At this point, what else can be said about Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez? The runner-up to Christian Yelich in the National League MVP voting last season, Baez broke out in a big way, mashing 34 home runs and adding 111 RBI, both of which were career-bests for the youngster.
Still only 26 years of age, Baez is only just entering his prime campaigns, even if most projection systems had the slick-fielding middle infielder regressing in 2019. On the surface, it’s easy to see why many people would have expected the 2018 season to be a fluke for Baez. While the slugging will always be there, Baez maintains a strikeout rate in the high 20 percent rate, running a lackluster walk rate of under five percent for his career.
That combination usually does not bode well for a hitter, especially one with a 42 percent chase rate at this point in his career. Nevertheless, Baez has found a way to put wood on 50 percent of those chases, often making contact on balls well outside of the strike zone. Just putting wood on the baseball is not enough for Baez, however, as the youngster has an unteachable knack for getting on base no matter how difficult the situation may be.
As touched on above, Baez finished second in the NL MVP voting last season, falling to Yelich who led the Milwaukee Brewers to the NLCS. While he missed out on the trophy, an important part of Baez’s wonderful season was how he started.
On April 30 of last season, Baez was slashing .280/.333/.630/.963 with seven home runs and 26 RBI to his credit. In addition, Baez had walked just six times versus 24 strikeouts but posted a 1.033 OPS during the month of April to kick-off his MVP-caliber season in 2018.
This season, Baez has jumped out to a very similar start, one that is in some ways better than last year’s beginning.
Entering play on Wednesday, Baez was slashing .302/.341/.612/.953 with nine home runs and 22 RBI, having walked seven times versus 33 strikeouts. Those numbers gave Baez a 26.8 percent strikeout rate and 5.7 percent walk rate entering Wednesday, numbers that find themselves right in-line with what the youngster has done over the course of his career.
While still much less than league average, Baez’s walk rate, if it holds, would be the third highest of his career and almost a full percent higher than his career average mark of 4.9 percent. Due to that, at least in part, Baez’s .341 OBP would be a career-best if he can maintain that mark over the course of a full season after he posted a .326 mark last year.
Yes, it’s true Javy’s walks are up this season, but it’s also true that his slugging has followed, something that didn’t seem possible after he posted a .554 slugging percentage in 2018. As stated above, Baez entered play on Wednesday slugging .612. To go along with that, however, Baez owns an ISO of .310, a number helped along by his lofty 43.4 percent hard contact rate paired with his 53 percent hard hit percentage.
That second number is among the top six percent of the league while the first mark is almost eight percent higher than what he posted in 2018. As a result, Baez’s soft contact is down, sitting at just 16.9 percent prior to play on Wednesday while his fly ball rate is on the rise.
Coming into this season, Baez was sporting a fly ball rate in the lower-30’s, turning in a 32.3 percent mark during his MVP-caliber season one year ago. Before that, Baez was sitting around 36 percent, a number that means about half the balls hit by the youngster would be on the ground. In 2019, however, those numbers have shifted, at least in the early going. Thus far, Baez has amassed a fly ball rate of 39.8 percent while maintaining a ground ball rate of 43.4 percent. While not huge changes, it’s nice to see Baez hitting more fly balls, especially when he is hitting the ball at a harder clip.
To further back up that notion, Baez’s average launch angle of 12 degrees would a career mark, as would his average exit velocity of 93 MPH (top seven percent of the league). Much of Baez’s success this season, it seems, can be traced back to his prowess for hitting breaking and off-speed offerings.
Last season, Baez averaged .281 on breaking balls, but crushed fastballs to the tune of a .312 batting average and .574 slugging percentage. Of the 34 home runs hit by Baez last season, 31 came on either fastballs or breaking balls, a trend we are once again seeing in 2019, but with a twist.
As things stand right now, Baez is averaging just .231 on fastballs with a .477 slugging percentage and 33.8 percent whiff rate. While it’s shocking to see the youngster struggle with velocity, pitchers are beginning to elevate their heaters more to Baez, often leaving him swinging underneath or behind the offering.
Nevertheless, Baez has more than made up for his struggles hitting fastballs with his work against off-speed and breaking balls. Seeing the pitches only 7.7 percent of the time, Baez is averaging .333 on off-speed pitches with a whiff rate of 44.4 percent. What he sees more often, perhaps a reason for his success, his breaking balls, often in the form of sliders or curve-balls.
On those offerings, Baez is hitting .400 with an .822 slugging percentage and strikeout rate of just 21.4 percent. Of his nine home runs prior to Wednesday, four were breaking balls while the other five came on fastballs, a good sign as pitchers continue to try to find a way to retire Baez.
