When Javier Baez broke into the major leagues in August of 2014, the Chicago Cubs knew they had a project on their hands. That season, Baez appeared in 52 games, racking up 229 plate appearances. While the 21-year-old slugged nine home runs in that span, producing a .155 ISO, Baez struck out at a 41.5 percent clip, more than double league average while drawing walks less than the average amount of times.
Overall, what Baez showed in his first taste of the big leagues was a player that had light-tower power and a tendency to strikeout at a historic pace.
In the three seasons that followed the 2014 campaign, Baez made great strides in curbing the issues that plagued him. His gaudy strikeout rate fell to 30 percent in 2015 and to 24 percent in 2016, just under three percent above league average. In 2017, that number ticked back up to 28.3 percent, but that did not stop Baez from posting a 98 wRC+, the highest of his career at that point.
To go along with his overall falling strikeout rate, Baez finally begun tapping into the power he teased Cubs’ fans with in 2014. After slugging .408 in an 80 plate appearance sample size in 2015, Baez upped that number to .423 in 2016 and .480 in 2017. Those increased numbers produced 37 home runs and 43 doubles over the last two seasons.
Baez Has Put it All Together in 2018
A year after posting a solid coming out party (23 home runs, 75 RBI, .273 batting average and 102 OPS-plus), Baez seemed ready to take-off in 2018. With Ben Zobrist coming off a down season, Baez was expected to assume a much larger role on the roster. While his defense has never been the problem as he has posted solid numbers all over the infield, the real question was if the youngster would be able to manage his swing-and-miss tendencies.
In 2016 and 2017, Baez swung at more than 40 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. That resulted in a contact rate on those pitches of 62.4 percent and 52.7 percent in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
While Baez is swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone more than ever in 2018 (48.3 percent), he is still making a solid amount of contact (57.3 percent).
The biggest difference maker for Baez this season has been his ability to hit pitches in the strike zone and make more contact in general. Last season, Baez made contact with 77.8 percent of pitches in the zone, the lowest of his career since his rookie season. That resulted in a low 65.8 percent contact rate, also his lowest since 2014. This season, Baez is swinging at more pitches in the zone (81.3 percent compared to 72.6 percent in 2017). Of course, that has produced more contact (82 percent) on those types of pitches, while at the same time upping his overall contact rate to a healthy 70 percent.
Baez’s increased ability to hit pitches in the strike zone has propelled him into an MVP-caliber player at the plate. The youngster’s first half was brought to an end after a modest 1-for-5 performance against the San Diego Padres on Sunday. Despite that, Baez ended his monster first half as a well above league average hitter, earning him the opportunity to play in his first All-Star Game and participate in his first Home Run Derby.
The 25-year-old earned those honors on his way to posting a wRC+ of 132 during the first half of the season, a number that would blow away anything he’s done thus far in his career if it holds. That number has been fueled by Baez’s 19 home runs and 72 RBI which are only slightly off the numbers he posted in 145 games during the 2017 season.
To go along with his solid power numbers, which are highlighted by a .566 slugging percentage (fourth in the NL) and his .274 ISO (tied for second in the NL), Baez has kept his strikeout rate low once again this season. Currently, Baez owns a 24.9 percent strikeout rate which sits just 2.6 percent higher than league average.
Three Player Race for National League MVP
As things stand right now, it’s a three-man race between Baez, Nolan Arenado and Freddie Freeman for the National League Most Valuable Player Award. The latter two in that list are first and second in the NL in terms of WAR while Baez is tied for fourth with a 3.4 mark.
Despite Baez trailing in that category, he is leading that group in RBI, triples, stolen bases and is tied with Freeman for the lead with 25 doubles.
Diving deeper into the more advanced metrics, Baez is trailing both Freeman and Arenado in offensive WAR while at the same time leading the group with an 0.6 defensive WAR. To continue, Baez is leading the other two in terms of baseball reference’s power/speed number which takes into account the value of stolen bases and home runs. With 18 stolen bases, Baez’s power/speed number sits at 18.5 while Freeman is second with an 8.7 mark.
Moving into the batted ball side of things, Baez is leading this pack with a home run rate of 5.2 percent, meaning that percentage of his plate appearances ended with a long ball. In addition, Baez has the highest extra base hit percentage of the three at 13.7 percent while 50 percent of all his hits have resulted in extra bases, a number that once again leads this group.
While the case can be made that Baez is deserving of an MVP award this season, it’s important to notice he still trails in some big categories. Baez’s .892 OPS is the lowest of three players looked at, while his 131 OPS-plus also brings up the rear. In addition, Baez’s 3.8 percent walk rate makes it hard to produce a solid OBP as both of the other players mentioned have marks approaching or above .400 while Baez sits at .326.
As the second half begins in less than a week, it will be interesting to watch the race for NL MVP develop. Looking at Baez’s second half numbers for his career, he is a well below average hitter thus far in his career, posting a second half wRC+ of 85. Freeman and Arenado, on the other hand, have produced well-above second half numbers so far in their careers, seemly suggesting they could run away from the pack.
With that being said, Baez is in the middle of the best offensive campaign of his career. If he can continue his outstanding first half deep into the season, the youngster will be in the thick of MVP conversations come September.
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