Is Javier Baez Starting to Figure it Out?

Deadspin’s Z.W. Martin recently asked the question many Cubs fans have been tip-toeing around since their favorite free-swinging phenom first came up: Is Javier Baez’s Rocket-Powered Swing Built to Last? But while most of us might be content to say, “Well…sure” or “he’ll figure it out,” Martin dug just a little deeper into swing planes, hand loads, and various other mechanics in order to unearth some real answers.

I highly recommend reading the entire post, as it’s got some really fascinating stuff. And even though I’m an admitted physics nerd, I think even casual fans will enjoy the content. But if you’re not interested in going through the whole thing, here’s a little snippet:

So what we have, in Baez’s swing, is a tradeoff at the extremes of human kinetics. In exchange for all that insane bat speed, he has given up control of the bat head through the swing plane. There’s a reason his strikeout rate is hovering over 40 percent.

(One thing we don’t know is how much of this is a matter of approach. Is the energy he’s creating in his hand load so violent it’s making it impossible for him to stop himself even if he recognizes pitch type, break, and location ? Or is he literally just deciding to swing at whatever before the pitch is thrown?)

All this said, Baez’s month-to-month splits at each level are encouraging. He often started slow, then adjusted, improving each month at each level. Mechanically speaking, a smooth rise in statistical success is more inclined to be from a new comfort level and/or approach than a swing adjustment.

Much of what makes Baez such a thrilling watch is the same that makes him so frustrating. As Martin points out, Baez’s hammer (how he loads his hands at the start of his swing) generates stupid power but also forces him to make a decision to swing prior to recognizing pitch type and location. In other words, bat speed begets thought speed, and not in a good way.

While the positive results are glorious to behold, the negative results are far too common to make for a sustainable career. As things stand now, Baez’s K-rate stands at a staggering 41.2%. Consider that Reggie Jackson, the K-ing of MLB strikeouts, carried a career rate of 22.7% and that Mark Reynolds struck out in only (only?!) 33.7% of his PA’s in 2009, when he set a single-season record with 237 whiffs.

But as much fun as it is to peer into my crystal ball to find out whether Baez can decrease his hammer and learn to harness his abundant power in a more efficient manner over time, I want to take a quick look at whether or not he is already doing do on some level. Research and speculation of this nature in baseball is somewhat dangerous given the small sample size, but we can often see patterns beginning to emerge in short periods of time.

When the Cubs called Baez up, they did so with the knowledge that he would struggle, which is why no one has hit the panic button yet. Well, no one who had anything approaching a reasonable expectation about Baez’s MO and history following a promotion. Admittedly, his initial display of power did somewhat skew expectations of even the most level-headed among us, though he came back to Earth quickly.

For the sake of brevity, and because I’m just that lazy, I’m going to take a look at Javy’s last 10 games for the purpose of my study. In the 29 games prior to said stretch, Baez was slashing .179/.217/.390 (as a refresher, that’s AVG/OBP/SLG) with a .607 OPS and had walked 5 times.

And about those walks: Baez didn’t take a free pass until his 13th big league game, when he took two. Then he walked twice more just two games later, after which it would be another 14 contests before he took four balls. Disheartening? Sure, until you realize that he’s now walked 6 times in the last 10 games. Hey, baby steps are still steps.

Breaking down the last 10 games a little further, into two 5-game splits, may give us at least the slightest impression that Baez has begun his climb upward. On September 8th, as the Cubs fell 0-8 to the Toronto Blue Jays to reach the midway point of a 7-game slump, Baez hit rock bottom.

His slash line had dropped to .164/.209/.350 and his OPS stood at .559, nearly all season lows (his OBP was .208 on Sept 1st and 2nd) and he had struck out 11 times in the last 4 games, the worst such stretch of Javy’s young career. This also marked his 15th consecutive game without a home run, making the futility stand out that much more.

But since actual victories have been really hard to come by for the Cubs lately, I’m going to fish for some of the moral variety here in the most recent 5-game run. The homer drought continued for a couple more games, but Baez went long in back-to-back games on the 12th and 13th, walking in the other 3 games in my limited sample split.

The batting average jumped by 13 points, OBP by 26, slugging by 36, and OPS by 62. And while the number of plate appearances is still small enough to see rapid swings from even limited results, this uptick is very encouraging. Also encouraging is the way Baez has reached. He hit an infield single last Tuesday, for crying out loud!

His only hits on Friday and Saturday left the yard, but then he walked and–my stars and garters!–hit ANOTHER INFIELD SINGLE on Sunday. Javy then proceeded to steal second, advancing to third on the errant throw from Russel Martin and scoring on Chris Coghlan’s sac fly. As great as it is when Baez manufactures runs with that big hammer, it sure was nice to see him simply find a way to get on and then make things happen with his legs.

So while it’s incredibly naive and short-sighted to take a look at such a small smattering of games in an attempt to say that a player is starting to get it, it appears nonetheless that Baez is coming around. He’s still got a long way to go to prove that he’s more than just a novelty act, but it appears as though he’s headed in the right direction.

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