Javier Baez: Swing Trends and Contact Rates

My original intention for this week’s column was to continue on with examining some of the 2016 performances of third basemen. However, given recent events, I am now presented with an opportunity to examine a versatile (and, as such, a third base-eligible) player that has easily emerged as one of my favorite players to watch, in all of baseball. This has been a growing trend for me, and many others with North Side loyalties, over the past couple of years. The rest of the country, however, spent the National League Division Series matchup between the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants learning just what Javier Baez brings to the table.

We’re not going to talk about the glove here. For one, it really speaks for itself. Javy Baez might have the best set of hands I’ve ever seen a baseball player possess. His instincts are off the charts, along with a strong arm. Toss in the athleticism and the versatility, and it’s really no wonder that Joe Maddon is comfortable deploying him at the five different positions at which he appeared this year. He maintains fantasy eligibility at second, shortstop, and, of course, third base.

But what has been perhaps most impressive about Baez are the adjustments he’s had to make at the plate in order to adapt and, as recent events have indicated, excel at the big league level. When he arrived on the big league scene for his first appearance in 2014, Baez had already developed a reputation as a free swinger. With a wild and violent swing that many likened to Gary Sheffield, the assumption was that his bat speed would allow him to compensate for some of the mechanical flaws.

Baez was called up in August of 2014 and notched 229 plate appearances. The results were…not entirely encouraging:

baez2014

That doesn’t necessarily indicate a man with a plan up at the plate. And pitchers knew exactly how to attack him:

baezstrikes2014

Small sample size be damned, Javy demonstrated that he was susceptible to pitches low and away. Baez struck out over 41% of the time, registering a swinging strike percentage of 19.2. Those rates are among the highest in the last couple of decades, with the bulk of the players in that neighborhood being pitchers. He swung at 46.8% of pitches overall, with 39.5% of pitches outside of the strike zone being met with a Javy hack. His overall contact rate was a disappointing 59.0%. That big, loopy swing had all the promise in the world, but it didn’t translate to early success.

The trends since that end of 2014 have been overwhelmingly encouraging, to say the least. The 2015 season essentially served as a wash due to Baez being limited to just 28 games and 80 plate appearances. But after getting healthy at the beginning of 2016, Baez transitioned into a super utility role with the Cubs that saw him appear at those various positions and prove an immensely valuable piece of a club that won 103 games during the regular season. The adjustments at the plate speak for themselves, but there are also some interesting trends to take note of, as well.

In a writeup from the beginning of 2015, Bleacher Nation starts to detail some of the mechanical changes we’ve seen put into practice from Baez over the last two seasons. We’ve seen less pre-swing movement, a bit more subtlety in the leg kick, and a refined approach with two strikes. And while we won’t delve too far into the mechanics themselves, there’s a lot to be said about the results from his work in that regard.

Let’s compare that initial 2014 appearance and this recent 2016 campaign:

Swing% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% SwStr% K%
2014 46.8 39.5 58.7 59.0 19.2 41.5
2016 52.6 42.9 67.9 72.4 14.4 24.0

There are a few interesting things going on here. The most obvious, of course, is that Baez managed to drive his contact rate up by a significant margin. That’s a 13.4% increase in his overall contact rate. He cut own on swings-and-misses by almost five full percentage points, while also experiencing a 16.5% drop in his strikeout percentage. And, interestingly enough, this all came despite him becoming apparently more aggressive at the plate.

Exactly to what do we attribute a trend like that? For one, an adjustment to Major League pitching is evident. Then, you can factor in the mechanical adjustments as well. Those are the obvious elements. The swing trends also appear to make sense to a larger degree. In the previous heatmap, from 2014, his swings were heavy up in the zone, low and inside, low and away, etc. They were kind of all over the place. While he’s swinging more, he’s certainly making it a point to go after pitches that find their way to the middle of the plate, with height not factoring in as much. It just looks like a more coherent distribution.

baez2016

With that approach becoming more evident, we’re seeing Baez pull the ball more and make more linedrive contact (19.5% LD rate in 2016 vs. 13.7% in 2014). He’s been somewhat consistent in his ability to make hard contact, but that’s a somewhat obvious statement given his absurd ability to get the bat through the zone at a high speed. The improvement is in his ability to make that contact consistently, and we’re seeing that.

A clear adjustment is being made in his approach, especially with two strikes. During that 2014 season, Baez hit .137 in two-strike counts, including .098 in both 1-2 and 0-2 counts. This year, he moved up to .207 in two-strike counts. It’s something, right? Look, Baez is never going to cut down on his strikeouts and walk at a high rate. That wild card element is going to be somewhat present in his game, probably forever. He’s an aggressive hitter. But the fact that he’s demonstrated the proper mechanical and approach-related adjustments is extremely encouraging. It’s turning him into a more consistent threat at the plate. He’s willing to cut down on the pre-swing movement and shorten up later in counts, all in the name of contact rates, even if the overall swing rates are higher.

That may never have been more obvious than Tuesday night against the Giants. Facing an 0-2 count, Baez cut down on the strength in his swing and delivered a base knock up the middle. It ended up being the series clinching hit. His defense is the reason for Baez’s coming out party during this postseason, but it’s the improvements he’s making at the plate that may be more fascinating, in that he’s come such a monumentally long way. Again, the aggressiveness is always going to be there and, subsequently, the punchouts. But he’s developing an approach. Combine that with his ability to play plus defense at virtually any position on the field and he has as high of upside as any of these premium position players that the Cubs are fielding these days.





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Hmmmm… I don’t know. While going from a historically bad contact rate to whiffing a quarter of the time is certainly commendable, the nearly 100 point improvement in BABIP (.248 in 2014 vs. .336 in 2016) is likely an equally important factor in the 2016 Baez outcomes that we observed. Now, some of that BABIP improvement was self-driven, as Baez went from a 21% IFFB in 2014 to 11% in 2016, and shifted some of his FBs to LDs, as you mention. But his hr/fb dropped from 17% to an uninspiring 13%; with Sheffield-like swings, one would expect an ISO of more than .150 or so that he’s had both years.

The heatmaps show he’s not chasing down and away anymore, but that’s not the only thing that has spurred Javy Baez this season.