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Cubs: Javier Baez Has Taken That Next Step

Javier Baez is producing MVP-caliber numbers for the Cubs. Daniel Shepard writes that is due to the youngster taking the next step in his offensive development.

Javier Baez is as free a swinger as you will find in the game of baseball. The Chicago Cubs’ infielder earned that reputation early in his career as he struck out 41.5 percent of the time during his rookie campaign of 2014 against a lackluster 6.6 percent walk rate.

As time has worn on and Baez has continued to refine his swing and approach, the youngster has taken great leaps to reach his full offensive potential that prompted the Cubs to sign him in the first round of the 2011 draft.

A 28-game stint at the major league level in 2015 gave way to Baez assuming a much larger role for the 2016 Cubs. An .894 OPS and 15 home runs, mostly accumulated at Triple-A in 2015, followed Baez to the big leagues, and coupled with his elite defense, earned him 450 plate appearances for a World Series contending Cubs team in 2016. Perhaps acting as Baez’s coming out party, the 23-year-old slugged 14 home runs, driving in 59 runs and posting a solid .737 OPS.

Most importantly, Baez showed flashes of being able to curb his strikeout-prone at-bats, logging a rather solid 24 percent strikeout rate. While increasing his chase percentage from ’15 and posting a 41 percent mark in 2016, Baez upped his chase contact percentage by exactly 15 points and dropped his whiff percentage almost seven points.

Just last year, Baez continued to trend in the right direction, recording a strikeout rate of 28.3 percent. While that number was an increase from a year prior, the youngster also increased his walk percentage to 5.9 percent, and perhaps most importantly, posted a career best .207 ISO. That better than league average ISO was coupled with a .480 slugging percentage, as Baez clubbed 23 home runs and added 24 more doubles, setting career highs that would not hold for long.

Giant Leap Forward in 2018

Entering the 2018 season, the need for Baez to produce offensively had never been greater. With Addison Russell‘s bat absent since his breakout 2016 campaign and Ben Zobrist‘s down 2017 season, much of the offensive production from the Cubs’ middle infield was placed on the shoulders of Baez.

Even though Zobrist is having a resurgent 2018 season, Baez has taken up the slack left by Kris Bryant and other notable offensive forces this year.

Already at a career high in games played (153), Baez is finally nearing 600 at-bats in a season for the first time since he broke into the league. With those at-bats, Baez is continuing to put together an MVP-caliber season, putting his off-the-charts baseball IQ and ability on display in the process.

A lackluster .327 OBP that is hampered by Baez’s 4.4 percent walk rate this season is the only thing potentially keeping the youngster from his first MVP award and the second in three years for the Cubs franchise. To make up for his lack of patience at the plate, Baez is posting some of the best power and all-around offensive numbers in the game of baseball. His .566 slugging percentage is the fifth best in the majors and second best in the National League while his 134 wRC+ ranks him inside the top-ten in the NL.

Baez’s lofty slugging percentage has produced 34 home runs and a .273 ISO (more than 100 points better than league average), numbers that put him second and first respectively in the NL. Additionally, the middle infielder leads the league in RBI with 110 and ranks 10th with 21 stolen bases on the season, producing the fourth best WAR behind two Milwaukee Brewers and Anthony Rendon.

So what has changed in Baez’s game to justify this giant leap in offensive production? Let’s turn to our friends at Baseball Savant and Statcast to help provide the answer.

When Baez first broke into the league, team’s were still attempting to figure how to pitch to him. In 2014, the youngster saw breaking pitches 31.5 percent of the time, producing a 51 percent whiff rate on those pitches while logging a .159 batting average and 49.3 percent strikeout rate. It’s safe to say that in Baez’s short tenure in the big leagues in 2014, opposing pitchers learned how to pitch the up-and-coming star; feeding him a steady diet of sliders and curveballs to watch him swing-and-miss at wildly.

Opposing pitchers listened to the scouting report on Baez, upping the percentage of breaking pitches to him with regularity. From just over 30 percent in 2014, the percentage of sliders and other breaking pitches Baez saw rose from 34.2 percent in 2015 to 35 percent one year ago and again to 38.1 percent so far this season.

As that percentage has continued to rise, so has Baez’s success against that grouping of pitches. Every year since 2014, Baez has increased his batting average on breaking pitches, upping it from .230 in 2016 to .277 thus far in 2018. Additionally, it’s no surprise Baez has also increased his slugging percentage on those pitches from year to year, a number that currently sits at .574 this year, a better than 100 point jump from last season.

To continue the trend, Baez is striking out on those pitches less and less as he keeps maturing at the plate. This season, the youngster’s strikeout percentage on breaking balls sits at 32.3 percent after clocking in at 34.8 percent one year ago and 38.6 percent in 2016. Accordingly, Baez’s whiff rate has also dropped to 40.8 percent this season, almost three full percentage points from the last two seasons.

We all know how well Baez hits fastballs (.319 batting average, .594 slug, .395 xwOBA), but breaking balls are also becoming a point of strength for the 25-year-old. Currently, Baez has just as many home runs (16) on breaking balls as he does off fastballs while at the same time clubbing two more doubles (18) off the soft stuff versus fastballs (16).

While still a work in progress, Baez seems to have finally taken that next step in his development at the plate. Even though his chase percentage has never been higher (44 percent), neither has his zone swing percentage (77.6 percent) while his zone contact rate has jumped since last year (78.6 percent).

Most of the time, swinging more is not a good thing. However, Baez is seeing more and more pitches he likes because is he enjoying success on an increased variety of pitches. Knowing Baez will be expecting a fastball early in the count, pitchers have turned to throwing breaking pitches early and often. As outlined above, that has not worked this season as Baez has made the necessary adjustment to combat that. Even though it was classified as an offspeed pitch, Lucas Giolito‘s change-up that Baez hit for a two-run home run on September 22 came on the first pitch of the at-bat and continued to highlight Baez’s aggressive nature this season (49.1 first pitch swing percentage).

While it may not work for others, Baez’s aggressiveness at the plate has paid off in 2018 and may win the youngster some hardware. Even though currently at 30-plus home runs and 100-plus RBI, this is not the ceiling for a player that can truly unlock his potential by cutting his strikeout rate even further.

That’s a scary thought for opposing pitchers but a welcomed thought for Cubs’ brass who have been waiting a while to see Baez become this type of player at the major league level.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Athletic

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