Diamonds and Rust: Has Javier Baez Really Struggled After Each Promotion?

I’ve always loved Javier Baez. He’s pretty much been my favorite Cubs prospect of the last several years. Kris Bryant has the dreamy eyes, Jorge Soler has the body that makes us think of the Expos version of Vladimir Guerrero, and Addison Russell was supposedly compared to Barry Larkin by Billy Beane after trading him to the Cubs. But for some reason, I just dream forever on a middle infielder that has 40-home-run potential.

It’s the stuff that legends are made of. If Javier Baez just reached a portion of his own potential and averaged 20 home runs and an .825 OPS over the course of the next 15 years, his offensive numbers for a second-baseman (assuming he stays there) would be right there with some of the best ever. Of course, that’s making a lot of assumptions.

But thatsky-high potential also comes with a scary-low floor. In the best case scenario, he leads the Cubs to several World Series titles on his way to a Hall-of-Fame career; worst case is that he struggles so mightily in 2015 that he’s sent back to AAA to “work things out” and he’s never really heard from again.

But I remain optimistic. I don’t think either of those scenarios is going to be realized, but rather something in between. Unfortunately, all I have to go on is what I’ve learned over the last few years, what I’ve seen with my own eyes, and what scouts have told us about Javy’s ability to adjust, recognize pitches, and be selective.

Some have tried to identify a pattern in his behavior that leads us to an obvious conclusion, but is the pattern really there? I have my doubts, honestly. I’m sure you’ve either said or heard the major justification Cubs fans use to be okay with Baez’s awful showing in the Majors last summer: “Baez struggles when he’s first called up at every level.”

To some degree, that is true. It’s also kind of not true and I researched some numbers to show you what I’m talking about. Since Baez had 229 plate appearances for the Cubs last season, I decided to take his first 229 PA’s from each level after his promotion (minus the jump from A to A+, because he only had 86 PA’s at A+ at the end of the 2012 season). The results were mixed…

Season Promotion PA BA OBP SLG HR K rate BB rate
2012 A to A+ 86 .188 .244 .400 4 24% 5.8%
2013 A+ to AA 229 .300 .354 .643 19 28% 7.9%
2014 AAA 229 .217 .275 .415 9 35% 6.9%
2014 AAA-MLB 229 .169 .227 .324 9 41% 6.6%

We know Baez struggled in his first short stint at A+ at the end of the 2012 season. But check out the domination after his mid-season promotion to AA in 2013. All of the good numbers went up considerably after moving to the minor league level that contains the most talented pitchers. This doesn’t follow the proposed “struggle-after-promotion” theory.

The promotion to AAA resulted in an early struggle, with a short DL stint in early April likely hindering his adjustment to older pitchers. However, in the final 47 PA’s out of his first 229 at AAA, Baez slashed .326/.362/.581. So while the overall numbers were ugly for that initial span at AAA, Baez had adjusted and was hitting well for almost two weeks at that point. So the longest he truly struggled before adjusting was about 175 PA’s.

In the final 47 PA’s of the 229 he had for the Cubs last season, Baez slashed .163/.234/.163 with an OPS of .397; pretty bone-chilling numbers. The good news is that these were all produced in a small sample size. The fact that Baez figured it out (or never really struggled at all, like at AA) relatively quickly at other levels but seemed to get progressively worse in the Major Leagues doesn’t really mean anything yet.

Other factors could be in play, too. Most notably, Javy had never played professional baseball in September before this past season. That’s a long grind for a guy that isn’t used to it. Not to mention, he’s facing the toughest competition of his career at a time when he normally is on vacation. We’ll probably need to wait until sometime next June to really see whether Baez has adjusted or not.

If you’ve made it this far and think I’m ragging on Javy, you’ve missed the point. What you should take away from this is that the “Baez struggles after every promotion, so he’ll be fine” cliché is anecdotal at best. If you need to convince yourself that a pattern suggests he’s going to be fine, I sympathize. It’s been a long road. Hopefully, soon we can all forget the talk of patterns, record K rates, and trades. Until then, at least we can dream.

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