Why Javier Baez Is Hyped as MLB's Next Power-Hitting Infield Phenom

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Why Javier Baez Is Hyped as MLB's Next Power-Hitting Infield Phenom
USA Today

It’s finally happening: Javier Baez is getting called up.

According to Bruce Levine of 670TheScore.com (via Twitter), Baez will join the Chicago Cubs before Tuesday’s game against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.

The 21-year-old middle infielder gets the call after a strong showing at Triple-A Iowa, where he batted .260/.323/.510 with 23 home runs, 24 doubles and 80 RBI in 434 plate appearances.

With the news of Baez’s upcoming promotion, it’s safe to say the Cubs front office was pleased with the developmental strides made by Baez over the last two-plus months, as it's giving him a crack at the major leagues a bit earlier than expected.

Before Baez—Prospect Pipeline’s No. 6 overall prospect—makes his highly anticipated debut Tuesday, here’s what you need to know about one of the game’s top prospects.

 

Background

The Cubs selected Baez with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Arlington Country Day School (Jacksonville, Florida), targeting him for his elite bat speed, power potential and high-end athleticism.

Since that day, Baez has done nothing but rake.

After appearing in only five games between the rookie and short-season levels in his 2011 professional debut, Baez received an aggressive promotion to Low-A Peoria the following year for his full-season debut, though not before a lengthy stay at extended spring training.

Though he was young for the level at 19, Baez ripped through the Midwest League with a .333/.383/.596 batting line, 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 57 games. The youngster’s overwhelming success led to a late-season promotion to High-A Daytona, where Baez was challenged (as expected) and struggled to the tune of a .188/.244/.400 batting line with four bombs and a 21-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 games.

Between both levels, Baez posted an impressive .888 OPS with 16 home runs and 24 stolen bases. However, his raw approach and pitch recognition showed during that time, highlighted by his 69-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 321 plate appearances.

In 2013, Baez established himself as one of baseball’s premier prospects, largely a result of his otherworldly production during the second half of the season at Double-A Tennessee.

Baez began the year back with Daytona in the pitcher friendly Florida State League, where he mastered the level by batting .274/.338/.535 with 17 bombs and 19 doubles in 76 games. The performance resulted in a midseason promotion to Double-A Tennessee, and Baez rewarded the organization for its decision with a monster second half. Specifically, in 54 games at Tennessee, Baez, 20 at the time, batted a robust .294/.346/.638 with 20 home runs, 15 doubles and 54 RBI in 240 plate appearances.

Javier Baez's MiLB Career Statistics
Year Level PA HR RBI SB BB% K% AVG OPS wRC+
2011 RK/SS 18 0 1 2 0.0% 22.2% .278 .667 71
2012 A/A+ 381 16 50 24 4.2% 21.8% .280 .860 134
2013 A+/AA 577 37 98 20 6.9% 25.5% .282 .919 160
2014 AAA 434 23 64 16 7.8% 30.0% .260 .833 109

FanGraphs

After an impressive showing during spring training this year that featured five home runs in 18 games, Baez got off to a painfully slow start at Triple-A Iowa, batting just .215/.279/.401 with a 66-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 47 games.

Since then, however, the right-handed slugger has found his groove at the plate, evidenced by his .296/.357/.597 batting line, 16 home runs and vastly improved 64-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last 57 games.

On the day before learning of his promotion, the 21-year-old went 2-for-3 with a pair of solo home runs for Iowa, giving him five in his last 10 games and 12 since the beginning of July.

 

Baez’s Future

Few players in the sport are as naturally gifted as Baez, who possesses absolutely insane bat speed as well as the raw power to jump the yard to all fields with ease. However, showing elite raw power comes as naturally as striking out for Baez, and the two likely will be intertwined for the duration of his career.

During his minor league career, he batted .278/.336/.545 with 76 home runs in 1,350 plate appearances over 319 games. That being said, Baez also posted an ugly 350-88 strikeout-to-walk ratio during that span, meaning he struck out 25.9 percent of the time.

Baez’s swing-and-miss issues stem from his hyper-aggressive approach and all-or-nothing swing, as he’s known to swing with the same ferocity in an 0-2 count as he does in an advantageous count. That’s simply part of Baez’s game, but considering his age and quick rise through the minor leagues, there’s still plenty of time for him to refine his approach.

Courtesy of MLBFarm.com
Javier Baez's 2014 heat map

Furthermore, Baez’s tendency to yank the ball to his pull side might lead to a tough adjustment period—specifically, in the form of a high strikeout rate—upon reaching the major leagues. If we look at his 2014 spray chart with Triple-A Iowa, courtesy of MLBFarm.com, we see that Baez tends to roll over too many pitches to the left side.

When he’s at his best at the plate, Baez consistently drives the ball with authority back up the middle and to the opposite field, just as he did in this year’s All-Star Futures Game when he launched a booming opposite-field home run on a hanging breaking ball from Lucas Giolito.

Still, even if Baez’s penchant for whiffing and pulling the ball carries over to the major leagues—which it will, even if only initially—the slugger’s combination of raw power and blinding bat speed should produce multiple seasons with 25-plus home runs, possibly even 30-plus once he settles in at the highest level.

Therefore, the development of Baez’s hit tool and plate discipline will ultimately determine whether he’s an All-Star-caliber player or simply a power-oriented middle infielder.

At the time of his promotion, Baez’s strikeout rate at Iowa sat at a career-worst 30 percent. However, it’s worth noting that the 21-year-old also posted the best walk rate of his career at 7.8 percent, an improvement over his previous career-best mark of 7.2 percent that he achieved in 2013.

So even if Baez struggles to begin his career and posts a lower-than-expected batting average, the fact that he’s been able to make subtle improvements since reaching more advanced levels bodes well for his capacity to make meaningful adjustments in the major leagues.

And that brings us to Baez’s defense.

Though he’s handled shortstop for a majority of his professional career, that’s unlikely to be the case in The Show, as the Cubs have Starlin Castro under contract through 2019. Plus, the acquisition of prospect Addison Russell, who came over in early July from the A’s in the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel deal, clouds Baez’s future at the position, as Russell’s tools and all-around game are better suited from a career at the position. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Cubs plan to deploy Baez at the keystone on Tuesday.

Speaking with Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago (via Hardball Talk) late last month, general manager Jed Hoyer touched on the possibility of Baez playing second base once he joins the Cubs.

“The Baez second-base thing is really more big-picture than anything else,” Hoyer said. “We want to increase his versatility. We thought it was the right thing to do to start putting him there.”

Even though he saw a healthy chunk of playing time at second base during spring training, Baez was only moved to the position full time last month in the wake of Arismendy Alcantara’s promotion to the major leagues. In 16 games at the keystone before the news of his call-up, Baez had committed only two errors.

From Hoyer (via Hardball Talk):

We went into the year thinking we would move him around a bit earlier, and he struggled offensively.

We thought it was going to be the wrong time to have this guy worry about a defensive change. (So) we held off on it, and really waited until he got going offensively. We’re pretty proud of what he’s done this year. In some ways, it’s been ideal for him.

He really built on every single month, until the last three or four weeks, when he’s been outstanding. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see that trajectory.

In the minor leagues, you want to see guys finishing strong. You want to see them conquer that level, and his ability to fight through what was a difficult start has been really impressive.

In general, Baez’s defense has vastly improved this season, as he committed just 15 errors in 101 games between both middle infield positions. In 2013, Baez had a whopping 44 errors in 123 games at shortstop.

While it’s clear that Baez still has learning to do and won’t be a perfect player in the early stages of his big league career, the 21-year-old slugger has the potential to post an .800 OPS without trying—because that’s how special his bat is—while playing an up-the-middle position. Even if he appears overmatched against major league pitching, Baez’s combination of natural talent and his capacity to make adjustments throughout his professional career should make him a long-term impact player for the Cubs.

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