When things are going bad, it’s easy to pile on and expect the downhill trend to continue in that direction. It’s actually been a recurring theme with the Cubs of late. It’s hard to envision any sort of plan being executed properly when what you’re watching is so out of whack with what you’re being told.
When history tells you something different—and we know what history tells us about the Cubs—embracing optimism can be quite a challenge. Right now, that seems to be the case with Javier Baez. With just a little under two months of major-league experience, people are ready to say the power-hitting infielder will never live up to his lofty expectations.
We know that Baez has his flaws, most notably his unreasonably high strikeout rate—which was pushing 42 percent in his 229 plate appearances in the bigs last season. In particular, Baez appears to have issues with the vertical quadrants of the zone, primarily with the hard stuff, but it’s not like he has a history of pounding breaking balls and off-speed pitches either. In general, one can find plenty to criticize with Baez, but the problems appear to stem from both his mechanics and approach. Whether it’s fair to determine his ultimate value at such an early point in his career is another question.
Mechanically, Baez admitted to reporters earlier this spring that he has lowered his hands, something that our Ryan Parker suggested last August could be an easy fix and lead to great results. However, early video of Baez from spring training shows—at least in this particular instance—he has yet to really get these changes implemented (below GIF coutesy of Jerry Brewer).
“Right now we’re trying other stuff, different stuff,” Baez said when asked about the change in hand placement. “I feel good doing it, but in the game it’s different. You don’t think about anything like that, anything mechanically. So we will see how it goes in the game.”
General manager Jed Hoyer seemed to echo those thoughts, reminding us just how hard it is to implement mechanical changes during a game.
“Javy’s been working really hard with (hitting coach) John Mallee and (assistant hitting coach) Eric Hinske to make adjustments,” Hoyer said. “Certainly he’s incorporated some changes in his two-strike approach and his overall approach. It’s going to take time for those things to show up and get ingrained. He’s done a really good job of trying to bring those things into the game, but it’s hard. Hopefully he’ll continue to feel more and more comfortable with the things he’s trying to do.”
And perhaps with two strikes is where we might notice the biggest adjustments in Baez’s mechanics (as this GIF, which is likely just one example and possibly a very early and raw adjustment, seems to indicate). Before working with him daily this spring, Mallee spent six days with Baez while the young infielder was playing in Puerto Rico’s winter league.
“You don’t want to lose the attack of a hitter” Mallee said at Cubs Convention. “So prior to two strikes, he should maintain that. But with two strikes, you make the (bat) speed vs power trade-off. So you have to decide do we need speed here or accuracy? If you need accuracy, then you need to shorten everything up so I can assure that I’m going to make contact and score the runner. Early in the count you need speed and with two strikes you need accuracy.”
One opposing pro scout told me that he’s more concerned with Baez’s lower body issues than what’s happening with his hands. He said making changes in the lower half is much harder and the way his hands sync up with his lower half is an issue, preventing him from really staying on the ball. For his part, Baez seems aware of those issues as well.
“The way I swing, my hands have to go with my lower half and right now it’s almost there,” Baez said. “Before that it was all different, so that’s what we’re working on.”
And of course, there are those who are more concerned with Baez’s approach than his actual mechanics. Mallee suggested it’s all interrelated, and that working to fix the mechanical issues will lead to the approach improving.
“Sometimes, when you have length in your swing, you have to speed up and cheat to get to things, and that messes up the approach a little bit,” Mallee said, adding that the struggles in the big leagues were compounded by Baez trying to familiarize himself with new pitchers as well as being compounded with the pressure that was placed on him upon call-up.
When it was suggested that adjusting an approach might be the hardest thing for a hitter to do, Mallee agreed. But while it’s really hard to change these things, there are ways to work on it and improve, which is what Mallee did with Baez in Puerto Rico and continues to do in Arizona.
“A lot of players just go up there and know this guy has four pitches and they just see it and hit it,” Mallee said. “Well, what we do is we eliminate pitches. We decide prior to the at-bat that we’re going to put this pitch in play during this at-bat and we’re going to be patient enough to wait for it and be ready to hit it from the first pitch on. Or we’re gonna eliminate a side of the plate, or we’re not swinging at any breaking balls off this guy, just the heater no matter what. So when he identifies breaking ball he shuts it down, and that’s what is called selective aggressive hitting.”
