly further forward). So, the ideal would be a slightly lower, slightly more forward hand position … which, helpfully, you can see in this GIF of Baez and Sheffield swings:
Now that we know what we’re looking at, it’s easy to see just how different their swings actually are. Verducci suggests this is just something Baez is working on, so it may be a process before it all takes. Changing from your “natural” swing is difficult, and, as we saw with Brett Jackson, as one example, it doesn’t always take.
The other notable change in Baez’s swing is a reduction in his huge leg kick. It’s sideways, but you can see the obvious difference:
— CubsVineLine (@cubsvineline) March 1, 2015
It sounds like, though, that the leg kick change is mostly part of a new two-strike approach, which is designed to quiet a lot of his movement, and try to put the ball in play. That’s how Verducci describes it, and we can see the difference here as Baez takes additional BP:
— CubsVineLine (@cubsvineline) March 3, 2015
Much more pre-swing movement, and a much higher kick than in the first video. But, notice how it’s all still reduced from what Baez was doing last year, and the hands still look lower. We’ll see how these changes play out in games, but it does look like Baez is working hard to make contact-oriented changes.
And maybe that will, long-term, mean that the decision to bring Baez up last year to be exposed by superior pitching was the right one. MLB pitchers are excellent at identifying weaknesses and holes, and they did it to Baez very quickly. That gave Baez guidance and incentive to make significant changes this offseason.
All that said, swing changes can cut down on a little bit of Baez’s swing-and-miss (hopefully without costing him too much in-game power), but they will not help with the other contact problem he seems to have: pitch recognition issues. How much that skill can be developed/altered/improved, versus how much it is simply innate, is still a debate within the game. The good news is that Baez can still be a hugely productive player if he simply gets a little better at putting the ball in play, however he gets there.
And, of course, pitch recognition stuff is not something we can explore in GIFs and BP video right now, so we’ll just have to see how he looks once the games get underway.