The Cubs 4-3 loss last night against the Brewers shared pivotal moments for each team, with game-altering results. Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber struck out with the bases loaded, up 3-1, ending what could have been a dagger of a fifth inning. And, immediately after, Christian Yelich awoke from his slumber to remind the world that he’s really good, belting a game-winning three run shot in the top half of the sixth.
One loss isn’t going to derail a squad that’s 13-4, received yet another sturdy performance from its starter, Alec Mills (even after being moved up a day in emergency form), and generally have everything going right for them in 2020.
Yet with over a quarter of the season now in the books, it’s time to evaluate what to make of Baez’s struggles at the plate.
A Blip or Concern?
Through 17 games, the Cubs superstar shortstop is hitting a meager .221/.260/.397, producing an underwhelming 75 wRC+. While his patented defensive wizardry still has him accumulating 0.3 WAR early on, it’s the offensive woes that have raised eyebrows.
Javy’s struggles at the plate are especially troubling given his everyday presence as the number three hitter. Sandwiched between Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, two lefties that not only can drive the ball but also see a lot of pitches, Baez should be in a position ripe for success. So far in 2020 that hasn’t been the case, even if the Cubs offense on the whole has been just fine.
There are some troubling developments regarding Baez’s plate approach. He’s striking out at an alarming clip (31.5 percent) that would be a career high for him, while walking (4.1 percent) at the second lowest rate in his career. Combined with a ground ball percentage (57.8) that would easily be a career high, it begins to make sense that Javy’s offensive output thus far has been disappointing.
There are some encouraging statistics, however. His swing percentage (45.3 percent) is actually a career low, he’s likewise seeing first pitch strikes at a career low clip, and his swinging strike rate (16.4) is surprisingly better than his career numbers. Javy is also swinging at pitches outside the strike zone at a career low (34.2 percent, 43.5 percent career average), and generally speaking, he’s making contact on pitches he does swing at (63.8 percent) within range of his career average (67.3).
Moreover, Javy is hitting the ball hard. His exit velocity (91.4 mph) is in the 78th percentile among major leaguers, and he’s also hitting the ball to the opposite field (28.3 percent) at a rate better than his career norm (24.4). Certainly some bad luck is at play, as the current .279 BABIP is drastically lower than his career .337 mark, but that alone doesn’t quite explain what’s going on with Javy so far in 2020.
In terms of pitch location, pitchers are attacking Javy in the same manner. Here’s a look at the raw total of pitches Javy has seen in his career:
Here’s that same graphic for 2020:
The philosophy couldn’t be more clear: pitching Javy down and away is the best way to have success. In 2020 that philosophy has remained evermore. What has changed, however, is the pitch selection in attacking the vaunted slugger.
The Slider is Giving Javy Fits
Pitchers have thrown Baez sliders this season at an alarming clip (35.7 percent), well beyond anything he’s seen in his career (23.7). Against the pitch in 2020 he is hitting just .077, slugging .192, with a BABIP an impossibly low .056. For his career, Baez has a respectable .242 batting average against the slider, slugging .456 against the pitch with a .317 BABIP.
If pitchers have continued to attack Javy with the slider as they have throughout his career, only upping its usage, why has he suddenly struggled so mightily against it? Conversely, pitchers are throwing curves at a rate halved from the career norm, while also using four-seam fastballs less than at any point in Javy’s career. It’s clear the league has decided hard breaking balls away from Baez is his greatest weakness. The question is whether or not he’ll adjust.
Here’s Javy against a Brad Keller slider earlier this season, striking out on a chase pitch:
Here’s Javy late last year, driving an Anthony DeSclafani slider down and away at an exit velocity of 104.8 mph:
This is the worst and the best of Javy. We know he’ll always have that aggressive approach, and if he swings he’s going to swing hard, sometimes foolishly so. We also know he maintains the ability to track breaking balls down and away, driving them to right field at a blistering velocity.
Let Javy be Javy
Consistency is not Baez’s game, and expecting that reality to suddenly emerge is misguided. Yes, his pitch recognition and plate discipline are maddening at times, but the aggression with which he plays has been foundational to his superstardom. With age, and yet even more experience, I think we’ll see Javy learn how to better harness — rather than mute — that aggression, which is to say the best of his career still lies ahead of him.
The overall track record he’s established the past couple years, combined with the reality that he’s just 27 years old, should allow for the benefit of the doubt that he’ll continue to be among the game’s best hitters for years to come.
The strikeouts are concerning in 2020, as are the lack of walks. But it appears Baez is pressing more than he is outright struggling, and the advanced metrics suggest as much to be true.
Give it time, Cubs fans. Javy will still be Javy.
All stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant
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