The Incomparable Javier Baez

The Incomparable Javier Baez

Heading into 2013, I spilled a good amount of virtual ink fretting over Javier Baez’s plate discipline.

Very few top prospects had ever struck out as often as he did, and fewer still walked as little at the same time. I suspected that Baez’s swing-happy approach would either sabotage his progress through the minors, or that he would grow out of it through necessity.

Strangely, neither of those things happened. While it was just a footnote to the story of Baez’s monster, 37 homer season, the plate discipline concerns did not go away. Baez struck out in 25% of his plate appearances and walked in just 6.9% while still managing to hit .282/.341/.578, catapulting himself out of the range of comparable prospects.

Javier Baez is a truly unique prospect, the likes of which hasn’t stormed through the minors in at least 23 years.

Since Baseball America began ranking prospects in 1990, 687 unique hitting prospects have appeared on their list, and just 10 of them walked as little (5.3%) or struck out as often (22.3%) as Javier Baez in A and High A combined (all but one busted out or improved markedly in AA).

Just 11 players who were still top 100 prospects by the time they hit AA struck out as often as Baez (28.8%), and of those 11 only three (see footnote 1) walked as little as him (7.9%). If we relax the thresholds a bit, the list of comparable players grows a bit, but not by much. None of these players hit for the combined average and power that Baez did.

Baez is a player who makes his living through the extreme – he swings an extremely fast bat, generating near-unmatched raw power – but the extreme strikeout rates are a concerning part of his game. How concerning, though, is tough to judge.

As of yet, the swing and miss in his game hasn’t stopped him from hitting .286 in the minors, and prospect evaluators think he could hit .280+ in the majors despite the strikeouts. This is tough to expect, because even if Baez is a 35 HR hitter with a 25% K% and 7% BB%, he’d need a BABIP in the .330+ range.

It would be comforting if we could look back on previous top prospects with a similar profile and see major-league success, but the list of somewhat-comparable players (see footnote 2) is both small and mildly disconcerting. I’d be lying if I said that list didn’t concern me. It’s easy to see David Ortiz’s name and get excited, but even he struggled in the majors for a long time before figuring it out.

What is there to take out of the lack of comparable players and troubling group of semi-comparable players? A few things, in my mind. The first is that, for as much as we all love Javier Baez, there are still real warts in his profile. It’s easy to dream about him leading the Cubs to division titles in the future, and the current state of the Cubs blinds a lot of us to his risk of failure – it’d just be too much for the fanbase to take if he busts.

The more important lesson is that we should not be expecting immediate success from Baez. He’s the most talented athlete and ballplayer of all players listed in the footnotes below, save for David Ortiz, but his production does mirror theirs in important ways.

They all struggled to make it in the majors, and Baez is likely to do the same when he breaks in. There will be plenty of pitchers capable of exploiting the holes in his swing. The hope is that his extreme talent and bat speed will allow him to overcome and adjust in ways the others could not.

To me, where Javier Baez goes from here is the second most intriguing storyline for Cubs fans to follow in 2014 (behind whether or not Starlin Castro can right the ship).

No one can say with any certainty what he’s going to become, and the range of outcomes is outrageous - he could be one of the top 5 power hitting shortstops of all time or he could be Brandon Wood. However he turns out, he'll be remembered as one of the most difficult to project prospects of all time.

1. Those three were Drew Henson, Greg Halman (who was tragically murdered in Rotterdam in 2011), and Kelly Dransfeldt. Neither Henson nor Dransfeldt had much of a MLB career.

2. Players with a K% greater than 27% and a walk rate between 7% and 9%: Brad Snyder, David Ortiz, Dean Palmer, Drew Henson, Eric Anthony, Jason Stokes, Jimmy Hurst, Joe Benson, Kelly Dransfeldt, Steve Lomasney, and Wily Mo Pena. Not a comforting group to be a member of.

@TommyECook

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  • Tremendous piece. On an instinctive level, I've worried about the same, but you really fleshed it out. Let's hope both Starlin and Baez have great years and we'll have at least one great trade asset to return top young pitching.

  • Awesome great job!

  • The difference between Javy and the others is spunk. He simply will not be denied.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    There are some things we can not measure. Baez seems to have that something extra. I'm with you, I think he will have his struggles, but starting to believe he is a special talent and has strong mental make up to overcome.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Agreed. Also, it's unlikely many of the others like him have his sort of bat speed, which affords him plenty of room to refine his pitch recognition skills and plate discipline. In theory, he'll be able to wait on pitches until they're very deep in the zone, giving him that extra beat to decide whether he'll offer at it or not

  • I could be wrong but are Baez's numbers an actual reflection of his performance? If memory serves, every time he goes up a level he struggles to start and then makes adjustments which increase his BB% and decrease his K%. Would be interested to see his splits and if his high k rate is indicative of the player he was at the end of the season.

