Javier Baez is known for throwing around insanely quick tags with those lightning-fast hands of his. But is it too early to be throwing around something of our own?
Baez has gotten off to an extremely fast start for a Cubs offense that has demonstrated many things for us to be excited about early in the season. Just when we thought we finally had him figured out, Baez could be developing into the player that his immense upside indicated he could be. There is so much to like about his production from early in the season:
Additionally, El Mago is on pace to obliterate his previous WARP and fWAR numbers, with WARP already coming in at 1.2 and the latter figure registering at 1.3. His WARP ranks 21st among all of baseball’s positional qualifiers, while that fWAR mark is tied for the seventh-highest among the same group. As it turns out, Baez is spending a whole lot of time among the league’s elite in a number of different respects:
- OPS: 7th
- ISO: 3rd
- TAv: 14th
- wRC+: 10th
According to WAR figures, park-adjusted figures, and power numbers, it’s extremely easy to toss Baez’s name in there with the league’s elite. Because according to those numbers, he is. Especially considering that, as of right now, that group of qualifying position players is a touch over 170. It’s been a remarkable start for Baez. Of course, at the same time, we’re also talking about a streaky player who still has some flaws in his game. Could a cold spell be on the horizon after a scorching April?
That’s a concern that could be listed with virtually any player in baseball. But those flaws have previously prevented Baez from truly breaking through and establishing himself among the league’s elite, whether among all qualifying players or specifically among middle infielders. However, with production like that through his first 100 plate appearances this season, it’s going to be more and more difficult to prevent talk of attaching a label such as “elite” to a player who already has so many different words to describe him.
Baez does have a couple of things working in his favor that could allow this type of production to remain constant as the year progresses. His line drive rate has jumped from about 12 percent last year to 27.5, while his groundball rate has conversely dropped about 11 percent to 37.7%. His flyball rate has remained relatively constant, in the mid-30s. That’s a distribution that bodes well for continuing to produce in this manner, especially as his hard-hit rates remain similar to last year (currently sitting at about 35 percent hard-hitard hit department). Even more encouraging is the fact that Baez has shown development as a hitter in his ability to use the whole field. His Oppo% is at 28.2, which is up about seven percent from 2017.
This is happening while Baez has cut down on whiffs and is focusing his hacks on pitches inside of the strike zone. FanGraphs has his swing percentage on pitches outside of the strike zone falling about two percent (currently 43.8%), while he’s hacking at pitches inside of the strike zone at a clip over 81 percent. His overall strikeout rate, currently sitting at 21 percent, is down seven percent from last year. Seven percent. For a player like Baez, who has become so synonymous with punchouts, that seems wildly significant. Even if we’re only through 100 PAs in 2018.
I write a lot about Javy Baez on here, mainly because there are few players in all of baseball with as much intrigue surrounding them. And this first month of the season may indicate that he’s turning a corner toward in his development. He’s demonstrating a change in his approach: cutting down on swings-and-misses and shortening up and making contact with two strikes, something that has been an asset in his regular appearances at the no. 2 spot in the batting order. A wildly free-swinging player making adjustments like we’ve seen from Baez in April is a tremendously important step for him.
Given his penchant for erraticism, it’s easy to worry that a cold streak could be on the horizon, but this isn’t a matter of a player hitting into a lot of luck in the first month. Instead, it’s a player showing legitimate growth on the offensive side. He’s performed with the league’s top offensive players, most of whom are mainstays among the group. From a purely statistical standpoint, he’s been an elite player in the season’s first month. It now just becomes a matter of these adjustments extending beyond April. Factor in what he does in the field, and there’s no reason that we can’t be having a conversation in a few months about permanently attaching the elite label to Javy Baez’s host of nicknames.
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports