The Cubs won a 3-1 game Tuesday night in wintry Wrigley Field, moving their record on the season to 7-9. During said game, a certain whiff-happy player went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts and his problem has grown too big to keep ignoring.
Cubs shortstop Javier Baez was never going to be anything resembling a contact hitter or have a particularly good -- or even decent -- eye at the plate. That much has been known since his debut in 2014 and continues today. At this point, however, the plate discipline and whiff issues must be addressed. We can mention small samples all we want, but the problem loops back to last season and if Baez was much more inexperienced, he'd be playing himself out of a job.
The stats show something totally troubling and the eye test shows a player either out of control or missing pitches that should be easily hittable for a player with his raw talent.
Prior to Tuesday's game, Cubs manager David Ross was asked about this and stuck with what has been the Cubs' company line for years. Via Jordan Bastian of cubs.com:
"Asking Javy to cut down his swing, spread out and play pepper, put the ball in play, I don't know that that's going to be the best version of him. I know he is trying extremely hard."
That best version of Baez is the one who finished second in MVP voting in 2018. He hit .290/.326/.554 with 40 doubles, nine triples, 34 homers, 111 RBI, 101 runs, 21 steals, a 129 OPS+ and 6.7 WAR (third in the NL among position players). He stormed out of the gate in 2019 hitting .324/.364/.604 with 11 homers in 43 games before a heel injury slowed him, though he still managed a very productive season, ending up seventh in the NL for a position player WAR at 6.4.
Prior to 2020, there was every reason to believe Baez was set for a huge payday in free agency post-2021. He had every right to be mentioned with the likes of Trevor Story, Corey Seager and Carlos Correa in this huge free agent class of shortstops. Extension talks haven't gotten anywhere and now the Cubs' Baez problem is becoming his own problem. Who would want to sign him for big money on a long-term basis right now?
Baez leads the majors in strikeouts and swings-and-misses. He has struck out 31 times in 60 at-bats and 64 plate appearances.
MLB leaders in strikeout percentage:
If we exclude 2020 and 2021, the worst strikeout percentage in MLB history is 2017 Chris Davis' 37.2.
That's pretty jarring, no? It gets worse.
Worst contact percentage (the percent of time a batter swings and makes contact):
- Baez, 50.4
- Joey Gallo, 56.8
Again, that's a huge divide between worst and next. There are only 13 players under 65 percent and Baez is barely above 50. Again excluding 2020-21, the worst recorded contact percentage ever is 61.7 from Joey Gallo in 2018. Baez isn't even in that ballpark.
The most troublesome here, though, would be the zone contact percentage. That is, the percent of times Baez swings and misses at pitches in the strike zone. I mentioned plate discipline earlier, but one of the things that made Baez great in 2018-19 was that when pitchers did throw him strikes, he absolutely punished them.
This isn't just a case of accepting a player's flaws. Baez has been regressing in a huge way these past few years. Also, remember how we used to marvel at his ability to hit bad balls at times? Yeah, his outside-zone contact rate has plummeted as well.
Check out the tumbling contact rates from his peak:
Contact % in zone
Contact % outside zone
The in-zone contact rate tumbling over 20 percent is where the eye test comes in. Just watch him. Here are two examples (of many, trust me) of pitches he has absolutely no business missing:
That's a lefty throwing 91 miles per hour middle-middle. Any righty in the game should eat that up. Frankly, it should be a home run.
That was from Tuesday night. Sure, it was 97, but it was as right-down-the-middle as a fastball can be. The biggest takeaway there was pitchers simply aren't scared to challenge Baez in the zone with a fastball, even with two strikes, anymore. The book used to be to get him to chase with spin outside the zone, but Trevor May and the Mets decided to just pump gas over the middle of the plate. No worries. Strike three.
That's unacceptably bad from the perspective of Baez and the Cubs.
Interestingly enough, when Baez actually has touched the ball this year, he's done damage. His exit velocity is on level and he has the highest hard hit percentage of his career. The eye test lines up and so do the stats. In the 29 at-bats where he didn't strike out, he has 12 hits, including two doubles and four homers, good for 12 RBI in 16 games. Elsewhere, he's been himself. He leads the NL with five steals and still overall plays good enough defense along with his baserunning to overcome the swing-and-miss struggles for a positive WAR here in the small sample.
Further good news for the Cubs is this is only 16 games and he's had bad slumps before. Perhaps he's about to get hot and break out of this thing. It's possible. It just seems like adjustments aren't being made, he's regressing, and the coaching around the matter appears to be "just let Javy be Javy."
That line of thinking worked for a while and helped build the MVP candidate in 2018 (and 2019 before he got banged up). It's also entirely possible it has at least partially led to his regression to a .202/.241/.376 line with 106 strikeouts against eight walks in 299 plate appearances in 2020-21.
Whatever the reason, this level of contact futility is untenable, costing the Cubs in a big way and costing Baez millions and millions of dollars.