How was the first-half of the season for Javy Baez? Well, not so great.
Thanks to injuries and other factors keeping Addison Russell (and, to an extent, Ben Zobrist) out of the lineup, the Cubs’ young and tantalizing infielder got more opportunities in the first half of 2017 than he has in any season yet.
Unfortunately, he just didn’t do much with it at the plate when you look at his slash line: .256/.295/.450.
Well, that’s not entirely true. He did post what would be the highest ISO (.194) and slugging percentage (.450) of his career, but overall, his 84 wRC+ is a good deal lower than his marks in 2016 (94 wRC+) and 2015 (98 wRC+). Combined with defense that isn’t ranking out as highly as usual, and Baez is on pace for just 1.2 WAR in 2017 (a far cry from the 2.7 WAR he posted last season).
So what has gone wrong at the plate for him this year? Did he start swinging and missing more often? Too many grounders? Not enough walks? Let’s dig in and see what’s what. Since it’s Baez, his walks, strikeouts, and overall plate discipline seems like a good place to start.
So far this season, Baez has posted a 5.0% walk rate and a 26.0% strikeout rate. While both marks are decidedly worse than average, neither is particularly grotesque (especially for Baez). In fact, his walk rate is much higher than 2016 (3.3%) and exactly equal to his 2015 campaign. His strikeout rate, again, is higher than last year’s mark (24.0%) and league average (21.6%), but given all we know about Baez, it’s hard to be too upset with that mark.
However, Baez isn’t posting the best plate discipline numbers of his career. While he is swinging at a LOT more pitches in the zone, he’s swinging at more pitches out of the zone, too. That indicates that he’s likely doing a whole lot of guessing at the plate, and guessing is not going to lead to hard contact. Furthermore, he’s making a lot less contact overall, including pitches he’s swinging at in the zone.
Because of all the extra swinging (and missing), Baez’s swinging strike rate is up to 18.4% this season, which is a lot higher than 2016 (14.4%) and 2015 (16.4%), when he, theoretically, should have had a much worse approach at the plate.
Although it’s not the kryptonite it used to be, Javy Baez’s plate discipline (and, more likely, pitch recognition) this season is certainly a contributing factor to his struggles. But there’s a lot more than that.
Like our study on Addison Russell before him, we’re going to turn this ship towards his batted ball data. And, to be fair, there’s some upfront reasons for optimism here. First of all, Baez’s .313 BABIP this season is below his career average (.321) and, frankly, much lower than you’d expect from Baez. His BABIP from 2015-2016, for example, was much higher: .347. Given his speed, athletic ability, and exit velocity, you can probably expect Baez to post something closer to .330 at this point in his career. And as I pointed out earlier, his .194 ISO is much higher than his career average (.160). But let’s get into the nitty gritty.
Right off the bat, I can tell you that Baez is hitting fewer line drives and fly balls and more grounders than he has for his career. By the book, that combination should hurt his overall production (fly ball revolution) while leaving his BABIP largely flat. But, as we’ve seen, only the first half of that prediction is accurate.
Baez’s production has been hurt by hitting the ball on the ground more often than in the air (especially with his power) but the increase in BABIP never came (good old fashioned bad luck). That’s a good example of bad play and bad luck doubling down to hurt you. In this way, you can probably expect a slight bump in production as Baez’s luck, and BABIP, regress positively.
Carrying on, Baez is still spreading the ball across the field about as much as he always has, but he’s hitting into more soft-contact than usual (20.6% this season, 18.3% career). He has gotten slightly more hard-contact, too (32.2% this season, 30.6% career), for what that’s worth.
And, honestly, we can probably keep going, but I think we have just about enough evidence to mount a case.
Javy Baez appears to be guessing at pitches more often than usual, which is causing him to swing at more pitches out of the zone (and fail to square up pitches in the zone). When contact is made on those “guess swings,” he’s creating some weaker contact overall, and hitting more balls on the ground. Because of that, and the fact that he hasn’t been lucky with his BABIP, his production has weakened across the board.
When it comes to Baez, we tend to focus on his strikeout rate so much, we forget that there’s a lot more to this game than putting the ball in play. Until he improves his pitch recognition and uses it to become selectively aggressive (make better contact), he’s destined to toil away in the 80-100 wRC+ range. You might expect a partial rebound in the second half due to a probably slightly too low BABIP, but other than that, it would take notable changes in approach for him to have a more significant bump in production.