August 5, 2014
The Great Javier Baez Boomstick
Javier Baez and his Chuck Yeager bat speed are finally in The Show. I already examined him in one of the very first editions of Going Yard but time has passed, there is new film of Baez, and I have learned more about hitting. He might be my favorite hitter on the planet to watch so I couldn’t pass up putting him under the microscope once again.
The last time I looked at Baez, I examined his swing and broke down the bigger motions: his pronounced bat trigger and big leg kick. Very few hitters have one movement as extreme as either of Baez's, but he makes it work. Rather than look again at the motions themselves I want to dive deeper and explore how he makes them work inside the swing and how he could refine them.
When I analyzed Joey Gallo, I noted that elite hitters have a knack for synchronizing their hands and feet. Therefore, bigger leg lifts need “bigger” hand movements. Two guys in the big leagues with strides similar to Baez's are Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista.
When their front foot first begins to move backward we see all three have their hands above their shoulders. Notice how even though these guys all have significant backward movement of the foot or leg, their weight doesn’t sway back. If they were to sway, you would see the edge of the back hip behind the back foot. These hitters are textbook examples of how to gather yourself in a swing without drifting your weight too far back.
At the top of their leg lifts we see Bautista with his hands above his shoulders, Donaldson with his hands well below his shoulders, and Baez's hands slightly below his shoulders. While Bautista and Donaldson both keep the bat cocked, Baez lets his lumber become nearly parallel to the ground before getting it back up. Height differences aside, Baez moves his bat much more between his first movement and max leg lift than the other two players.
When they get to foot strike the differences become obvious. Baez’s bat is much more angled. Most people focus on that position, but it's just window dressing. The more important difference is how high Baez has his hands and back elbow, which puts him in a tough position. In a game of inches, Baez's hands have to travel several inches farther than his peers'. His bat speed can bail him out in this regard, but I have watched him whiff on low pitches time and again.
Oh no! Something bad about Baez’s swing! Not to worry Cubs fans. In your mind, lower his hands from their position just prior to foot strike a few inches and whom do you see? Here’s a helpful visual.
I understand Baez’s trademark whip is dependent on this position so I’m not advocating that he abandon it. Rather, I would be ecstatic if he could get to this position at a different height and time. Moving your bat around is not inherently bad in your swing. When it’s in a funhouse position that late in the sequence is when I get worried.
Both Josh Hamilton and Gary Sheffield have pronounced bat movement before contact. I looked for the time when the bat was at its most extreme position. Sheffield’s is well before his front foot comes down and Hamilton’s is also prior to his foot touching down. Baez’s is at the moment his front foot touches. Gallo went through a similar issue. While not as blatant as Baez’s, Gallo would tilt his bat before launching his swing. He’s now found a way to hit with that tilt, not in spite of it.
The craziness of Baez is that he can be in this position and it takes him as long as Hamilton (who is in a much better position at foot strike) to get to the ball. Both hitters go from the toe hitting the ground to the bat hitting the ball in about seven frames. This also means that Baez is less efficient in his swing. Hamilton is in a near-ideal position at foot strike. Even with Baez’s superior bat speed, it still takes him seven frames from this instance to launch the bat to contact. If he can get himself into a better position, he can cut off maybe a frame or two.
Going back to his stride, we see Baez do an awesome job of coiling his hips. His hips turn inward independent of his shoulders. In a vacuum, I love how he can coil, but, like his hands, it’s an issue of timing. Baez is fully coiled a frame before his knee gets to its max height. Bautista has a similar stride but isn’t fully coiled until a frame after his knee reaches max height. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to reach this coiled position before your leg reaches its max height. Mike Trout is fully coiled before his leg is at its highest point, but his stride takes about half as long as Baez's:
Baez has been eaten up by breaking balls and off-speed pitches and I think his pattern of hip coiling combined with his hand position could explain that. I’ve seen him track breaking stuff well only to come up empty because his hips begin to open so early and his hands work so steep that it leaves him in a bad spot. If he can delay that hip coil just a bit and line his hands up, it will allow him to better utilize his explosive hip action.
I’ve nitpicked my way to the best moment in his swing. That beautiful moment of NASCAR bat speed that occurs when Baez launches:
Watch how early the bat blurs. Baez generates that bat speed early and unleashes onto the ball at the point of contact. He does a solid job getting the bat on the same plane as the ball. Check out how his upper and lower body are working together. The relationship between his back knee and elbow is rock-solid.
As his back elbow begins to turn, his hips have already started their rotation. This hip action leads to the back knee being pulled forward without the foot having to rise up on a toe. Too many hitters get on their back toe early and lose the strength their legs could be creating. The hips should fire the leg, which should fire the foot.
Baez's back elbow and back knee are driving forward while his hands are flattening out to the baseball. When he makes the contact he’s in a great spot and the extension he gets after contact is fantastic. While his swing may look out of control, it’s not: In any out-of-control swing, Baez's head would be whipping around with the rest of his body, but it stays on the same level.
Baez is going to be a special hitter. The bat speed, ability to control said bat speed, and hand-eye coordination are off the charts. He’s done the hard work and built up his swing. Of course, it will be up to his ability to make small adjustments in his mechanics and approach that will determine whether or not he reaches his ceiling.