Is Javier Baez Already a Bust?

The Chicago Cubs sent top prospect Javier Baez to Puerto Rico to get some extra reps and improve his game during the offseason. But after striking out in 21 of 43 at-bats facing Winter Ball’s Triple-A caliber pitching, his future in the Cubs organization is in more doubt than ever. A lack of plate discipline never hurt Baez in the minors, as he sported a career .881 MiLB OPS. Now, however, it appears his strikeout problem has gotten out of control. Is Javier Baez already a bust at just 22 years old? By analyzing his swing, minor league career, brief stint in the majors, and plate discipline, we will try to answer this burning question and figure out where Baez went wrong.

In 2013 with Double-A Tennessee, Baez batted .294 with an astounding .638 slugging percentage (despite a 28.8 strikeout percentage). His performance earned him a Top-5 ranking in nearly every prospect guru’s Top-100. The future was looking bright.

Baez didn’t quite live up to the massive hype with Triple-A Iowa the following season, but he still managed to maintain his sky-high stock. He batted .260, posted a .833 OPS, and knocked in 80 runs in just over 100 games. His strikeout percentage rose to 30%, but that didn’t stop the Cubs from calling up a player almost everyone agreed was the next superstar. Baez homered in his debut and continued hitting well for the first few weeks. However, that was all the success he enjoyed in his rookie season.

At the conclusion of the 2014 major league regular season, Baez was batting a paltry .169, striking out in 41.5 percent of his at-bats, and walking in only 6.6 percent of his 229 trips to the plate. Although he did slug nine home runs in just 52 games (that’s 28 homers prorated over a 162 game season), Baez’s heat map tells the story of his time in the majors.

If you stray a little ways from the center of the strike zone, Baez was awful in nearly every zone for the Cubs in 2014. He was an automatic out at the top of the strike zone, and couldn’t hit anything below his knees. That didn’t stop Baez from swinging in these areas; he still took a hack at nearly 50 percent of these pitches (see the chart below), despite having absolutely zero success.

Baez swung 60 percent of the time at the low-and-inside strike, but didn’t even net a single hit for his efforts. In the middle-inside strike area he swung 12 percent less often despite hitting those pitches at a .357 clip.

Every good hitter knows his strengths and weakness, and even though Baez is very young, his failure to identify where he struggles and where he succeeds is an indicator of a very poor plate approach that depresses his major league value.

How exactly did Baez get away such a poor swing for his whole career? Well, I think the following video, in which Baez smacks a double to the right field wall in High-A, shows it all.

At about the one second mark, Baez drops his hands in order to generate extra power. His quick hands and plus bat speed allow him to punish the minor league pitcher even with a long swing. However, no player’s hands or bat are quick enough to use that approach and find sustained success in the major leagues. Just ask Ike Davis.

Now, take a look one of Javier’s at-bats from his last game in Triple-A.

0:46 seconds in, Baez looks at a fastball on the outside corner because his incredibly long load prevents him from getting his bat around in time. 0:57 seconds in, Baez takes a hard cut and is beat badly upstairs, something we saw a lot of from him with the Cubs. In the final pitch of the at-bat, Javier starts his load, but, by the time he is ready to swing, the ball has already crossed the plate. He is forced to take the pitch and strike out looking.

Baez is one of the best hitters in baseball when he guesses correctly. When he was ahead in the count in the majors, he batted .293 with a terrific .990 OPS. But when he fell behind, he batted an abysmal .064 and posted an atrocious .103 OPS. It’s either feast or famine for Baez. And right now, his swing is yielding a lot more negativity than success.

Early in the offseason, the Cubs sent top prospect Arodys Vizcaino to Atlanta in exchange for middle infielder Tommy La Stella. It was a perplexing move at the time considering Chicago’s multitude of quality infielders (Baez, Mike Olt, Starlin Castro, Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo). But now, after taking a close look at Baez’s swing, approach, and 2014 season, the trade might be a sign that Chicago is not very confident in the player rated the number five prospect in baseball by Baseball America just one year ago.

Javier Baez’s incredible minor league success masked his true deficiencies. He’s still young and has time to improve, but should he not alter his fundamentally flawed approach, the former first round pick will join the long list of promising prospects who never figured it out at the big league level.

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