Chicago Cubs: Javier Baez’s uncommon problem at the plate

Many of the hitters in the Chicago Cubs‘ lineup have had a rough start to the 2021 season, but out of everyone, Javier Baez may be struggling the most.

Through the team’s first 19 games, Baez is hitting .222/.263/.500 with six home runs and five steals. Those numbers aren’t terrible, but his overwhelming amount of swings and misses is really where the problem lies.

Through Thursday’s walk-off win against the New York Mets, Baez’s 51.7 percent contact rate was the worst in the majors, nearly five percentage points lower than second-worst Joey Gallo.

It’s no secret to the Chicago Cubs or the team’s fans that Javier Baez swings and misses a lot, but this year, he’s doing it in a unique way.

Not coincidentally, that’s lead to Baez having the worst strikeout and walk rates of his career so far – 46.6 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively. If his current 0.03 BB/K ratio were to hold out over the entire season, it would be the worst mark since at least the turn of the century.

At this point, you’re probably saying something like, “Yes, he’s always swung and missed a lot. He’s just in a slump to start the season.”  While that’s a fair assumption to make, this year he’s not just chasing that low and outside breaking pitch more than usual, he’s missing extremely hittable pitches right down the middle of the strike zone.

Let’s take a look at where he’s swinging and missing the most this year compared to his MVP-runner-up 2018 campaign:

Just look at all that red right in the middle and upper parts of the strike zone this year. Baez is swinging and missing at pitches right down the middle of the plate almost as often as he’s swinging and missing at pitches out of the strike zone! That is actually incredible, just not in a good way.

It may be a little unfair to compare his struggles this year to his almost-MVP season, but his whiff chart from other years is pretty similar to the one from 2018.

A slump may be enough to explain the rough start, but seeing a star player absolutely befuddled by very hittable pitches isn’t encouraging. It may still be April, but it doesn’t seem too early to be concerned about this trend.

To end things on a positive note – when Baez is making contact with the baseball, he’s hitting it very hard. In fact, according to Statcast, Baez’s hard-hit rate this year is the highest of his career.

Even with the whiff problem, prior to Friday’s offensive explosion against the Brewers, Baez had a 92 wRC+, meaning he’d produced runs at a rate just eight percent worse than a league-average hitter. Spinning things in a positive direction, the fact that he’s been able to stay close to league-average despite his struggles making contact signal that if he does figure things out, he could be in store for an incredible run at the plate.