The Evolution of Javier Baez: The Fantasy Swiss Army Knife

It was a mid-August game under the lights in Wrigley, and amongst the mouth-watering scent of grilled onions and beer, 30,000+ hoped to witness Javier Baez’s first Wrigley Field home run. After turning a first inning routine base hit to right into a double (what we now know as ‘Javy-esque’), Baez stepped to the plate to lead off the 3rd inning.

Wrigley erupted to the sound of the organ (no walk-up music at that time) preceding the stadium announcement, “Leading off for the Cubs, the second baseman, Javier Baez!” After taking two pitches (strange), Baez demolished the third pitch deep into the right field bleachers. It was the best feeling I’d had in Wrigley since Fred McGriff hit a walk off double vs the Phillies in a game my dad took my brother and me to back in 2002. How could it get any better? Until, on the very next pitch, just after a Baez curtain call, Anthony Rizzo shellacked a ball deep into the right field bleachers. That moment surpassed any moment I’d had in Wrigley Field. It was a moment you hope to experience but rarely do. It was magical.

Far from magical, was the rest of Javy’s 2014 season. He went on to hit 6 more homers over the final month and a half, while managing to strike out 95 times in 227 plate appearances (41.5%).

*Highest K% of any player with 200 PA in a season since 1900.

In 2015, Baez began the year in the minors. He battled through a few injuries and took some time off to grieve the loss off his little sister, Noley. After regaining his stroke and confidence, Baez came back up in the end of the 2015 season and was able to contribute to the Cubs deepest playoff run since 2003.

Each of the following 3 seasons (2016-18), Baez managed at least 450 plate appearances. He exploded onto the fantasy scene last year and became possibly the best ROI of the 2018 season as he hit his way to a Silver Slugger at Second Base.

There’s a few things we need to understand about Javier Baez:

Any fan of Star Wars knows Yoda’s famous words to Luke, “Do. Or do not. There is not try.” That sums up Javy on a baseball diamond. When he commits to the extra base, chances are he’s going to get it. If you sit back on a ball in the infield, he’s going to test you. Baez plays the only way he knows; he plays hard, he has fun, he’s unapologetically himself.

He’s the type of player you bring your kids to the ballpark to watch. Those who call it arrogance, are simply ignorant. He has little quirks such as blowing bubbles as he swings, spitting seeds as he makes a diving play or a throw across the field, and the occasional point to his catcher while simultaneously catching the ball and tagging out a would-be base stealer. Those who have watched Baez grow and develop know that nothing’s changed in terms of style and attitude. I guess the best way to describe him is, ‘cool’. He makes impossible plays look easy. He has one of the best gloves in the baseball, possibly the best arm of any middle infielder, and runs the bases as well as any player in the game. Not to mention he is arguably the best tagger of all time.

Javier Baez tags out Nelson Cruz while pointing to his catcher, Yadier Molina, during the 2017 World Baseball Classic. (Photo: mlb.com)

Let’s dive into the stats.

Javier Baez 2016 – 2018
Year Age PA AVG OBP SLG OPS HR SB K% BB%
2016 23 450 . 273 . 314 . 423 . 737 14 12 24 3.3
2017 24 508 . 273 . 317 . 480 . 796 23 10 28.3 5.9
2018 25 645 . 290 . 326 . 554 . 881 34 21 25.9 4.9

Baez carried the Cubs’ offense in his first season with 500 ABs. Playing at least 20 games 2B, SS and 3B, his versatility was invaluable, considering a 60 game absence and less than expected production from 2016 MVP Kris Bryant, as well as the constant uncertainty and off the field issues surrounding Addison Russell.

After receiving his first all-star selection, Baez finished the 2018 season with a BB% of 4.9, K% of 25.9, and a SLG% of .554.

* Since 1990, there’s been 6 instances where a qualified batter has finished a season with a BB% at or below 5%, a K% at or above 20%, and a SLG% above .500.

