A case for Javier Báez

by Jared Greenspan

Note: All statistics used are updated through play on 9/23/2021

Last Wednesday, a group of reporters huddled around Francisco Lindor and posed a question: Does Steve Cohen, the first-year Mets’ owner, have enough money to sign Javier Báez, New York’s splashy trade deadline acquisition, to a potential nine-figure deal in the offseason?

Lindor grinned.

“Of course he does.”

Lindor is right. Cohen’s pockets are deeper than each one of his counterparts; plus, he’s made clear his intentions to both spend money and win. With the Mets having vastly underperformed in 2021, Cohen will certainly aim to refurbish the team come the winter. Signing Báez is seemingly a foolproof way to prevent New York from getting worse. 

Realizing that Cohen has the money to sign Báez, though, is merely the easy part of the equation. Where does Báez actually fit in when it comes to the franchise’s long-term plans? Do they view him as part of the solution?

For all that’s gone wrong with the Mets over the last two months (and a lot has), Báez stands out as a bright spot. Amongst all the position players traded at July’s deadline, only Starling Marte (2.1) has a higher fWAR than Báez (1.6). Thumbs-down controversy aside, Báez has performed as well as New York could have hoped for.

Now, free agency beckons, providing Báez an opportunity to secure a lucrative contract for the first time in his eight-year MLB career. But in the upper echelon of free agent shortstops, Báez’s name is often left behind; Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, and Marcus Semien all seemed poised to draw more interest.

It may be unlikely that Báez leapfrogs any of those players in terms of interest and contract size, but Báez will certainly have plenty of suitors himself. At the dawn of the offseason, perhaps it’s time to reconsider his value.

A more refined approach, to an extent:

By all accounts, Báez’s 2021 season has been a massive success. His power has returned (a .236 ISO is higher than his career average); he’s mashing breaking balls (a career-best .372 wOBA); he’s hitting more balls in the air and less on the ground, and he’s hitting balls harder than ever before (a 44.7% hard-hit percentage and 13.8 barrel percentage are both career-bests).

Yet in a discussion on Báez, I want to focus on the attribute he is best known for, both for better and for worse.

Báez is the league’s most notorious free-swinger and has been for quite a while now. This season, he’s swinging at 56.8% of the pitches he sees (the second-highest mark of his career), while swinging at 42.7% of balls outside the strike zone (a career-worst). It’s an approach that can be both maddening and hilarious, depending on what team you’re rooting for.

But as of late, something particularly noteworthy is happening with regards to Báez’s approach. Over the last two weeks, Báez has recorded as many walks (9) as he has strikeouts. His 15-game rolling BB% (14.3%) and K% (22.2%) are as close together as they’ve been since 2018. On Sept. 13, Báez even drew three walks against the Cardinals, his first multi-walk game since 2019.

Báez’s current 15-game rolling walk percentage stands as a career-high, exceeding the previous-best by nearly three percentage points.

Opposing pitchers tend to pitch to Báez in a different manner than they do any other hitter in the league. At some point during the 2018 season, pitchers finally figured out the book on Báez; they realized that they could retire him without so much as throwing a strike. The change is apparent in his 15-game rolling zone percentage, which first cratered in 2018 and then nosedived over the past two seasons.

Pitchers are increasingly inclined to throw Báez a consistent diet of pitches outside the strike zone. This year, Báez has seen just 39.2% of pitches in the strike zone, the lowest figure of any player in the Statcast era.

And yet Báez really hasn’t changed his approach, besides this recent two week spurt. In spite of that, he is in the midst of his second-best offensive season of his career (judging by wRC+), trailing only his 2018 campaign in which he finished as the runner-up for NL MVP.

A prominent reason for his success is the fact that he’s producing far more damage on his swings. Major League Baseball’s Statcast tool divides the plate into four attack zones — the heart, shadow, chase, and waste regions. They’re each named appropriately: pitches in the heart are grooved into the prototypical wheelhouse, while those in the waste region are farthest away from the strike zone.

For Báez, a patented bad-ball hitter, those names are insignificant. Traditionally, he finds success in each zone, and in 2021, he’s outperforming his career marks in all four regions.

HeartwOBAPercentage of Pitches
Career.46621.8%
2021.49520.5%
ShadowwOBAPercentage of Pitches
Career.30039.7%
2021.31539.5%
ChasewOBAPercentage of Pitches
Career.19824.9%
2021.21726.4%
WastewOBAPercentage of Pitches
Career.25212.8%
2021.37813.7%

Báez sees more pitches outside the strike zone (the chase and waste regions), which is typically less conducive to success. While that pitch selection would presumably not bode well for a notorious free-swinger, Báez has managed to buck that trend, succeeding on those types of pitches at a greater clip than both his career mark and the league average.

The disparity between Báez’s level of damage on swings between this season and last season is all the more stark.

wOBAHeartShadowChaseWaste
2020.328.253.047.285
2021.495.315.217.378

Last season, the majority of pitches that Báez saw were in the shadow zone (39.1%), yet his .253 wOBA in that region was 47 points beneath his career average. In the chase region, Báez posted a measly .047 wOBA, failing to record a single hit across 28 at-bats; 23.9% of the pitches he saw amounted to minimal production, considering just two of those pitches resulted in a walk. Unsurprisingly, Báez posted a 55 wRC+ last season, the lowest mark since his rookie season in 2014.

This season, those numbers have reversed. In the chase region, Báez has 14 hits, tied for the third-most in the league; he sees the fifth-highest percentage of pitches in that region, and, unlike in 2020, has capitalized.

Statcast’s swing/take algorithm helps to further illuminate the success that Báez is having across each zone. His run/take values are most similar to the numbers he put up during the 2018 season, which resulted in a career-best 131 wRC+.

Again, take a look at the disparity between 2020 and 2021:

HeartSwingTakeOverall
2020-3-3-6
2021+15-4+11
ShadowSwingTakeOverall
2020-10-3-13
2021-7-2-9
ChaseSwingTakeOverall
2020-8+7-1
2021-17+15-2
WasteSwingTakeOverall
2020-3+7+4
2021-3+16+13

Báez is a more valuable hitter when he’s laying off pitches in the shadow, chase and waste regions, as the charts indicate. This holds true for nearly all hitters, but Báez has an especially stark disparity between his swing/take values.

Báez’s more refined approach would seem to indicate that he is starting to realize this himself. Already this year, he’s reached 128 three-ball counts, just five below his career-best. A fifth of those counts have come in September alone.

Both Báez’s increased production and improved plate discipline can be attributed to the return of in-game video. Due to the pandemic, MLB banned the use of in-game video during the 2020 season, reasoning that social distancing precluded players from clustering in cramped video rooms. Last September, amidst the second-worst season of his career, Báez lamented its absence.

“We need video back,” Báez said. “I’m one of those guys, I’m going to keep trying to bring it back because we need it and I make adjustments with it. … I make my adjustments during the game. I watch my swing, I watch where the ball was, where the contact was.”

In hindsight, it’s obvious that the absence of in-game video had a direct impact on Báez’s production. This season, he’s turned it around, re-establishing himself as one of the league’s most dynamic players. It certainly seems as if last season was a statistical anomaly.

Now, the Mets will need to figure out whether they want to keep him. His sudden changes at the plate could weigh heavily in the decision.



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