Javier Baez is Beginning to Grow Into an All-Star

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Javier Baez was selected ninth overall by the Chicago Cubs in the 2011 Major League Baseball draft. At just 18 years old, the Cubs knew Baez would not be a factor to crack the major league roster for some time. Instead, the front office had an eye toward the future after the 2011 Cubs lost 91 games and finished fifth in the National League Central.

Over the three seasons that followed, Baez tore up the minors, posting a .543 slugging percentage in 2012 over two different levels. That same season, the 19-year-old Baez clubbed 16 home runs while stealing 24 bases. Coming off a solid 2012 campaign, Baez’s first full professional season, the young middle-infielder set the minors on fire in 2013. In 130 games between High-A and Double-A, Baez slashed .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs and 111 RBIs. Along with that, Baez stole 20 bases and logged 34 doubles.

Despite Baez’s early success in professional baseball, a troubling trend starting taking shape. During the 2012 season, Baez struck out an average of 22.4 percent of the time between two different Single-A levels. While that is not terrible for a kid right out of high school, Baez’s walk rate of 4.8 percent was no doubt concerning for the Cubs. In 2013, when Baez was putting up huge offensive numbers, he was also putting up large strikeout totals. Over his 130 games, Baez struck out 147 times or almost 26 percent of the time while walking just seven percent of the time.

Baez Breaks Into the Majors

Following his monster 2013 campaign, Chicago was ready for the 21-year-old to make his major league debut. On August 5, 2014, Cubs fans got their wish as Baez made his big league debut against the Colorado Rockies. Baez got his first major league hit and home run out of the way in the same game, going 1-6 at the plate.

In 2014, Baez appeared in 52 games and racked up 229 plate appearances. Over the course of that time, the youngster would post some gaudy strikeout numbers that would make a Cubs fan cringe to this day. In 213 at-bats, Baez struck out 95 times compared to just 15 walks. Those numbers equate to a 6.6 percent walk rate and a sky-high 41.5 percent strikeout rate.

Dynamic infielder Javier Baez is working on another element of his game: plate discipline. With this, the Cub can be a solidified star.Click To Tweet

As a result of Addison Russell making his major league debut and Starlin Castro still being on the North Side, there was not much room for Baez in 2015. For that reason, Baez appeared in just 28 games (16 starts) and logged 80 plate appearances. Even though Baez did not get much playing time in the majors, he made the most of his situation in the minors. Across 74 minor league games in 2015, Baez slashed .328/.391/.526 with 13 home runs and 62 RBIs. Still, Baez’s strikeout problem plagued him as he struck out more than 24 percent of the time while walking less than seven percent of the time.

Even with his elevated strikeout rate, Baez did enough in 2015 to remain relevant and earn playing time at the major league level in 2016. With newly acquired Ben Zobrist the primary second baseman in 2016 and Addison Russell holding down shortstop, Baez started just 97 games in 2016. Despite that, Baez appeared in 142 games. After posting a 30 percent strikeout rate in his short major league stint in 2015, Baez lowered that number to 24 percent in 2016. Still at the forefront of his problems was his ability to draw walks at a consistent rate. In 2016, Baez’s walk rate dipped to just 3.3 percent as he walked 15 times the entire season.

After a postseason in which Baez played well enough to win co-Most Valuable Players honors in the National League Championship Series and help lead the Cubs to a World Series title, fans were ready for a break-out campaign from the youngster. What fans got instead was slight improvement from Baez. Over 145 games, Baez walked just 30 times, setting a career-high but registering at just 5.9 percent. That mark was the 25th lowest in the majors while his 28.3 percent strikeout rate was 13th-highest. Along with Baez’s strikeout rate, his slugging percentage jumped in 2017, increasing more than 50 points from 2016. That allowed Baez to generate 23 home runs and a 101 OPS+.

Baez Seems to be Getting the Hang of Things

The 2018 season is not even a month old. However, if you are a fan of the Cubs you have to be excited about what Javy Baez is doing. On April 10 and 11, the Cubs first two home games of the season, Baez launched a total of four home runs into the bleachers. That was the first time a Cubs player had hit two home runs in back-to-back games since 2008.

Those four home runs were icing on the cake so far for Baez. Looking at the numbers, it seems as though “El Mago” is starting to put things together at the plate. Even though Baez is hitting just .191, he is sporting a .574 slugging percentage and 120 wRC+. In addition, Baez is walking more and striking out less than in previous seasons. In just 55 plate appearances thus far, Baez has walked six times and struck out 13 times. That equals a 10.9 percent walk rate, almost double 2017’s percentage and more than triple 2016’s percentage. Along with that, the numbers tell us Baez is starting to learn patience at the plate.

Last season, Baez swung at 45.1 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone and 72.6 percent of pitches inside the zone. This season, both of those numbers are trending in the right direction. Right now, Baez is swinging at 43.8 percent of non-strike pitches, a 1.3 percent decrease. At the same time, Baez is swinging at 82.9 percent of pitches inside the strike zone. That number is up more than ten percent from 2017.

Even though Baez is swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone, when he does swing at those pitches he is making more contact. Last season, Baez made contact with 52.7 percent of pitches swung at outside of the zone. This season, that number is up to 62.3 percent, a 9.6 percent increase.

This season will mark the fifth season that Baez has been in the majors. Over those seasons, fans of the Cubs have grown use to seeing Baez strike out in key situations, often swinging at a pitch in the dirt or one above his head. However, so far in 2018, there have been glimpses of hope that Baez is starting to mature at the plate. There was a perfect example during the Cubs 14-10 win against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday.

With the Cubs down three runs in the eighth inning, Baez stepped to the plate against Braves’ pitcher Jose Ramirez. After getting down 0-1, Baez took two pitches, including a tough change-up to make the count 2-1. Following a foul-ball on a change-up right down the middle, Baez took a fastball off the plate away to run the count full. After fouling off another fastball, Baez got a four-seamer low and away and lined it into the left-center field gap, plating three runs and tying the game.

By showing patience in that situation and waiting until he got his pitch, Baez showed a sliver of the player he can be moving forward and the player he has been so far this season. While it is still early in the season, it is nice to see Baez be patient at the plate. If the 25-year-old Baez can learn to work counts and wait until he gets his pitch, he will no doubt be an All-Star this season and many seasons moving forward.

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