BB% ≤ 5.0, K%≥ 20.0, SLG% ≥.500 (Since 1990)
Player Year Age Team BB% K% SLG%
Andres Galarraga 1994 33 Rockies 4.2% 20.7% .592
Alfonso Soriano 2002 26 Yankees 3.1% 21.2% .547
Alfonso Soriano 2007 31 Cubs 5.0% 21.1% .560
Yoenis Cespedes 2015 29 Tigers / Mets 4.9% 20.9% .542
Rougned Odor 2016 22 Rangers 3.0% 21.4% .502
Javier Baez 2018 25 Cubs 4.5% 25.9% .554

If we know anything about the above players, they aren’t up there looking for a bloop single. Clearly, they’re not trying to take a free pass. When they swing, they swing hard, with one goal in mind. If you’ve played the game of baseball, or golf for that matter, you know it takes exceptional hand-eye coordination to make solid contact on a consistent basis. This is especially true the harder you swing, and Baez swings HARD. It’s no surprise he racks up the K’s, but what he does when he doesn’t miss, more that makes up for it. And he continues to make adjustments.

So what adjustment did Baez make in 2018? Can he build on his breakout year heading into his age 26 season?

Javier Baez vs LHP
Year PA AB AVG H HR OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP LD% Hard%
2016 136 122 . 311 38 4 . 375 . 475 . 850 . 164 . 362 26.6 30.6
2017 133 124 . 315 39 9 . 353 . 581 . 934 . 266 . 366 17.6 39.6
2018 145 134 . 306 41 8 . 359 . 575 . 933 . 269 . 333 29.6 38.3

Javy has always been a much better hitter vs Lefties than Righties. There’s not much variance from year to year vs LHP besides the uptick in hard contact rate (Hard%) in 2017, resulting in a significant jump in power as shown in his Slugging% and OPS. However, the jump in Javy’s production vs LHP from 2017 to 2018 isn’t enough to explain his success.

Javier Baez vs RHP
Year PA AB AVG HR OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP OPPO% LD% Hard% HR/FB
2016 314 299 . 258 10 . 288 . 401 . 689 . 144 . 324 20.2% 16.3% 28.4% 12.5%
2017 375 345 . 258 14 . 304 . 443 . 747 . 186 . 338 20.3% 14.5% 29.8% 17.1%
2018 500 472 . 286 26 . 317 . 549 . 865 . 263 . 352 26.7% 19.8% 35.0% 22.8%

For the first time in his career, Baez received a full season of at bats (500, 6th in NL) vs RHP. Here’s where we start seeing the adjustments.

2017 to 2018

  • Hard Contact% of 29.8% up to 35% (+5.2%), resulting in more line drives and home runs, as well as a much improved batting average and slugging percentage.
  • HR/FB jumped from 17.1% to 22.8% (+5.7%), resulting in more HR vs RHP in 2018 than he had in 2016-17 combined, in 172 less at bats.
  • Baez began hitting the ball the other way with consistency, as shown by the jump from 20.3% to 26.7% in balls hit to the opposite field (OPPO%). This is where we see the most significant improvement.
Javier Baez Opposite Field vs RHP
Year PA AB AVG H HR OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP Hard%
2016 44 43 . 302 13 0 . 302 .372 . 674 .070 . 302 20.4
2017 49 46 . 370 17 0 . 362 .565 . 927 . 196 . 362 16.3
2018 90 88 . 500 44 7 . 489 .989 1.478 . 489 . 446 36.7

This is our answer to the 2018 breakout of Javier Baez. He didn’t just start hitting the ball more often to the opposite field, he did so as effectively as any Right Handed Hitter in baseball.

