Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez has been quick to develop the label of being a free swinger. In his time at the big league level, and even in the minors, Baez never was one to draw many free passes, as he has never posted a walk rate higher than 7.9 percent at any professional level thus far in his career.
A quick peek at Baez’s numbers identifies why the runner-up to the National League MVP award last season has yet to post a healthy walk rate, he likes to swing the bat. For his career, including this season, Baez owns a swing rate of 55.3 percent, almost a full 10 percentage points higher than the MLB average of 46.5 percent. With an abundance of swings, unfortunately, comes a bunch of chases and thus a number of misses or whiffs.
While the numbers look better so far in 2019, Baez is still sporting a chase rate of 42 percent and a whiff percentage of 33.5 percent for his career. Both of those marks are a healthy amount higher than the major league average and have resulted in a lack of walks for the youngster and an elevated strikeout rate.
Nevertheless, strides have been taken on Baez’s account, and 31 games into the season, it seems like they are paying off. Firstly, Baez will enter play on Monday with a five percent walk rate which is incrementally better than the 4.5 percent mark he posted last season, but not quite as solid as the 5.9 percent mark the youngster posted three seasons ago.
As touched on above, Baez is making progress in the swing department, cutting his overall swing rate down to 55 percent for this season, a more than 2.5 percent decrease from one season prior. That means Baez is also chasing less pitches, offering at 41.9 percent of balls out of the strike zone thus far in 2019, a drop of more than one percent from 2018.
Just because Baez has cut back on his hacks does not mean the young infielder has lost his aggressiveness. In fact, 2019 has seen Baez become the most aggressive form of himself in terms of swinging at the first pitch of an at-bat. Up from 48.2 percent last season, Baez is swinging at 50.7 percent of first pitches this season, a better than 12 percent increase over his career average and 22 percent higher than the MLB average.
Aggression has served Baez will thus far in 2019. For an example, look no further than last Wednesday’s match-up with the Seattle Mariners. During the second inning in which the Cubs sent 12 men to the plate, Baez saw a total of two pitches but walked away with a solo home run and RBI double, giving him two runs batted in on only two offerings from Marco Gonzales.
That six-run second inning on Wednesday, helped in part by Baez’s aggressive nature, sparked an 11-0 defeat of the Mariners, a victory that represents the fourth straight win in what has turned into a seven-game win streak for the Cubs.
Much of the offensive success that the Cubs have enjoyed this season has run through their young shortstop. With 34 home runs and 111 RBI last season, Baez narrowly missed winning the Cubs’ second MVP award in three seasons, instead yielding to Christian Yelich who made it all the way to the NLCS with the Milwaukee Brewers.
During his magical season, Baez set a slew of career-highs in statistics like ISO, slugging percentage, OPS and wRC-plus, just to name a few. His 5.3 WAR was also a career-best as he has continued to mature at the game’s highest level.
While the youngster enjoyed so much success in 2018, none of the major projections had Baez replicating his MVP-caliber performance in 2019. In fact, most people, including myself, concluded that Baez’s combination of high strikeouts, low walk rate and free swinging nature would hamper his promising career.
Mind you, no one thought Baez would become a lackluster player, but rather a solid major league infielder with 20-25 home run potential with a solid chance of striking out 200 times over the course of a season.
Across 31 games, I am happy to report that Baez has suffered no such regression, but is actually leading a Cubs offense that finds itself among the best in the game.
After collecting another hit and scoring two runs in the Cubs’ 13-5 rout of the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday night in prime time, Baez brought his season slash line to .316/.350/.654 with 11 home runs, 26 RBI and 29 runs scored. While his walk rate has ticked up, as mentioned above, so has his strikeout rate as it currently sits at 27.9 percent, exactly two percent higher than the mark he posted last season.
Luckily, however, Baez has negated his lofty strikeout rate just like he did last season, by racking up extra base hits. His 11 home runs are tied for the third most in the majors while his 10 doubles and one triple have helped him amass a .338 ISO and .654 slugging percentage. As it stands right now, both of those numbers are in the top-ten in baseball and top-six in the National League, with his 158 wRC-plus falling just outside of that distinction at 11th best in the majors.
Due in part to Baez’s performance at the dish thus far in 2019, the Cubs find themselves with the third best offensive unit in baseball in terms of wRC-plus (116) entering play on Monday. In addition, the Cubs rank in the top-five in team slugging percentage (.464), ISO (.204) and HR/FB rate (17.4 percent). Those are pretty good numbers and perhaps tell the story of how the Cubs turned a 2-7 start into a 19-12 record on May 5 as they currently occupy first place in the NL Central.
