Is Javier Baez Breaking Out or Is It Just Loud Noise?

Cubs manager Joe Maddon has claimed previously tha Javier Baez has a chance to become Manny Ramirez, the hitter, if he could just lay off the out-of-zone breaking ball. That’s a big claim for a player who had never recorded even a league-average line before this season. Maddon made this comp again after Baez blasted two home runs and recorded four hits against the Dodgers on Tuesday night.

“I have been saying for a couple of years, the moment he stops swinging at sliders in the dirt, he becomes Manny Ramirez and he’s getting closer,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Baez. “And I think he is a better defender than Manny was and baserunner. And Manny, I still love you.”

Baez is enjoying a breakout season. He dominated Dodgers’ pitching in the clubs’ recently completed three-game series. He left Los Angeles with a 130 wRC+ on the year. This is notable, as his top career mark before that was just a 98 wRC+. His 2.3 WAR already matches his season-best total of a year earlier. Baez has been a star for the first half of the season.

It’s easy to get swept up in making unfair comps after swings like Baez’s on Tuesday.

Like his grand slam in the sixth:

And a solo shot from earlier in the game:

Of course, those were fastballs.

Baez has always recorded good numbers against fastballs. This season, he’s posted a linear weight of 14.4 runs above average on the pitch. Per 100 pitches, Baez ranks 14th in the majors in effectiveness against fastballs.

But it’s important that Baez somehow learn how to improve against non-fastballs, as well: he is currently seeing the lowest rate of four-seam fastballs (31.2%) and overall fastballs (45.7%) of his career.

We know Baez has plus raw power and elite bat speed. We also know he has swing-and-miss and pitch-identification issues. Those liabilities have kept him from translating his raw power into actual, usable game power. They have prevented the physical talents from fully actualizing on the field. Most of all, what the Baez experience has reinforced is that hitting is really difficult even for an elite-level athlete.

For his career, Baez has hit .274 and .333 against four- and two-seam fastballs and slugged .505 and .478 against those pitches respectively. Against sliders and curves? He’s hit .245 and .193, respectively, while slugging .465 and .335. If Baez could hit breaking stuff a bit more effectively, it could be transformative.

So is Maddon on to something? Is Baez getting closer?

In some ways, no.

For starters, Baez ranks first (or worst) in out-of-zone swing rate, a 46.4% mark that is a career high. His swinging-strike rate is the league’s worst among qualifiers, as well.

Baez’s whiff and chase rates on breaking balls have remained in line with his career averages and they’ve even increased this month. Baez is still swinging and missing at 39.1% of sliders he attempts to hit.

Of all the pitches thrown to Baez in June, 42.9% had been breaking balls entering play Thursday, which was a career high for a month. It’s not as if pitchers seem concerned at throwing Baez breaking balls.

But while Baez continues to whiff, he has more often concentrated swings against sliders that are in the zone:

Consider his swings from 2017:

Versus 2018:

Baez has improved against curveballs, batting .308 with a .539 slugging mark against the pitch. And while he’s still batting just .207 against sliders, he’s slugged .517 on the pitch (including five home runs). While the swing and miss is still there with breaking balls — and with the slider in particular — he’s created more damage against breaking balls this year when he connects.

Baez has performed at a career-best level offensively. When he’s made contact, he’s never produced more damage. However, there’s still a lot of chase in his game; he is chasing out of zone more than any major-league hitter. He has a long ways to go before becoming Manny. But even if he improves just a little bit offensively he can be considered a star.

What’s also interesting about Baez is that it seems like he’s been around forever but he’s just 25. He doesn’t turn 26 until January. He still has time to make great gains. He’s under club control for three more seasons. He could become a free agent before he turns 30. If he truly does stop swinging at chase in addition to better damaging pitches he offers at then has one of the higher ceilings in the game. Is he in the process of reaching it?





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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yaboynate
Member
yaboynate

‘Is he in the process of reaching it?”

I guess I thought you were answering that question.

CCSAGE
Member
CCSAGE

“If he truly does stop swinging at chase in addition to better damaging pitches he offers at then has one of the higher ceilings in the game. ”

So here is the answer…stop swinging at chase, duh!

nodak
Member
nodak

If I were Maddon/Davis I would tell him, “If it gets to 3-2 DON’T swing. Just don’t swing. Get set and everything but don’t you dare swing the bat. IF you strike out I will pretend it didn’t happen and give you a $100 bill and say ‘I’m sorry.’ But if you swing at another pitch 3-2 that is 18″ off the plate I am going to blow up.”