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The Enigma That Is Javier Baez

Yes, I’m a Cubs fan. Let’s just that out of the way now. However, until 2016, the Cubs weren’t very good at winning things, so bear in mind that my view often comes with a high degree of pessimism when it comes to my team’s players. I didn’t hold out hope for Starlin Castro long after others started moving him down the ranks. I expected Jake Arrieta’s arm to explode in 2016 because we rarely have pitchers who are great (or even good) for two seasons in a row. When it comes to skepticism, Cubs fans have plenty of it.

So why am I excited about Javier Baez, strikeout extraordinaire? Um, well, I’m not sure, to be honest. The strict, follow-the-rules side of my brain sees some red flags. However, I can go through the stats to find some good points too. It’s a mixed bag, and that makes Baez hard to figure for 2017. Could he break out and be a power/speed stud? Yes. Could he flop and hit under the Mendoza line? Also yes. Neither result would really surprise me, thought my heart does find it harder to believe in the complete collapse. He’s an enigma, to be sure, so let’s get into the details and see what to expect. I’ll pit two points, one good and one bad, against each other and provide my thoughts on them.

Round 1: Improving K% vs. Falling BB%

Normally when you see a pro/con about this, it’s a guy who strikes out a lot, but he also walks a lot. That’s not Javy’s situation at all. We know he doesn’t walk, and that’s part of the worry. Granted that his second MLB season was an extremely small sample size, but in three years he’s halved his walk rate: 6.6% in 2014, 5.0% in 2015, and 3.3% in 2016. There are players who get by without a lot of walks, but it’s rare, and the rest of his profile doesn’t really fit in with the mold of hitters who do it. In terms of the types of pitches he sees, the mix hasn’t really changed over time; opponents haven’t found some major weakness to exploit. He simply doesn’t walk much, and a rate that low is cause for concern.

That said, I don’t care a bit about walks if his strikeout rate continues trending the way it has. He made a splash with a horrific 42% in 2014, but he greatly improved that to just 24% in 2016. A 24% still puts him in the “below average” to “poor” category for K% according to FanGraphs, but look at that decrease: 18% in just two seasons. I did say that his profile doesn’t indicate he’d be able to survive well with such a low walk rate, but as he improves on his strikeout rate and overall plate discipline, I wouldn’t be surprised if his BB% bounces back as a result. For me, the pro of K% improvement far outweighs the con of an awful BB%.




Round 2: High O-Swing% vs. Improving SwStr%

Continuing in the plate discipline theme; it’s scary how much Baez swings at pitches out of the zone. He got a bit worse in 2016, reaching 43% swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone. The MLB average is just 30%, so needless to say, he has some work to do. On one hand, pitchers simply weren’t throwing him a lot of strikes: 39% in zone, versus the MLB average of over 44%. But does he swing at bad pitches because they won’t throw him strikes? Or do they keep throwing bad pitches because they know he’ll swing regardless? It’s more his aggressiveness. However, as he learns plate discipline and (hopefully) keeps cutting down on his K%, I have hope that he can also stop swinging at so many pitches out of the zone.

Another sign that he’s learning better plate discipline is linked to his swinging strike rate. The league average sits around 10%, and he’s well above that. However, we again see a three-year improvement for the stat, from 19% to 14%. He still has a way to go, but in 2017 if he continues to improve on his swinging and missing, it will mean:

(A) he’s reducing his O-Swing% too
(B) he’s at least making contact on these pitches
(C) a combination of both.

His improvement in SwStr% is a good sign, but right now I’d say it’s balanced out by the scary high O-Swing%. That said, I do hope for positive growth in both moving forward.

Round 3: Dropping Hard Hit% vs. Improving Contact Rate

Many of us remember the bombs Javy hit last year, but the numbers don’t lie: last year his hard hit rate was down to its lowest level, 29%. That’s about the league average, so it’s not necessarily the end of the world. However, when you consider it’s still a step down for him, it’s not a good sign for his highest AB total. His soft hit rate wasn’t bad — in fact, it was a bit above average. But his medium hit rate was also down from a great 2015, when he hit tons of line drives and was squaring up well. Of the three, hard hit is the most important, so it bears watching as he moves forward.

However, contact rate was a huge success story for Baez. It’s hard for me to decide which single improvement is the best for him, ct% or K%. They can go a bit hand in hand, so the fact that both are trending in the right direction is a plus. After his rookie year, I wouldn’t have touched Baez with a ten-foot pole due to his awful contact rate of 59%. Some hitters can live in the 60% range, like his teammate Kris Bryant’s rookie year. However, if you drop below about 64%, there’s almost no chance at a positive value season. Baez has worked on his contact, and he’s taken it from 59% all the way up to 72% in 2016. That’s much easier to stomach, and plenty of hitters can be productive with that rate — he doesn’t have to be the sole exception to the rule, like he would’ve been with a 59% rate.

It makes sense that if he was swinging out of the zone a lot, and was making more contact in 2016, he’s not likely to make hard contact with those balls. I’m hopeful that if he can make a few more strides in plate discipline while maintaining his improved contact rate, then his hard hit rate will bounce back. He has enough speed that he can get on base through infield hits, so the pro contact rate takes the round.

Round 4: Higher GB% vs. Improved HR/FB from 2015

In extended time during 2016, Baez ended up with his highest ground ball rate of this short career, at 44%. It’s not a rate that will stop his growth, but given his power, we’d like to see more loft. Naturally, you can connect the dots from a high O-Swing% to a higher GB%. If he’s swinging out of the zone so much, and he’s making more contact, it means he’s not putting the barrel on the ball, and that’s most likely going to result in more ground balls. He’s a perfect example of how so many sabermetric stats tie together to paint a full picture of a player.

On the pro side, his HR/FB improved from a very low 6% from 2015. Yes, that was a tiny sample size, so it makes sense that it was a fluke. Still, it’s good to see that he rebounded to above league average, at 13%. The only caveat is that his rookie season was even better, at 17%. He also faded in the second half of last year, going from 15% to 11%. The grounders spiked in the second half too, so this may bear watching. I believe he has the ability to punish pitchers’ mistakes in the zone, but even so, a higher GB% will cap a hitter’s power output unless he reaches truly elite HR/FB territory. This battle leans slightly toward the con of GB%.

The Verdict

I won’t deny that there are some issues to make fantasy managers worry about Javier Baez’s production in 2017. His youth and his limited AB totals don’t give a lot of baseline to project from. Some of the things I’m worried about may neutralize some of his potential perks. That said, you have to be excited about his great improvement in strikeouts and contact. I weigh these two factors very high when evaluating players, and the fact that he’s gone from “unrosterable” to “only minor concern” means he’s learning and growing as a player.

That bodes well for the future, and though he may have slumps, or he may not even put it all together in 2017, I’m confident that he’ll produce more value in a two-thirds or three-quarters season than those full-time middle infielders ranked outside of the top-20 at their positions. I don’t think he’s likely to explode for 30 HR next year, but a 20/20 is entirely possible, and with his improved contact and K%, you don’t have to worry about a Rickie Weeks batting average of .230. His positional flexibility is an added bonus. I’ll bet that his uncertainty will let Baez fall in the draft a bit, and you should capitalize on the potential profit.

 

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Kevin Jebens
Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.

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