  • In reply to Ike03:

    April (Daytona): .809 OPS, 27% K%, 4% BB%
    May (Daytona): .770 OPS, 22% K%, 5% BB%
    June/July (Daytona): 1.048 OPS, 20% K%, 10% BB%
    **FO decides enough's enough, promotes him to AA on 7/5**
    July (Tennessee): .888 OPS, 34% K%, 9% BB%
    August (Tennessee): 1.059 OPS, 24% K%, 8% BB%

  • In reply to DavidH3:

    I guess I'd caution against solely using monthly splits with a prospect, because the small sample size leaves a lot of room for variance. The quality of pitchers faced can vary greatly in the minors, and what looks like a horrendous month, strikeout wise, could be influenced by an extra game or two against really good pitching.

    The 240 PAs Baez had at AA aren't an ideal sample size, but everyone I compared him to had at least that many. I'm sure if the data was available, we'd fine guys who improved for a month, or months at a time. Unfortunately, that kind of data just isn't available beyond the last few seasons.

    I guess my point is, it's nice to look at a few months and think you see legitimate improvement, but I get uncomfortable with that idea.

  • In reply to DavidH3:

    Seems like Ikes point is confirmed. Baez does show an ability to adjust.

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    Awesome stuff, Tommy. I wasn't aware of those comparisons and just how unique his performance has been thus far. So much of the difference between the guys who make it and the ones who wash out is the mental side. As long as the high K% doesn't hurt his confidence, I think he'll be fine. I'm no expert, but it also seems that people tend to look at "plate discipline" numbers more than the results players get. If he's hitting .280 with 35 HRs and 100 RBI, then high strikeout % be damned.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    I didn't get into the details of why I'm so worried about the strikeout rate, cause it looked kinda disjointed when I tried to throw it in.

    IF Baez was hitting .280 with 35 bombs, no one would care, and no one should, cause the offensive production would be amazing. But the strikeouts worry me because I believe they make hitting .280 a *lot* more difficult.

    To paraphrase something FanGraphs published a while back and I can no longer find, the high strikeout rate makes it really difficult to post a strong batting average. If Baez is a 28% K%/6% BB% guy with 40 HR, he'd need a BABIP of about .345 to hit .280. If the K/BB moves to just 24%/7.5%, the BABIP only needs to sit around .325. That's the difference between a career BABIP year or two and something that's possibly sustainable year-in year-out.

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    In reply to Tommy Cook:

    What were Sosa's K-rates in his big seasons? Not for the sake of comparison, but just wondered.

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    In reply to Tommy Cook:

    Oh, and I wasn't trying to specifically call you out, but rather the folks who get too into the way a guy hits, like Castro. Sometimes execs feel that something needs to be tweaked, when some guys are just best left to their own free-swinging ways.

  • Seems to me that K% has gone up across the league in recent years, but I could be wrong. I couldn't find league avg K% by season online. If that's the case, it's not the K% that would bother me as much as the BB%. I realize they're closely related, and to some extent reflect the degree that a hitter is patient or a hacker. But I think you can obviously live with the K% given Baez profile (power numbers and positioning in the field) assuming of course that his free swinging doesn't sap his ability to actually fulfill that profile against MLB pitching. How does he compare to someone like a Vlad Guerero?

  • In reply to Nateisnotnice:

    Vlad's name came up in the initial study I did last spring, as Vlad did not walk very often in the minors, and walked around 8% of the time in the majors (about league average nowadays, probably a bit below in the late 90s/early 2000s). After that, though, the comparisons between Vlad and Baez probably stop.

    Vladimir Guerrero put together a hall of fame worthy career on the back of one of the most freakish hit tools in the history of the game. Dude could hit everything thrown at him, and only struck out in 11% of his career plate appearances (which is absurd). Baez unfortunately doesn't project to make that kind of contact. That's not to say that he can't eventually be a very good hitter, but the strikeouts will limit average and overall production.

    To respond to the first part of your comment, yes the league K% has risen in recent years, but in my piece I used it a bit as a proxy for pitch recognition/discipline/ability to make contact with a wide variety of pitches. I think you can live with it with Baez's profile, but it could prevent him from becoming one of the game's elite hitters.

    I also think the walks will come in the majors from to pitchers trying to avoid his bat, but in the minors the lack of walks speaks to a swing-heavy approach early in counts. He's not getting deep enough in counts to walk, meaning he's offering at a lot of pitches he shouldn't. If he can learn to wait for his pitch and work deeper counts, the K% might remain high, but the quality of contact could be scary

  • I too think there is something special about Baez. Motor runs high. The story on his family/upbringing was inspirational. I am really pulling for this guy and I just hope it doesn't turn out to be my usual enthusiasm for any Cubs prospect.

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    You can't have 687 unique anything. By its definition, unique means only one. Just saying.

  • In reply to Chris Trengove:

    In this instance, "unique" refers to the fact that there were 687 different players on the list. I could've said there were 1000something players, but that would've been misleading, since there were players who appeared on more than one top 100 list.

    And, also, no, unique in this instance is just fine. It's like how a website will refer to traffic - they got 1000 page visits in a day, but maybe they only got 670 unique visitors. In that usage, it refers to no overlap between the group of visitors.

  • Best in history was none other than Joe DiMaggio. 369career HRs 360 career Ks. Playing most of his career games with Death Valley in the Left-center power alley(430ft) and CF (463 ft). Maybe someone needs to check out what Joe D did so well.

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