With Addison Russell now on the disabled list, Javier Baez has taken his electric defense to shortstop, but it may be his bat that ultimately steals the show. Since the All-Star break, Baez has been on a tear and it’s no coincidence either.
Prior to the break, Baez was sporting a rough but relatively typical .256/.295/.450 line (84 wRC+), but since the break, he has been hitting .317/.379/.633, good for a 148 wRC+.
There is no obvious batted ball luck here. Baez’s 86.6 mph average exit velocity (EV) ranked 234th in the league (min. 50 results) before the All-Star break. But since then he’s hit the ball at an average of 93.7 mph, which currently puts him in a tie with Giancarlo Stanton for 4th in the league (min. 25 results) with Bryce Harper trailing right behind them. Pretty good company if you ask me.
That 7.1 mph jump in EV between halves is actually the largest increase between halves for any player included in the previous samples, so there could be more to his success than just a random hot streak. No physical swing changes jump out to me though, which leads me to believe his improvements are mental or not of his own doing.
Let’s consider how LHP have pitched to Baez since the break. (Match the lower Total Pitches count to post-All-Star break performance for each gif).
Prior to the break we see LHPs working primarily low in the zone against Baez. After the break, LHP have consistently missed below and above the zone. Given that Baez is a low-ball hitter against LHP, it is possible that this new elevation is intentional, but Baez hasn’t been tempted into changing his game plan, roughly maintaining his swing rates regardless of a pitch’s elevation. Over such a small sample size (18 PA), it seems likely that this is just noise due to LHPs missing their spots. Whatever the case, LHP have been all over the place against Baez, and he has torched them to the tune of a 194 wRC+ since the break.
Looking at Pitch% grids from RHP now, it seems that a solid approach to Baez has started to slip.
Obviously, RHP try to keep the ball low and away from Baez, but since the break, those pitches have started to creep up in the zone. And those pitches that do end up low and away have tended to end up way low and way away.
In the next gif, we see Baez is actually taking hacks at those low and away pitches at a higher rate than before.
But the fact that he has made less contact in those areas seems to have prevented him from being punished as much by weak contact.
From the following gif of SLG/P by zone, we see Baez making the most of those elevated mistakes from RHP while still covering the bottom of the zone very well.
This has been all been good news for Baez, but it could also bad news for him in a way too.
He has gotten off to a blistering start in the second half, but potentially, a significant portion of his success could be credited to pitchers who haven’t challenged him the same way they did earlier in the season.
Pitchers seem to be throwing fewer quality strikes to Baez, which is part of the reason he has seen his BB% increase from 5.0% in the first half to 9.1% in the second half. In the same timeframe, his K% has jumped from 26.0% to 34.8%. This large increase in both BB% and K% coupled with a substantial increase in EV across the board might suggest that Baez is taking his chances to just let it fly on hittable pitches because his pitch recognition hasn’t been challenged as staunchly.
While “letting it fly” may revive some ugly memories of a strikeout-heavy 2014, it may also be how Javy can find the most success. Avoiding strikeouts is no longer paramount, and the skill may even still be on a downtrend. We are witnessing a bizarre season from Joey Gallo who is being celebrated for his high K/high power output; it’s possible Baez could follow a similar path.
Maybe this is a random hot streak. Maybe it’s just Baez letting loose a bit. But with strikeouts being increasingly overlooked, maybe it’s time to just let Javier Baez be Javier Baez.
All data from Baseball Savant and FanGraphs