Ranks Amongst All RHH vs RHP on Batted Balls Hit to the Opposite Field
Player Year(s) AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wRC wRAA wOBA wRC+
J. Baez 2016-17 56th 55th 78th 66th 97th 40th 96th 64th 67th 68th
J. Baez 2018 1st 2nd 1st 1st 3rd 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st

Between 2016 and 2017 Baez made contact to the opposite field 89 times in 644 at bats. In 2018 alone he went the other way 88 times in just 472 at bats (172 less AB than ’16-’17 combined).
We see a willingness to adjust with Baez. He’s show growth and has failed plenty up to this point. He’s headed into his age 26 season and with adjustments like this there’s a lot to be excited about.

Fact: If you take away Baez’s 44 hits to opposite field, his batting average was .255 in 2018. His career average coming into the 2018 season? You guessed it… .255.

  • Javy Baez was the best right-handed bat in baseball going the other way when facing RHP, Hitting .500 (44 for 88).
  • He made contact to the opposite field 90 times off RHP in 2018 (26.7% of the balls he put in play).
  • Of the 90 balls Baez hit to the right side of the field, 33 of them were considered to be hard contact (36.7%, 17th amongst RHH). Gigantic jump from the 8 (16.3%) hard hit balls to right in 2017.
  • Out of his 26 HR off RHP, 7 went to the opposite field. That mark was 4th in baseball behind only J.D. Martinez, Khris Davis, and Paul Goldschmidt. That’s good company.

Click here to see a video of Baez / interview with Joe Maddon (from the 2017 season) discussing what Javy is capable of once he starts driving the ball the other way (right field). He knows what he needs to do to maximize his potential, and we saw exactly that in 2018.

Conclusion

Javier Baez has made multiple significant adjustments in 2018. Most significant of all is his improvement vs RHP. He’s evolved from a pull hitter who struggled to find success vs RHP, to an above average hitter who has learned to hit the ball the other way as effectively as any hitter in the game. All the tools are there and if he continues on this path he has the potential to be a premier hitter in the game, regardless of walk and strikeout rates.

Kudos to Joe Maddon, who, since his arrival in Chicago in 2015, has said that one of the worst things he could do as a coach is coach the aggressiveness out of Javy Baez. He’s given him a chance to learn, grow, fail and adjust. I don’t see the learning and growth stopping any time soon. When it comes to raw ability on a baseball diamond, I challenge you to find 3 infielders that bring more to the table than Javier Baez.

2019 Outlook

As he continues to grow and adjust the ceiling is limitless with Baez. I’d love to see a healthy Bryant in front or behind him. I think the Cubs production will take a step forward in 2019 and Baez will be right in the middle of it. The 30 HR power is for real, and with his skills on the base-paths, 25 to 30 SB are not out of the question.

As long as he can continue to use the whole field vs RHP, Javy should be in great shape for another fantastic season. He’s a top 20 fantasy player with the skills to be top 10. His eligibility at 2B, SS and 3B make him the ultimate swiss army knife for your fantasy roster, especially if your league has CI and MI spots. I don’t see the power going anywhere. Steals may take a slight hit if he’s hitting behind Bryant and in front of Rizzo, though if he’s in for some major overall run production in a healthy Cub lineup.

Projections

My Projection
Player AVG OPS R HR RBI SB
Javy Baez . 283 . 849 100 36 90 19
Streamer (FanGraphs)
Player AVG OPS R HR RBI SB
Javy Baez . 269 . 802 81 29 97 17
Derek Carty’s THE BAT
Player AVG OPS R HR RBI SB
Javy Baez . 270 . 816 89 33 95 15

All statistics found on FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Both Streamer and THE BAT projection models can be found on FanGraphs.

Video and interviews courtesy of mlb.com and Mark Gonzalez of Chicago Tribune.

 

Fantasy Rundown BannerHead on over to Fantasy Rundown for additional draft coverage along with 2019 and prospect rankings.

Ryan Starcevich

Written by 

Teacher, Coach, Baseball Aficionado, and Fantasy Baseball Enthusiast. Chicago Cubs fan. Numbers are numbers and that’s that.

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