The player by whom I’m most fascinated in the major leagues is Javier Baez. It might be because, the first time I saw him, what popped into my head was “Alfonso Soriano.” It might be because Baez, despite being able to do this, and this, and this, has yet to post even a 2.5-win season. I admit to thinking, after Baez’s 2013 season, that he was going to be a superstar. It hasn’t happened yet. But the tools are so loud that I’ve never stopped looking for signs that a breakout might be coming.
If Baez were to break out, it would probably resemble his effort over the first three-plus weeks of the 2018 season. Including Sunday’s game, Baez has produced a 187 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR in 80 plate appearances. Both figures place him among the top 10 qualifiers in the majors. His .444 isolated-power mark is first among that same group.
Of course, it’s always best to view March and April statistics with three shakers of salt and a heavy dose of skepticism. Accordingly, when looking further into how Baez has succeeded this season, I expected to find a good bit of luck. Turns out, there might very well be something here.
Last week, Travis Sawchik posted an update on the fly-ball revolution which heavily featured Baez. But Baez’s numbers, so far this season, are very different beyond just an increased propensity for hitting fly balls. Consider the following:
It’s hard not to notice that one of these years is not like the others, small sample size notwithstanding. So far, Baez has walked more often than ever before and also struck out less often. To put it a different way, consider: Baez has drawn six walks so far this season. He drew 15 walks in all of 2016. Baez has struck out 17 times in 19 games this month. He struck out 21 times last April in 17 games.
Now, let’s get one thing straight at the outset. Of Baez’s six walks, four have been intentional. So it’s not like Baez has suddenly become Joey Votto. And yet… all of Baez’s walks last April were intentional. Two walks may not be a lot to go on, but this April fits a pattern which has been developing since last year’s All-Star Game. Before the break last year, he had 13 walks and a 5.0% BB rate. After the break, he had 17 walks and a 6.9% BB rate — and, more importantly, less than half of those post-break walks were intentional.
But of course, dear reader, you know that walk rate isn’t everything. Other metrics suggest that a trend might be present, however. Last year, Baez recorded 7.6 weighted runs above average against the fastball, an improvement from 4.9 the year before. This year, he’s already at 8.3. That’s pretty remarkable. It’s less remarkable, however, than his improvement against curveballs. After posting negative marks every year against curveballs, Baez is at +3.1 weighted runs above average against the curveball this year. His home run off German Marquez yesterday was off a curve, as well.
Overall, Baez has recorded positive numbers against fastballs, sliders, curveballs, and cutters. It’s the first time in his career that he’s fared better than average against more than three pitches in the same year — and the first time since 2015 he’s been in positive territory against more than two in the same year.
So is Baez seeing pitches better? Perhaps. The book on Baez has always been that he lacks discipline, swinging too often, especially out of the strike zone. Entering play Sunday, his out-of-zone swing rate (O-Swing%) was at 44.0%, right around last year’s 45.1%, so he doesn’t seem to transformed much in this regard. And yet, his in-zone swing rate (Z-Swing%) is at a career high, and it’s not close. Baez entered Sunday swinging at 81.2% of pitches inside the strike zone, an increase from last year of almost nine percentage points. What makes that more impressive is that Baez is seeing only 38.9% of pitches inside the zone. And Baez’s hard-hit rate is a career high, at 40.4%. Paired with a career-best 0.8 GB/FB and 40% fly-ball rate, and Baez is dwarfing all his previous power numbers. Even better, Baez is absolutely torching the ball: his average exit velocity as of Sunday morning was nearly 93 mph, sandwiched between Anthony Rizzo and Gary Sanchez.
Now, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Baez has plus power, but he’s unlikely to continue hitting 30% of his fly balls over the fence. He’s also posting a career-high infield-fly rate. That could be a drag on his batting average if his K rate spikes back to more normal levels; remember, his swing rate overall hasn’t really changed.
However, there’s reason to believe that real improvement is present here. First off, based on the fly-ball and pop-up rates, it looks like Travis was right: Baez made a swing adjustment to hit the ball in the air. And so far, it seems to be working. But Baez, it seems, has made one more adjustment: he’s hunting pitches in the strike zone. Instead of being more patient, Baez has actually been more aggressive in a way. The natural counter to this will be when pitchers, who are already throwing him strike sparingly, go even farther away to see if Baez will chase. But Baez is seeing more three-ball counts this year (26.0% entering Sunday) as compared to last year (19.5%), which suggests he may already be adjusting back.
Let’s put this another way. Here are two players, one of whom is Baez.
Player A is Baez. As for Player B, I gave away the answer in the lede, but it’s… Alfonso Soriano in his breakout 2003 campaign. And if you squint, you can see that there are, at least, some superficial similarities. This type of player profile can work. Baez’s 44% O-Swing, though is probably still too high — even Soriano couldn’t survive swinging outside the zone that often.
Steamer projects a 102 wRC+ from Baez the rest of the way, and that would mean Baez’s first career above-average offensive season. But I think Steamer might be underestimating Baez here. Baez, it seems, has decided to double down on being himself — instead of seeing more pitches, he’s actually just become more aggressive about swinging at pitches he can drive. If Baez becomes a latter-day Soriano, the Cubs would have a special player indeed.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.