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.
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.
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