I’ve known I was probably going to have to write this post since like, July. And as Javier Baez piled up the homers and hits and great plays in August and September when Addison Russell was out, I knew that it was still coming. It would just be harder. So a couple caveats before we get rolling with this. I love Javy Baez. You love Javy Baez. Everyone loves Javy Baez. There’s no point in being a fan if you’re going to remove emotion from it. So because of that, no one ever wants to see Javy anywhere else.
But in order to analyze what Baez is as a player right now and what he might become, we do have to remove the emotion, fun, show, and noise from Javy. Which isn’t easy. Let’s get through this together.
We don’t really have to go through what Baez is with his glove. Though he didn’t hit the heights this year that he did in ’16, I think it’s safe to say that Javy will always be a plus-plus defensive player. So let’s leave that for now.
We have two full seasons of Javy now. And while he’s never had a full-time role, he’s had 950 PAs in the past two years. That’s just below a full-time role. It’s not the 1300+ that Rizzo or Bryant get, but pretty much everyone else on the team gets what Baez got.
So over two years, Baez has been just about a 96 wRC+ player. His wOBA is .321 in those two years. The OPS is .768. Whatever number you want to go by here, basically Baez in total has been a below-average offensive player. It’s just barely below average, and in the middle of the infield with that defense, that’s still a useful player. That’s how he’s been worth 5.0 fWAR in those two years, while basically only providing just below replacement offense.
So the question with Javy is do you think the offensive player we saw for the second half of the season is what he is long term. In the 2nd half, Javy hit .291, .340 OBP, .511 SLG, for a 113 wRC+ and a wOBA of .349. Those kinds of numbers over a full season with Javy’s defense make for a four or even five fWAR player.
The problem is that that second half doesn’t look all that sustainable. Baez had a .384 BABIP in the second half, and there wasn’t a great change in the kind of contact he was making. His line-drive rate was actually lower in the second half than first, and his hard-contact rate was exactly the same. Both Javy’s strikeout- and walk-percentage rose in the 2nd half, and it feels like a 7% walk-rate for him is the best we can hope for.
As you already know, Javy swings at more pitches than just about anyone. The problem this year is that he didn’t make contact at anywhere near an average rate. While he swung at 56% of the pitches he saw, 10% over league average and one of the highest numbers in the league, he made contact on it at just 65%, which is 12% below league average and second worst in the league behind Joey Gallo.
The thing is, there are hitters around him who swung at the same or even more pitches who were good offensive players this year. Avisail Garcia swung at the most pitches, percentage-wise, this season and had a 137 wRC+. He also had a .392 BABIP. Corey Dickerson swung at more pitches than Baez, hit 27 homers, didn’t walk much, and put up a 115 wRC+. Didi Gregorious had a 107 wRC+. But all of them made contact at a way higher rate than Javy.
The idea that Javy is ever going to be an on-base machine is obviously a fantasy. He’s never going to walk that much, and again, I’m not sure the 7% rate we saw in the second half is all that bad. So the question becomes is can the Cubs get him to make enough contact, basically to become a more power-hitting Starlin Castro, to make him a plus-offensive player. And I don’t know.
We would occasionally comment that when he wanted, Javy could cut down his swing, remove the leg-kick, have a more controlled swing. The thing is though, Javy didn’t cut down everything so he could let the ball travel and lay off pitches out of the zone. He just cut down his swing to get to pitches he already decided he was going to swing at.
Here’s what I find most annoying about Javy:
Four homers only to right. The disparity in line-drives to right. Because we know Javy has big time power the other way. Ask John Lackey how much power Javy has that way. I don’t need Javy to lay off pitches out of the zone. But I do need him to take pitches on the outer half back that way. Yes, there are times when Javy can hook them a long, long way to his pull-side. But trying to do that is what leads to his problems.
If Javy is still here next year, whoever the hitting coach is, I would hope they would tell him to spend all of spring training and maybe even all of April just hitting to right field. Get used to seeing pitches that long, that travel that far, and see if his recognition doesn’t improve.
What does it all mean? Of all the names that are going to be mentioned as possible trade pieces, Javy’s value might be the highest (and the noise around him helps with that). Maybe Happ given his experience and superior approach, but that’s probably canceled out by the disparity in their glove-work.
It feels like Javy’s future is entangled in Ben Zobrist’s. If the Cubs are planning to transition Zobes to a bench/role player thing, and hand Baez the majority of starts at second, then it becomes a question of can they turn him into more at the plate. And he doesn’t have to be massively more. But I don’t know if he will ever be, and I don’t think they do either.
Then it gets to be a question of if they could ever get Ian Happ to not be liable to take grounders off the face at second regularly. Whatever you think, in half a season Happ has put up a better offensive season than Javy has in two full ones. It feels like it’s going to be one or the other, and saying goodbye to either is going to suck eggs.