In Seattle on Wednesday, Baez looked to maintain his MVP-caliber play and help the Cubs sweep a two-game series against the Mariners to move their record to a season-best four games over .500.
Facing lefty Marco Gonzales, however, it would be a tough order as the southpaw entered play with a sparkling 2.80 ERA and perfect 5-0 record. Those numbers aside, Gonzales enjoyed a quick 1-2-3 first inning, retiring Albert Almora and Anthony Rizzo with ground ball outs.
That, of course, left Baez to lead-off the second frame as he batted out of the four-hole in Joe Maddon‘s lineup. Prior to his at-bat on Wednesday, Baez owned a first pitch swing percentage of 51.2 percent, a number that was three percent higher than what he posted last season and almost double the MLB average of 28 percent.
Staying with his aggressive nature, Baez ripped the first offering from Gonzales into the right-center field seats, giving the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
The green dot right in the heart of the zone is the 88 MPH sinker that Gonzales fired to Baez, an offering the youngster turned around at 110.8 MPH and sent 430-feet into the bleachers for his 10th long ball of the season.
In addition to giving the Cubs their first lead of the game, Baez’s home run only continued to add to the youngster’s work in going to the opposite field. Entering play, Baez was sporting a 34.9 percent opposite field contact percentage, a number that is more than 10 percent higher than his career average in the same statistic.
As it turned out, Baez’s solo blast kicked off a long and productive inning for the Cubs in the second. Following the four-hole hitter, five straight Cubs reached base, elevating the score to 3-0 in favor of the visiting club. A one-out walk to Kris Bryant with the bases loaded made the score 4-0 while a sac-fly by Rizzo resulted in a 5-0 lead for the Cubs.
Having batted around, Baez then took his second turn at the plate. Similar in nature to his first trip to the dish, Baez needed just one pitch to plate another RBI. In the above image, the green dot off the plate in is the 85 MPH cutter that the youngster ripped down the left field line, a knock that gave the Cubs their sixth run of the game (and the inning) as they sent 12 men to the plate in the second frame.
Staked to a 6-0 lead, Jon Lester was able to roll through the Mariners’ lineup on Wednesday, completing seven innings for the first time this season. In total, the big southpaw needed 97 pitches to work those innings, as he racked up eight swinging strikes. Of those, six came on either his four-seam fastball or cutter while the remaining two came courtesy of the change-up.
As a testament to his control on Wednesday, Lester amassed 24 called strikes (23 on either his four-seamer or cutter), most of which came on pitches right on the edges of the strike zone, right where the lefty usually wants them.
Up early, Lester never needed to nibble around the zone as he racked up 66 strikes on the aforementioned 97 total pitches he tossed as the recorded eight strikeouts and allowed just one hit.
Lester’s final line looked like this: seven innings, one hit, no earned runs, one walk and eight strikeouts on 97 pitches, helping to lower his season ERA to 1.73.
Following their six-run explosion in the second, the Cubs were able to tack on three runs over two additional innings (third and fourth), two of which came courtesy of solo home runs by Rizzo and Contreras to improve the advantage to 9-0.
Working against a position player in the ninth, the Cubs added two additional runs on sac-flies, making the score 11-0 in favor of the visiting club. Within the inning, Baez collected his second double of the contest, finishing the game 3-for-5 with two RBI and two runs scored.
After scoring 11 runs on Wednesday, it sure seems this Cubs lineup is clicking on all cylinders. With Baez in MVP form and Contreras, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber all swinging the bat well, it would be hard for an opposing pitching staff to navigate this order.
The Cubs’ 11-0 win on Wednesday moves their record to 16-12 while the Mariners fall to 18-15 on the season.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will begin a three-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday at 1:20 pm at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be right-hander Yu Darvish (2-3, 5.02 ERA). After turning in only meddling results during the first month of the season, Darvish finished April on a high note against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Across six innings, the veteran right-hander issued just one earned run on two hits while striking out eight batters versus four free passes. Even though it took Darvish 110 pitches to complete six frames, Darvish shown flashed of his true potential, inducing eight ground balls and yielding only a solo home run.
Opposing Darvish on the mound Friday will be right-hander Jack Flaherty (3-1, 4.06 ERA). Like Darvish, the Cardinals righty finished the opening month of the season on a high note. Against the Cincinnati Reds, the 23-year-old Flaherty tossed seven innings of shutout baseball, allowing just four hits while striking out four batters versus just one walk.
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