Will Javier Baez Bounce Back in 2015?


Happy New Year’s, everybody!  As the calendar flips from 2014 to 2015, I decided to take a deeper look into why Javier Baez struggled in his 2014 big league debut, and see if 2015 will be any better for the young slugger.

Javier Baez has always hit.  At every level of the minor leagues, he raked.  His biggest test was Triple-A Iowa, where he struggled mightily for the first month before slugging a .306/.359/.612 with 44 extra-base hits (20 homers) in his final 312 plate appearances and warranting his final call-up to the Cubbies.

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Unfortunately, it was mostly all bad once he arrived in Chicago.  Over 52 games in the majors in 2014, Baez hit just .169/.227/.324 over 229 plate appearances with an ugly .248 wOBA and 51 wRC+, and finishing with a whopping 95 strikeouts.  What’s worse is that he actually played more poorly as the season went on, and did not show any signs of adjusting.

In August, Baez put up a .188/.216/.411 slash line with 49 strikeouts in 116 plate appearances.  In September, he hit an abysmal .149/.239/.228 with 46 strikeouts in 113 plate appearances.  Overall, it was a very ugly season for Baez, who had never struggled to that degree in the entirety of his professional career.  What’s alarming is that while his average dipped 39 points, his power almost completely disappeared as his ISO slid from .223 all the way to .079 between August and September.

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  • Why did he have such a hard time during his first stint in the Majors?  Well, those 95 strikeouts tallied him a 41.5% strikeout rate.  Striking out that frequently will make it very hard to have a batting average above the Mendoza line.  And what is even more alarming than the high strikeout rate is the fact that he only made contact 59.0% of the time that he swung.  Whiffing that frequently can signal problems with pitch recognition, which could spell trouble for him in the future.

    But how did Baez perform when he was actually putting the ball in play?  Well, he posted a .248 BABIP, which remained pretty constant throughout the year (.250in August, .245 in September).  The BABIP is a little low, which could suggest some bad luck.  After all, his lowest BABIP at any of his stops in the minor leagues was .310 with the Daytona Cubs in 2013.  However, I’m discouraged when I dig deeper.  Baez hit just 13.7% of balls in play for line drives, which likely means he was not hitting the ball hard when he did manage to make contact.

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    In fact, his 13.7% line drive rate would have ranked second worst in baseball if he had had enough plate appearances to qualify.  Aside from line drives, he hit 41.0% ground balls, and 45.3% fly balls.  Of his fly balls, 20.8% were on the infield.  So right there, we notice that he is hitting a lot of popups, and he is not hitting a lot of line drives.  Baez simply did not hit the ball hard in 2014.

    The graph below (via Fangraphs) compares Baez’s strikeout rate at age 21 with other hitters who have since gone on to be Major League All-Stars.  Obviously, these are cases of extremely talented players, some of which may end up in the Hall of Fame someday.  Looking at the graph, it is obvious that even Stanton and Rizzo had strikeout rates at or above 30% in their ML debuts as well, and every player on that graph saw declines in K rates as their careers went on.  The best case scenario for Baez is that he, like the others, sees a decrease in his strikeout rate next year and as his career progresses.  I’m not saying that he’ll hold a candle to any of these players, or even be an All-Star.  I merely wanted to show that even great players struggle at first.

    Javier Baez’ Strikeout rate at age 21 compared with other Major Leaguers at that age; Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Andrew McCutchen and Barry Bonds.

    But has Baez been making progress? Well, he is currently playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, and as of Monday, he had posted 21 strikeouts in 49 at bats.  Now, it’s a very small sample, and you can never take too much away from a player’s winter statistics.  For instance, maybe Baez is striking out a lot in Puerto Rico right now because he is working on some adjustments to his batting approach.  There are questions that we do not have answers for, so I will not be too quick to judge.  However, it is not encouraging.

    So, will Javier Baez bounce back in 2015?  I hope so, but I am not so sure.  This experience feels very reminiscent of Brett Jackson 2012, for me.  I would imagine that Baez is working on his approach, but it seems to me that he has a lot of problems with pitch recognition.  Unless he can start to recognize pitches at the Major League level and begin to hit off-speed pitched with authority, it may be a quick career for the young slugger.  But hey, he’s only 21, and a lot of players start slowly.  Here’s to hoping that his 2015 is better than his 2014.