It happened rather suddenly last summer when the Cubs called up Javier Baez with little advance notice. He made his debut against the Rockies, hitting a game-winning home run in the 12th inning and three home runs in his first three games, along with three strikeouts. From that point, the strikeouts and home runs diverged--he ended up with six more homers and 92 additional strikeouts.
The Cubs professed to taking a hands-off approach to Baez last year in order to let him see for himself the adjustments necessary to handle big-league pitching. This was a tremendous responsibility to place on the shoulders of a 21-year-old rookie, but in a wasted season, it's not like his production was absolutely vital to the Cubs' outcome. As of this writing, he's had eleven at-bats this spring training with one hit (a home run) and four strikeouts. In a crowded infield on a team with dreams of contention for 2015, that's not enough.
These are how various projection systems see Baez performing in 2015:
Depth Charts, Steamer, and ZiPS were accessed from FanGraphs, PECOTA from Baseball Prospectus, and the 162-game projection from Baseball-Reference. Projections are projections, handy for using past performance to make educated assessments of future production but no guarantees, and these are all fairly similar. In the case of the 162-game projection, the strikeouts would be beyond alarming--were that number to occur (and it wouldn't--the Cubs wouldn't allow Baez even to remotely approach it), the old record for strikeouts in a season would be absolutely obliterated and increased by over thirty percent.
How has Baez reached this point? With a willingness to swing at just about any pitch outside the strike zone:
This combines two different charts--the first shows times pitches are swung at by zone and times those pitches are whiffed. For example, in the upper inner part of the strike zone (the upper left zone), Baez saw 32 pitches in 2014 (not shown), swung at six of them, and whiffed on four. That's about the extent of his plate patience, which led Brooks Baseball to write this on his landing page:
Against All Fastballs (567 seen), he had an exceptionally poor eye (0.58 d'; 58% swing rate at pitches in the zone vs. 36% swing rate at pitches out of the zone) and a steady approach at the plate (0.08 c) with a disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss (35% whiff/swing).
Against Breaking Pitches (317 seen), he had an exceptionally poor eye (0.16 d'; 55% swing rate at pitches in the zone vs. 49% swing rate at pitches out of the zone) and an aggressive approach at the plate (-0.05 c) with a disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss (53% whiff/swing).
Against Offspeed Pitches (102 seen), he had an exceptionally poor eye (0.30 d'; 60% swing rate at pitches in the zone vs. 48% swing rate at pitches out of the zone) and a patient approach at the plate (-0.10 c) with an exceptionally high likelihood to swing and miss (54% whiff/swing).
That's a lot of negative adverbs, and the adjectives aren't much better.
There will be many moving parts that will place Joe Maddon and the Cubs in an interesting situation. As mentioned earlier, the Cubs are absolutely loaded in the middle infield with Baez, Starlin Castro, Arismendy Alcantara, and Addison Russell, not to mention recent acquisition Tommy La Stella. Alcantara is being groomed to be the Cubs' version of Ben Zobrist and has his own free-swinging issues, and Russell is only 21 and hasn't played above Double-A ball. Baez will never be confused with Dustin Pedroia with the glove, and when teamed with Castro and eventually Kris Bryant at third could be part of one of the worst defensive infields in baseball. Infields like this can work only if the offense overwhelms the defensive deficiencies.
I've been taunting myself all winter watching Hank Haney golf swing videos, and the first one showed me something I know for a fact I haven't been doing on my drives, and as the thermometer approaches 60 and the snow begins to melt, I can't wait to hit the driving range and see what will happen. I can almost be certain of one thing--it won't be instantaneous, and it might not work at all. The same can be said of Baez' approach at the plate. It's very easy to state "Be more patient" and quite another to turn that patience into a habit while at the same time trying to make adjustments to cut down his swing. That's difficult to accomplish at any level, let alone the majors, and so far the Cubs are being very tight-lipped as to whether Baez might start the season in the minors.
It doesn't take any great skill to grab charts and data from other sites, and nothing I've written is unknown to anyone who follows the Cubs, and the world won't stop spinning if Baez doesn't fulfill his sky-high expectations. He's still young enough that the light could go on. He can already count on not getting pitches anywhere near the strike zone--almost sixty-five percent of pitches he saw last year were out of the strike zone, and pitchers will have absolutely no reason to give him anything to hit as long as he's willing to swing at almost anything.
Part of the genetic makeup of Cubs fans like myself is wild optimism, so I've been down this road before. This picture was taken when daughter #2 was a week old (she'll be [thinking] 23 in [asking wife] April):
Try not to be blinded by my handsomeness (this will be easier than you think). The headline of the middle story stated that 1992's third baseman of the future, Gary Scott, had been benched. I don't foresee a similar fate for Baez, but if the Cubs are indeed in win-now mode, they can't afford to have a defensively-challenged out machine batting #2. If Baez doesn't show progress by Opening Day, he might not break with the Cubs, and he just might have to wait 'til next year.
Data from just about every baseball site on the Internet--Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant. Take a moment to tweet Sean Forman, Dave Cameron, Sam Miller, Dan Brooks and Daren Willman your thanks and appreciation for making these troves of information that could only be dreamed about as recently as 20 years ago available at our fingertips.
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.