There is palpable panic in the air over Baez's slow start on both offense and defense at Daytona. There are doubts as to whether he's the prospect we all thought he was last year in Peoria -- or even the one we thought we saw this spring. Things can change quickly when it comes to 20 year old ballplayers.
And to be fair, there is reason for concern. There always is with prospects -- but I don't think it's time to panic.
In some ways, the defensive struggles have been more of a surprise to me. Baez has been playing SS and has made 19 errors. He made only 17 errors all of last season. We can say that maybe he's just proving what some scouts originally thought -- that he may not be a SS long term. But really, that was more of a fear that he'd outgrow the position and not that he lacked the skill to play there. And since he has not yet outgrown the position we have to logically ask ourselves a couple of questions: Has he forgotten how to play SS? Is SS any bigger a challenge in the FSL than the MWL? The obvious answer to both questions is no, so we must assume that Baez is struggling with some kind of mechanical issue that developed this year. Whatever it is, it's likely fixable. If it isn't, Baez has the athleticism and instincts to play anywhere on the field.
Secondly, there's been some concern about his low walk rate, but if we take a closer look, he's actually improved that rate since his performance in Peoria -- the performance, by the way, that created all the buzz and essentially launched him into top prospect status with the Cubs. His walk rate has gone from 3.8% to 4.6% since his promotion to Daytona.
His strikeouts have also gone up, from 20.4% to 25.8% but there's no inherent flaw in Baez's swing that makes you believe strikeouts are a fundamental problem for him. It's not a picture perfect swing -- but it's solid mechanically.
Rather, I see the increased strikeouts as a factor of trying to change his approach and see more pitches. I haven't been able to see Baez in person this year. I've relied on secondhand reports and internet radio to follow Baez this year, so I'm not able to make a complete evaluation. But I've noted that on occasion he has tried to work counts -- he just doesn't seem to have the instinct for it and he has yet to develop a plan other than to try and take more pitches. There's an adjustment period here and we need to give Baez time to develop that feel for working counts and setting up pitchers. It's not going to happen overnight. He has gotten to two strikes all too quickly at times and has struck out looking 4% of the time this year, an increase over the 2.1% mark he had in Peoria.
Meanwhile, there are some good things with Baez's performance. The power is still there. His ISO is at a solid .219 while he's slugging a respectable .475. He is still running the bases efficiently. And despite the errors, his penchant for the spectacular defensive play hasn't disappeared either. The skills and instincts are still there.
I think the easiest thing to say is that Baez is being obstinate and just doesn't want to change his approach. Maybe a small part of that is true - -he is, after all, a 20 year old kid who has always had success and it wouldn't be surprising if he was a little hesitant to change what had always worked for him in the past. But I don't think that fits his personality from a long term standpoint. Everything I've seen and heard from Baez is that he is very coachable kid.
Not everybody enters the minor leagues like Mike Trout or Jayson Heyward, mature and ready to take a disciplined approach from day one. Players are different. People are different. We got a taste of what Baez could do this spring and perhaps we put unfair expectations on him -- some even speculated that he could join the Cubs this year.
The Cubs front office knew better. They dismissed such talk right away. Just because Baez has tremendous physical skills and an instinct for the game, it doesn't mean that his mental approach is at the same level yet. Baez has a lot of learning to do. That's why he's in Class A and why the team continues to preach patience with a kid who is not just young for his league, but has an immature plate approach relative to many of the players at that level.
We an ask one thing of Javier Baez and that is that he continues to listen to instruction and work hard to make progress as the year unfolds. He is beginning to show signs already. He has struck out just once in his last 23 ABs versus 2 walks. He has struck out just 4 times in his last 35 PAs. His walk rate, as we noted, has been higher since his promotion to Daytona than it was in Peoria. These are just small steps but they are moving in the right direction.
Progress with players as with teams, isn't always linear. We sometimes see things click with players and they improve exponentially --seemingly out of the blue. In reality, it starts with these small signs of progress. It starts not smoothly, but with some bumps in the road.
And if and when it does indeed click for Baez, we'll surely start scrambling to find out when and why it happened and we'll probably find a point where the numbers started to take a steep upward trend. The truth is that the progress would have started well before that point.