Because of the way he plays the game, Javier Báez is always going to be polarizing. Whether or not that’s justified is a story for another day. Even those who love and praise him, though, have always managed to find their own divisive issue surrounding the Cubs’ star: his plate discipline.
Javy’s discipline, or extreme lack thereof, was a tremendous focal point when he first broke onto the big league scene back in 2014. His strikeout rate across 229 plate appearances was an astounding 41.5 percent. He followed that up with a 30.0 percent mark in 80 PAs the following season, with last season’s 28.5 percent serving as the third-highest rate during his big league career. In the midst of his breakout, one that could lead to some MVP-type accolades at season’s end, this is definitely an issue that has largely fallen by the wayside.
Báez has been an absolute force this year, in nearly every respect. It certainly helps to overshadow some of your shortcomings as a player when you’ve gone for a .278 ISO, a .311 TAv (134 wRC+), and are on pace to go close to 30/30 (28 HRs, 21 SBs). It’s not that his discipline has improved. Or even his ability to make contact, for that matter. It’s just simply this: it doesn’t matter anymore.
Many have talked at length this year about how Báez plays the game in the most aggressive fashion possible. This is true in the field and on the basepaths, both of them working to his benefit a majority of the time. And as difficult as it may be for some to stomach, that aggression is something that certainly carries over to his appearances in the batter’s box.
The following represent Báez’s plate discipline numbers over the past few seasons:
There’s a lot of variation there, and none of it really gives you a strong indication… of anything. Other than the fact that Báez wildly hacks at the vast majority of pitches that come his way. A couple of interesting things to point out, though. One is the fact that this year, in a year where Báez is considered a legitimate MVP candidate, he’s swinging more than ever. He’s also hacking at pitches outside of the strike zone more than he ever has. The good news that goes along with that is that his in-zone swing percentage is also the highest it’s ever been. When you couple that with an ability to make contact on pitches inside the strike zone, even in the midst of low contact numbers overall, then it does help to compensate for those free-swinging ways.
The additional good news is that Javy is hitting the ball much harder on a consistent basis. His hard-hit rate is up over 37 percnet, with a line-drive rate of about 22 percent, the latter of which represents a seven percent increase from last season. Swinging at more pitches means swinging at more fastballs, which means more hard contact. That’s an oversimplification, of course.
There’s also the increasing opposite field tendencies, which we’ve touched on before. That’s actually a really important element. Because Báez has been more apt to hit the ball oppo, he’s showing that he can cover more of the zone. So instead of pitchers being able to pound the low-and-outside portion of the strike zone, Báez has been able to battle back against it. That’s something that isn’t necessarily reflected in those plate discipline numbers. But it does help him to fight off pitches when he’s in two-strike counts, as well as cut down on the number of PAs in which Báez actually punches out.
It’s elements like that which showcase the evolution of Javier Báez as a hitter and make his plate discipline far less of an issue than it has ever been. Yes, Javy is a free swinger. This has always been the case and always will be the case. But you have to consider the skill set. A player with obscene power and an increasing ability to cover the entire strike zone is going to be a threat each time he steps to the plate. Zone coverage is part of development, and we’re seeing that portion of his growth as a player pay off in spades.
As of Tuesday, prior to the rain delay, Báez’s K% came in at 24.1 percent. Probably lower than many would be expecting. But the gist of this all is that it really doesn’t matter. There’s far too much upside in his offensive game: the power, the beating out groundballs on the infield, the contact to the opposite field, the devastation he can cause as a baserunner. He’s going to K. A lot. And sometimes in the most frustrating of fashion possible.
But as the referee in my senior year homecoming football game said, as we screamed in his face that we recovered a fumble up 62-0, “It doesn’t even matter.”
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports