JAVY, JAVY, JAVY. That’s the chant that could often be heard from the corner of Clark and Addison in 2018 as Javier Baez posted an MVP-caliber season. From his moon-shot home runs, totaling 34 last season and setting a new career best for the youngster, to his unmatched base-running and fielding prowess, Baez set major league baseball ablaze with his unquantifiable talent.
In the two years leading up to 2018, fans have caught glimpses of Baez’s talent. During the Cubs’ World Series run two seasons ago, Baez earned NLCS co-MVP honors along with Jon Lester, capping off what was then a breakout regular season. A year later, in 2017, Baez’s progression continued as the middle infielder clubbed 23 home runs, setting career marks in slugging percentage (.480) and OPS (.796) in the process.
Still, it felt like there was more to be offered from the former first round draft pick, and in 2018, Baez proved that to be true. A drop in Baez’s strikeout rate from 28.3 percent in 2017 to 25.9 percent no doubt helped him achieve success last season. That mark of just under 26 percent represented the second lowest in Baez’s career, a milestone not accumulated in the standard way.
In order for most major league hitters to decrease their strikeout rate from season to season, a drop in swing percentage is usually necessary. It’s simple logic, less swings, especially at pitches outside of the strike zone, less punch outs. For Baez, however, that was not the case in 2018. Across the board, Baez increased his swing percentage, offering at pitches outside of the strike zone 45.5 percent of the time, up from 45.1 percent in 2017. Thankfully, the biggest jump came in Baez’s Z-swing percentage or the percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone.
That number increased to 78 percent, up from 72.6 percent in 2017, putting the finishing touches on Baez’s career high 57.7 percent swing rate. Baez’s uptick in swing rate produced a 68.5 percent contact rate, a number that was almost three percentage points higher than his 2017 mark.
All told, even with his higher-than-league-average strikeout rate last season, Baez was able to post career numbers due to an increase in his swing and contact rates. After posting a .554 slugging percentage, .881 OPS, .264 ISO and 131 wRC-plus in 2018, Baez might very well swing at every pitch he sees in 2019.
If the past three seasons offer any foreshadow into the future, Baez will never be cheated at the plate, a mindset that sometimes gets the youngster into trouble. Nevertheless, Baez was able to ride his success in 2018 to a second place finish in the National League MVP voting, an honor he lost to Christian Yelich by a cool 165 points. Still, Baez posted a 5.3 WAR in 2018 (according to Fangraphs), more than double anything he had amassed prior. Accumulated mostly from his offensive production, Baez earned his first Sliver Slugger award last season while also appearing in the first All-Star Game of his career.
It’s safe to say Baez had yet another breakout season in 2018. Since 2016, Baez has continued to progress, finally tapping into his MVP-caliber potential. If 2019 goes anything like 2018, Baez could very well be in the running for NL MVP once again. Unfortunately for Baez and the Cubs, the projections do not favor another season akin to 2018. Instead, the projections seem to agree Baez will be a three-and-a-half-win player next season with less than 30 home runs and around 90 RBI. Additionally, a big decrease in Baez’s power is predicted, with his ISO dropping to .218 and his slugging percentage following suit, down to .487.
Those numbers culminate in a 109 wRC-plus for Baez in 2019, just nine percent better than a league average hitter. While that number would still be the second highest of Baez’s career, that drop in production will no doubt be felt within the Cubs’ lineup next season.
A Healthy Kris Bryant will More Than Make-up for That in 2019
With a healthy Kris Bryant for the entirety of 2018, it’s fun to think how different the season could have went. Through May, it seemed Bryant would be firmly in the running for his second MVP award in three years. Following a month in which he slashed .282/.368/.536/.904 with six home runs and 16 RBI, Bryant was slashing .286/.401/.524/.925 for the season.
Shortly after his best month of the year, however, Bryant’s season took a rapid down-turn. Already struggling through the first three weeks of June (.707 OPS), Bryant injured his shoulder in a game against the Cincinnati Reds. That injury caused the former MVP to miss 16 games from June 23-July 10 and another month-plus from July 24-August 31. Even when he was on the field Bryant was playing hurt and it showed. His ten-game stint in the middle of July produced a .787 OPS, a number above league average, but nowhere near the level of his earlier season self.
Not even a long lay-off that saw the slugger miss the entire month of August could rescue Bryant’s 2018 campaign. Across 83 September at-bats, Bryant produced a solid .354 on-base percentage while notching 22 hits and eight walks. Nevertheless, the youngster struck out 31 times for a strikeout rate north of 30 percent, a number matched only by his 32.1 percent mark for the month of June. What seemed to be lacking more than anything from Bryant’s game was his slugging ability. Suffering a left shoulder injury, like Bryant’s, will usually have an impact on a right-handed batter’s swing.
For the month of September, Bryant managed a slugging percentage of just .422, a mark that ticks down to .412 when you throw in his 0-for-2 in Game 163 on October 1.
The contrast between Bryant’s numbers pre- and post-injury are vibrant, especially in the power department. At the end of May, Bryant was sporting a slugging percentage north of .500 and had posted back-to-back months with ISO’s well over .200 (.215 in March-April, .255 in May).
Those months, however, would be the last time Bryant would amass those types of numbers in 2018. From June through October 1, the slugger never posted a slugging percentage higher than .425 (July), an OPS above .787 (July) or an ISO better than .175 (July). Lackluster numbers like those chipped away at Bryant’s quick start to the season, eroding what was once a promising season.
Above, it was mentioned that Baez posted a 131 wRC-plus in 2018, good enough to finish second in the MVP voting. Through the first half of 2018, Bryant logged a 133 wRC-plus, matching Baez’s production across the same sample size. The only different between Baez and Bryant is their second half production.
Limited to just 32 games, Bryant suffered an increased strikeout rate (28.2 percent, 21.6 percent in the first half) and decreased walk rate (8.9 percent, 11.1 percent in the first half) during the second half of play while also having to deal with a drastic drop in power. What was an .867 OPS prior to the All-Star break turned into a league average .749 mark thanks, in part, to an 80 point decrease in his slugging percentage.
Bryant’s league average OPS and wOBA (.327) during the second half led to a 105 wRC-plus for the right-handed slugger, or just five percent better than league average.
That 105 wRC-plus can be viewed two different ways. Number one, Bryant’s league average production at the plate during the second half went a long way in sinking the Cubs’ division title chances and a deep run into the postseason. Or two, even at his worse Bryant is a better-than-league-average hitter and that means scary things for the opposition in 2019.
For me, I’m inclined to believe the second one, even though Bryant’s absence for much of the season (played in a career-low 102 games) did nothing to help the Cubs’ chances in holding off the Milwaukee Brewers.
With that being said, the only thing we can hope for is a healthy Kris Bryant in 2019 as that could be the missing link to a championship club. A disappointing exit from the postseason in 2018 only makes one wish the off-season would go by quicker and looking at Bryant’s projections for 2019, my one wish (if I had one) would be for it to be April already.
Despite his injury, Bryant was still worth 2.3 wins over replacement in 2018, meaning for the first time in his career he was not at least a six-win player. Nevertheless, Steamer is projecting Bryant to follow-up his lackluster 2018 with a bounce back season of epic proportions. As things stand right now, Bryant is projected to own the highest WAR in the National League at 5.8, edging Corey Seager‘s 5.7 mark.
That’s not all, though. The projections suggest Bryant will post a wRC-plus of 138 (won NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 with a 136 mark) and recover with a .503 slugging percentage and .885 OPS in 2019, notching 29 home runs and 88 RBI along the way.
With around three months until the start of the 2019 season, it’s important to remember these are just projections and they don’t always work out. However, it’s always a good sign when the projections give love to Bryant, especially after an injury-plagued and disappointing season.
If these projections hold true and Baez regresses, Bryant will be right there to pick up the slack. Also, don’t forget about the always-under-the-radar Anthony Rizzo. The same projections that have Bryant leading the NL in WAR suggest Rizzo will post a 4.3 mark and tie for second in the league with a 139 wRC-plus.
Regression will always be a part of baseball and Baez is a prime candidate for it in 2019. With Bryant and Rizzo both projected to have monster seasons, that regression will be met with increased production from two of the best sluggers in the game.
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