I detoured from my player profiles of over and underachievers last week to examine the Mike Zunino-Mallex Smith swap between the Rays and Mariners. In the absence of any news this week, I’m back to looking at players whose 2018 seasons were unexpected. Today, it’s a player who overachieved as much as anyone last season en route to an MVP runner-up. Cubs infielder Javier Baez was a true superstar last year and fantasy owners are taking notice. He’s coming off the board 13th overall in early Fantrax drafts, number one among second basemen. Yet Steamer, a projection system hosted by Fangraphs, is decidedly less bullish. It’s worth examining this disconnect to examine where Javier Baez truly fits. Is he an elite, first-round talent? Or something closer to a decidedly above-average player who should be coming off the board closer to the third or fourth round? I think it’s the former.
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Javier Baez and His Big Breakout
Javier Baez has long been one of baseball’s most exciting players, but you could make a convincing argument that he’s never actually been good. Until now, that is. Baez was a star from start to finish in 2018, helping the Cubs to weather myriad injuries and underperformance to push into the postseason. Altogether, he hit .290/.326/.554 with career-best home run (34) and stolen base (21) totals. A true five-category contributor, he ended the year 17th on ESPN’s Player Rater, which doesn’t even credit his versatility. Baez qualified at second, third and shortstop last year, allowing owners flexibility to target upgrades across the infield without risk of supplanting one of their best players.
That third base eligibility will lapse next year in some leagues, but he still offers middle infield eligibility. Yet despite the star-level output, Steamer projects Baez to hit .268 with 28 homers and 17 steals in 2019. That’s good, but it’s not quite the year owners popping Baez in the top 15 are hoping for. What explains the discrepancy?
First, it’s worth remembering that Steamer is inherently conservative, targeting a median output rather than a ceiling. It makes sense that the projections wouldn’t anticipate Baez repeating a career season; by their very nature, career years are outliers. But there also might be reasons to believe that the projections could miss on this player, given his unique toolset.
Scouts have long thought this kind of season was within Baez’s reach. Statistical analysts were a lot more skeptical, believing he would need to tamp down his overaggressive approach. Not true, apparently! Baez got a whole lot better this year, but if anything, his plate discipline went in the opposite direction. He didn’t walk, but he started hitting the ball significantly harder. Ironically enough, going in the opposite direction took Baez to another level. Baez easily set a career-high in first pitch swing rate, the second-highest mark in baseball, per Baseball Savant.
Nor did he discriminate based on pitch type; Javier Baez was top-20 in first-pitch swing rate on fastballs, breaking balls and offspeed pitches. He was especially lethal when he jumped on first-pitch soft stuff. There’s no indication of a process change. There’s nothing to suggest that Baez was targeting specific pitches or locations. Not only did he swing at pitches of all different speeds, he hacked at different locations too. Only Carlos Gomez had a higher swing rate on first pitches outside the strike zone, and if there’s a pattern to the locations Baez targeted kicking off at-bats, I don’t see it.
Given all this, it’s understandable why the projections might be reticent to buy in. But maybe the projections just can’t accurately account for a player like Javier Baez. As Baseball America noted in naming Baez the Cubs’ top prospect in 2013, he has “special bat speed” and “no true holes in his swing.” Despite the approach, scouts projected him as a high-average hitter, one who could overcome poor strikeout-to-walk numbers with home runs and strong ball in play results. Those scouting reports have proven prescient. He’s posted above-average BABIPs (batting averages on balls in play) every year of his career, with above-average isolated power marks in each of the past two.
This is where the Steamer forecast seems inexplicably pessimistic, pegging him for a .319 BABIP even though he’s hit above that in each of the last three seasons. It seems reasonable to expect the hits to keep falling. Further, Baez’s hyper-aggressiveness on the first pitch, although contrary to conventional wisdom, might best fit his skill set. He’s susceptible to swing-and-miss because of his approach, so maybe trying to get the ball in play early is preferable to working the count. He sure seems to have the bat control to cover whatever pitches are throwing up there.
I wouldn’t generalize this to attack Steamer- or projections generally, for that matter. It’s indisputable that they’re the best predictor we have of a player’s pending outlook. Yet, Javier Baez feels like a player who the projections are always going to under-appreciate. He has arguably the most extreme approach in MLB, yet he’s got an unreal physical ability to make it work. Not every great hitter needs to be Joey Votto or Alex Bregman.
As his athleticism dwindles with age, we’ll get to a point where Baez can’t continue like this. The bat will slow down someday, he won’t have the bat-to-ball skills to cover any pitch in any zone. Eventually, Baez may need to adjust to a more traditional “old players” profile. That need not be next year, though. At age 26, Baez will be in his physical prime. Finding players who could realistically go 30-20 is extremely difficult. Javier Baez is one of them. I went into this exercise thinking I’d encourage owners to heed the projections, to fade Baez at the back end of the first round based on his approach. I’ve come around to the idea that the early ADP is right, that this approach is what works best for this unicorn of a player. Variety is refreshing. Score one for the scouts.
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