As Javier Baez's strikeout rate has climbed higher into the stratosphere, there's been a, ah, profound sense of uneasiness in the hearts of Chicago Cubs fans. No one really wants to plainly state it, but, well...Baez has been awful in AAA so far. Through his first 105 plate appearances this season, Baez has produced a Darwinesque .151/.248/.280 line, striking out 38 times and walking only 10. There's no way to sugarcoat it - he's been very bad, and Cubs fans who expected him to rake on his way to a June call up are starting to panic and wonder whether he'll be the next Corey Patterson.
Personally, I'm unfazed.
I'm not here to tell you that a guy striking out in 36.2% of his plate appearances is good news (it's quite obviously not), but rather that if you didn't think that there was at least a good possibility of Baez struggling in AAA, you weren't paying any attention.
Before 2014, Baez struck out in a historically high percentage of his trips to the plate. Despite this, he was also producing at an equally insane level, forcing the Cubs to promote him through the system at a dizzying pace. In Spring Training this year Baez hit a bunch of extremely impressive home runs, and those who only caught the highlights missed the wild hacks he was taking at mediocre breaking stuff in between the dingers. The eye test repeatedly showed that he was swinging out of his shoes at everything he saw, had trouble recognizing off-speed stuff, and could be undressed by pitchers who knew how to attack him.
Everyone knew (or should have known) that this wild, deliriously swing-happy approach at the plate was going to get him in trouble eventually. And yet, at the first sign of that actually happening, many want to jump ship and declare him a bust because of it?
105 plate appearances ago Javier Baez was loved by nearly everyone despite his high-risk future. His strikeout problems in the minors were the type of crippling flaw that has ruined hundreds upon hundreds of good young ballplayers, yet 25 games ago he was a consensus top 10 prospect in the game. His unwillingness or inability to slow down at the plate mirrored issues that nearly every busted prospect dealt with, but there he was being debated as possibly the best prospect in all of the game, literally less than a month's worth of games ago.
These concerns weren't trivially ignored in the offseason, and they shouldn't be now, but there was a reason Baez was talked about the way he was. It wasn't Big Market Prospect Bias, it wasn't desperation. It was for the fact that he has some of the best bat speed and power in all of baseball and could play a middle infield position to boot. The rare tools Baez possesses combined with the drive that possesses him made him a great candidate to overcome his issues. Nothing about this has changed in a handful of weeks.
If you want to freak out about an extremely young and talented prospect in the PCL doing exactly what many expected he'd do against the types of older, crafty pitchers he'd see in AAA, be my guest. For me though, I will be waiting much longer to change my opinion on whether or not Baez succeeds in the MLB.
For one, Baez has clearly struggled in the past upon reaching a new level before adjusting to the league and reigning in his strikeouts. Take a look at the graph below - after a while, his 10-game-average strikeout rate really starts to separate from his cumulative total strikeout rate to that point. (Click the picture to see a larger version)
Furthermore, Baez is facing a type of pitcher he's really never faced before. In the low minors, he faced guys with poor command, strong fastballs, and marginal offspeed stuff. In AAA, he's facing plenty of washed up MLB vets and Quad-A types who get by on junk. Naturally, it's going to take a player a while to adjust to new types of pitchers, and that's part of what we're seeing now. If any player has the tools to adjust to new leagues, it's Javier Baez. His bat speed offers him the ability to wait longer on pitches than almost anyone in baseball, and if he's able to get his swing under better control, I see this secondary advantage of bat speed making a big difference.
Also lost in the Baez discussion is that nearly all prospects fail at some point; it's simply part of the developmental process. This is how the kinks in a player's game can be ironed out before they reach the majors. This process weeds out plenty of players, but those who break through are much better for it.
If Baez was to succeed, he was going to have to struggle at some point. Whether it was in AAA or at the big league level, the rough edges in his game needed to be smoothed out. The only way anyone should be freaking out about Baez at this point is if they expected him to continuously mash on his way to multiple All Star games, and they should be freaking out because they were so wrong about the player to begin with.
The rest of us should sit back and wait for much more of the season to play out before drastically changing our thoughts about Baez, cause 105 largely unsurprising plate appearances provide nowhere near enough new information to do anything else.
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