Any baseball fans who were not too familiar with Javier Báez before the 2016 postseason became really familiar with him once it started. He displayed electric defense at second base, especially with his uniquely elite tagging skills. He won the NLCS MVP by hitting .318/.333/.500 in the series. He even stole home in Game 1 of that series! Through the playoffs at that point, he hit .342/.366/.526. He hit only one home run, and it was only a 41 PA sample, but he was showing flashes of the upside that scouts always saw in him.
The fact that Báez barely walked in the first two rounds of the playoffs was probably an indicator that he had not changed anything and was just enjoying some small sample size luck. During the regular season, he hit .273/.314/.423 with a lowly 3.3 percent walk rate, which ranked sixth-worst in baseball among hitters with at least 450 PA.
I am guessing that Cleveland realized that they did not have to throw strikes to Báez in the World Series, because he got only five hits in 30 PA. He did not walk once, though he did manage to hit a home run. I am not a scout, but he looked terrible at the plate in that series.
I was concerned about how Báez would perform in 2017. He is unquestionably the best defensive second baseman the Cubs have on their roster, and combining that with his offensive upside would likely make him the everyday second baseman. An elite defensive second baseman does not need to hit much, but Báez’s weaknesses can make it so that opposing pitchers see to it that he does not reach even that low bar.
Over the first two weeks of the season, Báez was off to an atrocious start, hitting a paltry .226/.294/.290. Thankfully for Cubs fans, he enjoyed some positive regression and his current line sits at .263/.310/.475. Right now, his wOBA is almost identical to last year’s wOBA. The good news is that his walk rate is up about 60 percent over last season, and his power is way up with a .213 ISO. The bad news is that his approach still stinks. Here are some of his plate discipline rankings among hitters with at least 80 PA.
- His outside-the-zone swing percentage is a league-worst 47.6 percent.
- He makes contact with those pitches at only 46.9 percent of the time, which is the 12th-worst in baseball.
- His swinging-strike rate is the worst in baseball at 21.9 percent.
- His 61.1 percent contact rate is also the worst in baseball.
In short, Báez swings at everything and does a poor job of making contact. You don’t have to be an elite baseball analyst to know that such a combination is a recipe for disaster. You could scream small sample size, but Báez has struggled with his approach since his early days in the minors. Furthermore, plate discipline numbers show a player’s true talent relatively quickly, more so than almost any other statistic.
Báez is only 24 years old, so there is time for his approach to improve. That being said, this is basically who he has been over 848 career plate appearances. He has a 95 wRC+ since 2015, and that will play for a very good defensive second baseman. However, his floor is low because of how exploitable he is, and the Cubs have other options at second base.
The Cubs are a very smart, well run organization, so it is hard to imagine them giving Báez less playing time anytime soon. If his performance falls off a cliff, though, one can imagine moving Ben Zobrist to second base and seeing what they have with Jon Jay in center field. Jay has hit .346/.460/.442 this season, albeit in only 64 PA and with a .439 BABIP. He is walking a lot though. Even Albert Almora is currently outhitting Báez.
As is, Báez is probably a 2-WAR player thanks to his defense and positional value. There is nothing wrong with that, but he can’t get any worse than that, or else his playing time will be jeopardized. Here is hoping that my fellow boricua makes the leap and reaches the heights that scouts have always seen in him.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.