We know that 2016 marked a step up on the offensive side for infielder Javy Baez, who posted a .273/.314/.423 line with a 94 wRC+. Through his first two partial seasons in the big leagues, those numbers were just .201/.252/.346 and 65, respectively.
Yes, there was significant improvement in the results for Javy Baez last year.
Most notably, we know that Baez dramatically cut his strikeout rate, from a whopping 41.5% in 2014 to 30.0% in 2015 to just 24.0% in 2016.
The improvements Baez has made so far haven’t made him a finished product just yet on the offensive side, but they are impressive and encouraging for his future. Given the total of Baez’s on-field value, I don’t think there’s much reason to be anything but optimistic about his future.
But it’s always worth taking a step back to dig into any additional underlying data, evaluating just how much more we can learn about what is informing these surface numbers.
There are more than a couple ways we can think about Baez’s offensive performance in 2016, how much we can trust the results, and what it might say about the future. But I’d like to consider two of them today: (1) is the reduction in the strikeout rate a sustainable development that is the product of an improved approach at the plate? And (2) when Baez makes contact, is he making quality contact?
First, it’s only fair to note that much of the improvement in Baez’s strikeout rate in 2016 came from more contact at the plate, as opposed to more selectivity. For example, from 2015 to 2016, Baez’s swing rate increased from 51.5% to 52.6%, and his contact rate increased from 67.7% to 72.4%.
Put another way:
This is Javier Baez swing % last year compared to league average… Yikes pic.twitter.com/g79WwRuhYo
— Daren Willman (@darenw) December 22, 2016
Javy Baez swung a whole lot in 2016 (only 20 players swung more often), and he swung a whole lot a pitches outside the strike zone (5th highest out-of-zone swing rate in baseball). Baez was about league average at making contact in those situations (62.4%), but that was waaaay up from the year before (48.6%), and almost entirely accounts for the drop in his strikeout rate.
Given what we know about making weak contact outside the strike zone, and given the fact that Baez actually swung more often at pitches outside the strike zone in 2016 than 2015, I’m not sure we can attribute any of the dropping strikeout rate to improved plate discipline, even if it might be sustainable going forward. What you’d like to see next year is continued improvement in Baez’s overall contact rate, but fewer swings at pitches outside the strike zone (or really, outside the small area where he can do serious damage – at least until he gets to two strikes).
All that kind of leads to the other question: given the increased contact (albeit on probably worse pitches to swing at), how is the quality of contact Baez is making?
Well, in a handy turn, Tony Blengino recently analyzed the quality of contact for NL third basemen at FanGraphs (one player for each team was included at each position, so, for sorting reasons, Baez was included at third base, and Kris Bryant was included in left field).
The answer on the quality of Baez’s contact is a mixed one. The news is mostly good, though.
On just the balls put in play, when considering the type and exit velocity, Baez actually does fairly well, with a 110 adjusted contact score, which is slightly better than average for the group of third basemen (105). You can and should read Blengino’s full piece for the context, but the gist of that number means that Baez is, overall, and relative to the rest of the league, hitting the type of batted balls with the type of exit velocity that generally leads to slightly above average production. Hooray!
But the problem – which goes back a little bit to the initial discussion – is that there’s an additional adjustment to the adjusted contact score, and we get the adjusted production score, which incorporates the stuff when a ball doesn’t get put into play: walks and strikeouts. Because Baez’s strikeout rate (24.0%) was a good bit above average (21.1%), and because his walk rate was extremely below average, Baez’s adjusted production score is all the way down at 85 – far lower than his actual results suggested in 2016 (94 wRC+).
The largest driver of that number, presumably, is Baez’s 3.3% walk rate, which was the second lowest in the entire National League in 2016 (Brandon Phillips, 3.1%) among players with at least 450 plate appearances.
So, then, what do we make of all of this, in relation to Baez’s results in 2016?
Well, you can make the argument that his production actually should have been lower than what it was. If you did make that argument, I’d probably ask you follow-up questions about how Baez’s speed and baseball instincts do not show up in the adjusted production score discussion, but DO show up in Baez’s actual production, and I’d ask if that somewhat bridges the gap between his wRC+ (94) and his adjusted production score (85). But that would take us down a seriously nerdy wormhole that I’m not sure even I am prepared to traverse.
Instead, I’ll just try to sum things up: Baez made obvious offensive improvements in 2016 as a 23-year-old with little big league experience. He made good contact overall, and that could improve even further if he becomes a little more selective at the plate. That, in turn, would probably increase his walk rate, which would drive significantly greater overall production.
We know that players, at some point, kind of have to be who they are in order to succeed in the big leagues. Dramatic, sweeping changes are probably not advisable at this point. But improvements at the margins – if there are enough margins – can make a big difference in the end.
And when you factor in Baez’s sublime defense and excellent baserunning, not to mention his versatility, it’s not as if dramatic offensive improvement is necessary for Baez to remain an extremely valuable player.