There’s certainly a lot going on for Baez; so many little things he needs to work on. But the fact is, he’s putting in the time to try and rectify any issues that are holding him back from reaching his immense potential.
“Javy is, if not the first, one of the first guys in the complex every morning,” Hoyer said. “That’s been the same way all spring. Every day, 6:30, 7:00 in the morning, he does individual hitting with our coaches, working on the things he needs to make adjustments. His work ethic has been great and he’s been incredibly receptive to making the adjustments and I think we’re seeing now how difficult and time-consuming it can be to make those adjustments. But it’s certainly not due to lack of dedication or lack of wanting to make those adjustments.”
Hoyer said he’s been impressed with how Baez has reacted mentally to the struggles, pointing out that his confidence is still high and that he would expect most 22-year-olds to hang their head after such adversity. But that hasn’t been the case with Baez as he continues to work through the process of bringing the adjustments he’s making during batting practice into the games.
“With every top prospect, one of the essential things you need to see is how they react to the struggles,” Hoyer said. “With the exception of the truly elite, everyone struggles at some point in the big leagues. How they make adjustments and how they react to that is what ends up defining their careers. Rarely does a player look exactly the same after a lengthy major-league career as he did when he first came up.”
Indeed, the list of highly thought of prospects who have struggled upon their arrival to the majors is long—some even struggle for years, and many are written off pretty quickly. Eric Hosmer was a top prospect heading into the 2011 season. His debut was strong, but since then it’s been an up-and-down career for the Royals first baseman. However, after a strong postseason, people are once again predicting big things for power-hitting lefty.
One only need to look at the Cubs recent roster to see a litany of names who were written off. About 18 months ago, a scout once told me it’s their job to come to strong conclusions—they can’t hedge when writing a scouting report. One can talk about projection, adjustments, and speculate on all sorts of things—all of which need to be considered when deciding whether a player is placed in the ‘acquire’ or ‘do not acquire’ bin—but ultimately, one has to come to a firm conclusion about what they believe, the scout said.
He then went on to say that if the Cubs could fix Jake Arrieta, whoever did so would have a job for life, but that he just didn’t see it happening. Arrieta has since gone on to surprise not only that scout, but so many others, earning down-ballot Cy Young support in 2014.
There were those who wrote off Starlin Castro after his horrendous 2013 season, a season in which he was in the midst of making all sorts of adjustments. Last year, at just 24, Castro bounced back with a career-high .279 TAv, tied his career-best 14 home runs (despite playing in just 134 games), and appeared in his third All-Star game. Jeff Samardzija went from nearly DFA’d to strong reliever to top rotation arm to traded for super-prospect Addison Russell in just a few years.
And of course there’s this nearly four-year-old tweet from Buster Olney:
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 23, 2011
Similarly to Hosmer, Rizzo went through some up-and-down moments, but after some major adjustments, both with his mechanics and approach, Rizzo has emerged as one of the top offensive forces in baseball. The same can be said for Samardzija, who showed up in the spring of 2012 looking like a different pitcher, with scouts buzzing about his obvious improvement and the crispness of his stuff.
Perhaps the biggest difference from what Rizzo and Samardzija did compared to Baez is that the former two each came into their respective springs with adjustments in place and ready to execute in game action. Baez, like Castro in 2013, is working on all these changes with the eyes of fans and the media (and opposing scouts) on him at all times. It’s why so many are currently down on Baez—he’s still a work in progress instead of a finished product.
It’s yet to be determined, but some would suggest Baez might have peaked during his 2013 season when he slugged 37 home runs and posted a .920 OPS at two levels. That summer helped Baez answer many questions, particular as he passed the Double-A test, and he solidified himself as a consensus top-10 prospect. However, regardless of the sky-high comparisons that were placed on Baez during that peak, the potential to fall short of those expectations has also always been high.
And while associating Baez with the likes of Gary Sheffield and Miguel Cabrera is unfair, so are the premature suggestions that he is a bust. Baez has a long way to go before his numerous issues are fixed, and despite the hard work he’s putting in it’s hardly a guarantee that he’ll figure it all out. However, at the very least, the Cubs are confident he’ll do what’s needed to at least try and rectify all the issues he’s faced with. It’s a big challenge, but one Baez and the staff believe he’s ready to face and overcome.