Javier Baez has been the second-worst kept secret in the Chicago Cubs development system over the past couple years. In that time, he’s struggled with intermittent flashes of brilliance. When he hits, he hits. His giant, loopy swing and bat speed make every fly look like it should hit the streets outside a park, and he’s got all the power potential in the world. He’s had some serious discipline issues over the years though. He’s been a strikeout machine with a lacking eye for the ball since his first major league appearance in 2014. However, he’s seemingly getting better. Through injury and disappointing stints in the minors, he’s steadily getting better through differences of approach, physical fitness, and tweaks to his batting approach. Now, he’s made a huge stride in 2016, looking more like the Baez Cubs fans dreamed of every passing day. Let’s take a by the numbers look at how his improvement has played out, and where it points in the near future.
The first issue that reared its head with Baez was strikeouts; here, he’s made huge strides. He logged a horrifying strikeout rate of 41% in 2014, then followed it with a merely staggering 30% mark in 2015 (though sample size applies a bit here due to his injury troubles). This year, it’s a comparatively modest 18%. Still high, but it’s progress, and a steady drop each year so far is very promising. He still doesn’t walk nearly enough, at an underwhelming rate of 2.9%. He’s also swinging more, at a career-high 54.7% of pitches seen. So, where does the reduced strikeout count come from?
The answer is the real sign of improvement: contact.
Look at the heat maps for contact, per FanGraphs:
Baez is getting bat on ball more often than ever, and the difference is night and day. While it has not played out directly in the form of higher average or hitting quite yet, it’s a hell of a lot more promising than how he was getting out back in 2014. Baez is swinging at 69.5% of pitches inside the zone, and making contact with 79.4% of them, which is way more swings and about the same contact percentage as 2014. The night and day difference is outside the zone. He’s working pitchers who throw on the borderlines. Since 2014, Baez has swung at 39.2%, 40.0%, and now 43.7%. Steady increase. His contact outside the zone was 39.7% in 2014, 47.1% in 2015, and this year made the ridiculous leap to 64.9% (almost exactly the same as Bryce Harper). Now that’s dramatic.
The big part of this jump other than experience and practice is a compacted swing. Look at this piece from Bleacher Nation to see the differences. He’s done a lot of work to reduce the loop in his swing that made timing more difficult against good pitchers. It comes at the cost of a bit of power maybe, but it’s a key adjustment for a more even swing across major league throwing talent. He’s also reduced the leg kick and the angle of his swing, the latter being a change that teammate Kris Bryant recently incorporated to improve his hitting.
This all results in more control, and a more easily adjustable and replicable swing at the plate day to day. The rub this year is that it hasn’t paid off as much as those numbers would suggest, with Baez sporting a .253 batting average, right at league average, and a below-average slugging percentage at .384. He’s got 3 home runs to his name, and a decent amount of hits. Lots of that contact is coming in the form of flyouts so far, and he’s generating those hits at a career-high rate. The increased contact is promising, though. He’s working pitchers way better (as all the Cubs do right now) and his ABs are more valuable than ever, even if they don’t generate hits. There’s no reason to believe, given the numbers and the visible improvement, that these changes won’t eventually translate to an increase in hits. After all, if the bat’s not getting on the ball, there won’t be more hits. You have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. You have to get touches on the ball to create hits. It’s only a matter of time before he starts driving it more consistently.