Representing one of the shiny new toys in the Cubs arsenal of their championship team, it is easy to be enticed by the uber-talented Javy Baez. Fantasy owners will remember his stolen bases and key hits on the way to a title, but can Baez be trusted for the upcoming season? Much of this will depend on his ability to improve his contact rates, drawing walks, and how Joe Maddon deploys him.
Anyone who has seen his swing can be drawn to the power Baez generates. However, the violence in the approach along with chasing pitches outside the strike zone will also cap his ceiling for fantasy purposes moving forward. Baez has produced seasons with 23 home runs and 16 stolen bases at Triple-A in 2014 along with following it up with 13 home runs and 17 steals in 2015 prior to spending most of last year with the Cubs.
Baez appeared in 142 games last season and his versatility in the infield will translate well for fantasy. He will be eligible at second base, third base and shortstop in drafts this year, having appeared in at least 25 games at each position. Although this is appealing, it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Baez made gains at Triple-A in regards to cutting down his strikeout percentage from 30 percent in 2014 to 24.3 percent at the same level one year later. It was very surprising to see this number hold in his first full season with the Cubs as Baez struck out in 24 percent of his at-bats last year.
Taking into account his talent, along with the ability to generate double-digit production in home runs and steals, Baez is going to be a popular target in drafts and auctions this year. Before trying to win the draft room message board, it is going to be important to look at his batted ball data, plate discipline and splits from last season.
Batted Ball Data
When Baez was in the minors, part of the allure of his future in the majors was the power quotient. It is difficult to say his 14 home runs in 421 at-bats was a disappointment, but fantasy owners may have expected more.
Starting with his fly ball percentage, Baez hit fewer fly balls in 2016 than the season prior, but that was a limited sample. Upon his promotion in 2014, Baez registered a 45.3 fly ball percentage, which dropped to 31.4 percent last year. As one would expect, his ground ball percentage has grown from 37.3 percent in 2015 to 44 percent last season. Keep this in mind when the discipline segment explores his pitches seen in 2016.
Trying to predict line drive percentage can be difficult, and in his debut season, Baez had a line drive percentage of only 13.7 percent which grew to 31.4 in his limited sample in 2015 and settled in at 19.5 percent last year. This seems like a repeatable number based upon his profile. Baez benefited from a .323 BABIP last year which grew his average to a very tolerable .273 from a fantasy perspective. Opposite of the line drive percentage, this number will be tough to repeat.
Part of the reason Baez will have a hard replicating his inflated BABIP is the sure variance of the statistic. Being a speed player, it could be sustained but his plate discipline will make it hard to trust. On the surface, Baez did lower his swinging-strike percentage from 16.4 percent in 2015 to 14.4 last year. His contact rate did grow from 67.7 percent to 72.4 percent as well.
But if Baez is going to take a step forward in his production, he needs to draw more walks. This may not be a part of his game despite being in a lineup of patient hitters. During his minor league career, the highest walk percentage he registered was 7.8 percent at Triple-A in 2014. Last year, Baez had a 3.3 percent walk rate with a 24 percent strikeout rate. It feels like this is something Baez can improve upon, but here is a look at his pitches seen by zone courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net:
Major league hitters need to take advantage of a pitcher’s mistake, and Baez is more than capable of this. But over 12 percent of the pitches he saw last year were in the red box low and away from the strike zone. Until he stops bailing and wailing at pitches, this will not change. Baez is young enough to adjust and can learn to lay off these pitches, but his resulting whiff-per-swing percentages show why he is seeing this many pitches in the location identified:
Outside of becoming Vlad Guerrero, who could seemingly make contact with any pitch, Baez is going to be implored by his hitting coach to not swing at the pitches in the red zone above. With a whiff percentage of 69 percent, odds are strong Baez will be seeing many pitches in this zone when behind in the count. One of the hardest things about hitting major league pitchers is making adjustments to weaknesses. Baez has had one of his exploited.
Once again, surface counting stats show Baez not having a discernible difference in his two halves last year. He played in 69 games in the first half and 65 in the second. Baez had 28 runs with nine home runs, 30 RBI and six stolen bases in the first half. After the All-Star break, he had 22 runs with five home runs, 29 RBI and six steals. Other than some runs and home runs, not much is amiss.
Baez even hit .273 in both halves, so why the apprehension? Starting with his OPS, Baez had a .774 mark in the first half but it dropped to .698 in the second half. Part of this was addressed with the drop in walks and his OBP dipped from .320 before the All-Star break to .307 after. But his slugging also dropped from .454 to .390. This is a tenuous tightrope for Baez to walk in regards to returning value compared to investment.
ADP and Projection
Early NFBC average draft position (ADP) has Baez as the 119th player overall taken in live drafts. This does not seem like a reach but drafters have to keep in mind, middle infield is deeper this year as compared to the past. There is an inherent advantage to having a player like Baez who is eligible at five different spots in deeper leagues, but can he repeat last year or improve upon it?
Taking a look at his 2016 final ranks by position on the ESPN Player Rater, Baez finished as the 26th second baseman, and 23rd shortstop and third baseman overall last year. His ADP has him as the 12th second baseman, eighth third baseman or 13th shortstop taken depending on where he starts for a fantasy owner.
In a 12-team writer’s mock, Baez was taken as the last pick in the 10th round at number 120 overall, which is in direct correlation to his early NFBC ADP. This is not bad value for right now. A big spring or many sites touting him as a breakout player may inflate his price as draft days approach.
Paying for a repeat in his counting stats seems like a good bet based on the skill set Javy Baez possesses. There could be some regression his batting average if there is any fluctuation in his BABIP. It will be very interesting to see if he can improve upon his contact rate or at least contact in the strike zone and what type of effect it will have. Of more importance, Baez needs to take a few more walks which would make his owners happy if he were to steal more bases.
There is a chance Baez could add 20 home runs and stolen bases to his 2017 résumé. Paying for it seems risky. Not only do the Cubs have many players to assure at-bats to, but Maddon likes to rest players and match up lineups over the course of the season. If he can accrue at least 475 at-bats, there is a chance he can get 15-to-19 home runs or even reach 20 with 14-to-16 stolen bases. It will be the batting average which may see the biggest drop to the mid-.250 range.
Presently, Baez is priced about right. Time will tell if his stock will ascend or if owners will be scared away from his ceiling being reached due to playing time or plate discipline issues. Buy Baez for a 60-run, 17-home run, 65-RBI, 15-stolen base season with a .260 batting average. There will only be profit if his slash lines remain at the .274/.314/.423 level he achieved last year. His walk percentage and BABIP make a repeat a risky venture.
Ceilings are hard to predict in baseball and Javy Baez may be one year away from his breakout, making him a risk at his present price for 2017.
Fangraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, ESPN.go.com, BrooksBaseball.net, steamerprojections.com and ZiPS courtesy of Dan Szymborsi, hosted.stats.com (NFBC ADP)