It’s Probably Time To Be Concerned About Javier Báez

The Cubs dropped their third straight game on Monday night in Milwaukee to fall to 4–6, and even that record feels like a miracle for them. Their crew of low-velo/command types in the rotation haven’t performed well, and the offense has been a non-factor with a miserable .164/.264/.321 line in 312 plate appearances; Chicago ranks last in baseball in all three triple-slash categories. Of the regular starters, just three are over the Mendoza line, only three have an on-base percentage over .300, and only three are slugging over .300. The end result is fewer than three runs per game, and even in a wide-open NL Central, that is just not going to cut it.

There are numerous rough starts to dissect on the North Side. But I want to focus on Javier Báez’s continued struggles, in terms of both approach and contact ability, and a future that grows cloudier by the game.

Báez has never been one known for having good plate discipline; see his career walk rate of 4.7%. He’s been able to mitigate that in the past thanks to impressive plate coverage and some of the best bat speed in the game. But his approach went from bad to downright untenable in 2020, as even his remarkable tools couldn’t overcome a K/BB ratio of over 10-to-1, with last year’s 75–7 mark leading to a 57 wRC+.

Standard 2020 disclaimer: There were certainly sample size issues there, as well as dealing with the pandemic. Báez also talked last September about his frustration with the lack of in-game video; as he put it, “It’s sucked. I make my adjustments during the game…. I’m really mad we don’t have it.” But even with all that in mind, he ranked among the bottom eight in both lowest walk and highest strikeout rate last season — something achieved only four times before (by three players) in the divisional era, and none to his extreme in terms of rates and ratios. This isn’t just a bad approach; it’s a historically awful one.

Bottom Eights Seasons in BB% and K%
Year Player BB Rank K Rank AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BB% K% BB/K
2020 Javier Báez 2nd 8th 0.203 0.238 0.360 57 3.0% 31.9% 10.7
2011 Miguel Olivo 6th 4th 0.224 0.253 0.388 75 3.9% 27.6% 7.0
1989 Cory Snyder 8th 3rd 0.215 0.251 0.360 65 4.4% 25.9% 5.8
1986 Juan Samuel 7th 8th 0.266 0.302 0.448 100 2.9% 26.0% 5.5
1984 Juan Samuel 5th 4th 0.272 0.307 0.442 108 3.1% 28.0% 6.0

Olivo was a catcher always known for his free-swinging ways who played in just 128 more games after the 2011 season, all after signing NRI/minor league-type deals. Snyder was the No. 4 pick in the 1984 draft based on huge power and an 80 arm, but approach issues and injuries derailed his career, which ended after nine years with 149 home runs, a miserable .291 on-base percentage, and 1.5 WAR in 1,068 games. Samuel is the most interesting of the bunch. One of the more dynamic players of the power/speed hey-days of the mid-1980s, he averaged 35 doubles, 15 triples, 20 home runs and 50 stolen bases during his first four years with the Phillies from 1984 to ’87, but the approach issues and a propensity for errors turned him into a journeyman from there, and his finished his 16-year career with 15.1 WAR.

Snyder and Samuel both mirror Báez as players who were seen as future superstars based on their tools, only to see it undone by swinging at too many pitches and missing too often when they did. But Samuel’s worst walk and strikeout seasons were his rookie and third-year campaigns. He made adjustments over the second half of his career, and while the bat slowed down along with the wheels, his walk rate in the 1990s was 8.2% over 2,500-plus plate appearances — low, but far from disastrous. Snyder, meanwhile, finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 1986, hit 33 home runs in ’87 and put up a career high 2.6 WAR in ’88. The 1989 season represented a collapse that he never quite recovered from, but like Samuel, he learned to walk more, posting a rate of nearly seven percent with five teams over four seasons after leaving Cleveland.

Báez, on the other hand, is going backwards, walking less and striking out more as his career goes on. His three home runs have his wRC+ above water, but he’s also struck out 17 times (tops in the National League) and drawn a single walk in 39 plate appearances. It was the same story this spring, as he whiffed 17 times against two walks in 52 plate appearances. Ten games is among the smallest of samples, but things are somehow getting worse…

And worse…

And worse…

Besides the ridiculous amount of chasing, Báez has stopped hitting balls in the strike zone as well. Early in his career, he put up consistent in-zone contact rates above 80%. That slipped under 75% last year, and so far this year, it’s just 52%, which no player can survive at, regardless of talent. He’s also suddenly getting beat by velocity. Báez used to destroy heaters thanks to his elite bat speed: In 2019, he had a hard-hit percentage over 60% against four-seamers, and even during 2020’s miserable performance, he still hit .253 against fastballs (and just .162 against secondary pitches) with a hard-hit rate of nearly 50%. This season, he’s seen 51 four-seamers so far and has yet to register a hit against one, with a staggering 71.4% whiff rate nearly double that of the previous two years. Things are no better with non-strikes either: An out-of-zone contact rate that was well over 50% in years previously has slipped to 40%. Báez is getting flat-out beat both in and out of the zone, regardless of his poor swing decisions, which make a bad problem exponentially worse.

Is Báez pressing? We don’t know what’s going on in any player’s brain, but the approach and increased pull rates since 2019 show someone who seems to be trying to hit every pitch as hard as he can. He’s never been a subtle hitter, but the deep weeds he’s currently stuck in might be even deeper than one thinks.

A lot of the talk of this season has been about the shortstop class of the coming off-season. Even with Francisco Lindor agreeing to an extension with the Mets, there’s still Trevor Story, who has looked good, Corey Seager, who has looked great, and Carlos Correa, who has looked phenomenal after extension talks with Houston went sideways. Báez was supposed to be in that conversation, but he’ll need a dramatic turnaround in terms of performance to be a part of that group come November.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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OddBall Herrera
2 years ago

WOW 30% SwStr and sub 50% contact rate. Yet funnily still running at 117 wRC. That right there is Baez becoming a caricature of himself.

Have to think with Baez…bad process always catches up to you. He got away with it because he swung hard and often and had the quality of contact to do damage to what he hit. But without good process you are one pitcher adjustment, or just a tick lower on the bat speed or reaction time, away from the cliff.

Eddie McKennamember
2 years ago

Love the Juan Samuel comp. to Baez, on offense at least, but for total package, I nominate Ian Desmond

Johnnie T
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie McKenna

Good comparison. And if the Rockies to sign Baez in the offseason and instead of putting him at SS to replace Story, they put him at 1b, you should consider doing do a lot more sports betting!

2 years ago
Reply to  Johnnie T

The fact that there’s a nonzero chance that happens makes the resemblance all the more haunting