While a combination of pitching and defense has aided the offense in turning the Cubs’ fortunes around, something is beginning to emerge from Baez and others in the lineup that provides much encouragement.
Cubs’, Baez’s Opposite Field Approach Has Been Great in 2019
As touched on at the top of this article, Baez has become a more patient version of himself once he moves past the first pitch of an at-bat. Watch any Cubs game this season and you will see the youngster laying off pitches that he otherwise would have swung at one, two or three seasons ago.
What may come easier for some players has been a slow grind for Baez as he has always fought the urge to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone. In his sixth season with the Cubs, Baez seems to have developed a strategy for better identifying pitches, and thus, learning to have more patience at the dish.
The idea of letting the baseball travel deeper into the strike zone has allowed Baez a split second more time to identify the spin of the pitch and where the offering is headed, allowing him to work deeper and more effective counts.
Often, that means Baez is working from behind in the count, something he has proven comfortable with as the season ticks over to May. On 0-2 counts, Baez owns a .400 batting average and 1.333 OPS, numbers that fall only slightly to .357 and 1.272 respectively after an 0-2 count.
Those marks have no doubt aided in Baez’s success this season, but as we have seen early in 2019, the youngster’s approach to learning patience at the plate is also allowing him to become more friendly with the opposite field.
Prior to this season, Baez had never posted an opposite field contact rate higher than 32.7 percent in his career. Even then, that number was amassed over just 28 games during the 2015 season, representing somewhat of a small sample size. Excluding that campaign, Baez’s previous career-high in that statistic came in 2018 with a 26.1 percent mark, a number that bested his 21.9 percent clip in 2017.
This season, however, Baez is currently sporting a 37.2 percent opposite field contact rate, easily the highest in the majors (among qualified batters) and exactly 13 percent higher than his career average of 24.2 percent.
While Baez paces the Cubs roster and major league baseball in shooting the ball to the opposite field, the Cubs as a whole are also toward the top of baseball in the same statistic. Currently, the Cubs are sporting four qualified batters with opposite field contact rates higher than 30 percent. Those names include, Baez of course, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras while Anthony Rizzo narrowly missed that group with a 29.9 percent mark. The only other qualified batter on the Cubs’ roster, Jason Heyward, finds himself hitting the ball to the opposite field at a 24.4 percent clip, but more impressively, sporting a center field contact rate of 48.8 percent, the highest of this group.
With the majority of their lineup buying into the opposite field approach that has surrounded the conversation for a handful of years, the Cubs currently rank second in the majors in that category with a 28.7 percent clip, trailing only the Colorado Rockies.
As the Cubs find success with this approach, let’s not forget what Baez is doing with his newfound skill set. In the eighth inning of Sunday’s win over the Cardinals, Baez racked up his 42nd hit of the season and 10th double of the year, sending a ball into the right-center field gap that helped to spark a six-run frame for the Cubs.
Of Baez’s 10 doubles this season, six have either been hit to center or right fields while his lone triple traveled into the right-center gap at 107.4 MPH.
Perhaps most impressively, however, has been the amount of home runs hit by the youngster that have went to the opposite field. Of his 11 so far this season, seven have been hit to the opposite field with another going to straight-away center field. That leaves only three that have been pulled to dead left field, with the last one coming on April 26.
Below is a chart of Baez’s home runs this season. As you can see, a multitude of them have been hit either to right field or right-center field, while only three have been pulled.
This next image is a spray chart of all Baez’s hits so far in 2019. As things stand right now, Baez is sporting a higher opposite field contact percentage (37.2 percent) than pull rate (34 percent). Sprinkled in there is a 28.7 percent center field contact rate, something that is clearly seen by the image below.
Like most right-handed hitters with power, Baez has and always will be prone to pulling the ball into left field. For most of them, that is where their power resides, as they often lose that when the ball is hit into the opposite field. Baez, however, as evident by the above charts, does not yield power when spraying the ball into right field.
While his longest home run of 447-feet did wind up beyond the left field seats, Baez has already hit long balls of 439-, 430- and 413-feet to right field. Having watched Baez over the last few seasons, though, I can’t help but feel like he is capable of hitting one farther than that, something we will have to wait and see about.
Through the first month of the 2019 season, Baez is on pace to blow past his previous career-highs that he set last year. Much of that can be traced back to his willingness to go to the opposite field, something that has caught on in the Cubs’ clubhouse.
On May 6, that approach is working for both Baez and the Cubs as they are surging in the standings and leader-boards. As the season wears on, it will be interesting to see if Baez and the rest of the roster can maintain this stretch of play, because if they can, Chicago may be celebrating another World Series title come November.
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