Chicago Cubs slick-fielding infielder Javier Báez was one of the most exciting players in the game the past few seasons. However, that wasn’t the same case in 2020. He can still flash the leather, but at the plate, he was all out of sorts. He hit eight home runs and stole three bases in 59 games, but an ugly triple slash of .203/.238/.360 soured many fantasy owners. He stayed consistent in terms of not walking much, but he posted a measly three-percent walk rate in 2020, whereas his strikeout jumped over 31 percent.
There’s always been some swing-and-miss in Baez’s game because he’s so aggressive, but to his credit, that’s what makes him absolutely exhilarating to watch. With that in mind, however, he must have chased out of the zone even more than usual to lead to the elevated strikeout rate. Well, not really. His O-Swing rate in 2020 was 40.6 percent, which, yes, is high, but it was actually his lowest mark since 2015. What really got him in 2020 was just the whiffs. His 19.1 swinging strike rate is slightly up from years past and marks the second straight year that it has increased, and a whopping four straight years of being 17.9 percent or higher.
Baez set a career high in his swing and miss rate against breaking pitches in the zone and was less than a percentage point away from doing so against fastballs, too. When Baez got behind in the count, he was in trouble, regardless of whether it was in the zone or out of the zone.
As if it could really get any worse, I have to mention it. He was in the bottom ten of major league hitters in both in-zone swings-and-misses and overall whiff rate. So, as you can see, despite chasing less, when you whiff more, it’s going to bite you where the sun don’t shine.
Interestingly enough, Baez pulled the ball more in 2020 and typically, he has success when pulling the baseball. However, luck wasn’t on his side in 2020. His hard-hit rate was better than two of the three seasons prior to 2020, but the results were staggering, in that they didn’t benefit Baez whatsoever.
Looking at xwOBA and K-rate, the latter part of 2019 and 2020 weren’t kind to Baez. It’s been a pretty steady downward slope.
In fact, if we look at the second half of the 2019 season and his 2020 campaign, he hasn’t quite lived up to the billing.
- 106 games played with 15 home runs, nine stolen bases, a 29.3 percent strikeout rate and a .229 batting average.
Baez is currently the 11th shortstop off the board, per NFBC data, and getting picked near the end of the fifth round in 15-team formats. If it was just a down 2020, you could write it off, but when you see his xwOBA, it’s been a steady trend down. Sure, the last 106 games haven’t been ideal, but he hit 63 home runs and stole 32 bases between 2018 and 2019 overall.
The walk rate has always been low, and with his aggressive, free-swinging nature, he’s never going to be a guy that consistently sees ball four ,but cutting into the strikeouts is a big deal for Baez. He’s shown that he can be successful with a K -ate in the mid-to-upper 20’s, but it’s hard to do so once you’ve entered that 30 percent threshold.
Could Baez end up being one of the bigger steals in the draft if he can return to form? Absolutely. However, there are two big factors that weigh into that. The first being where will his batting average end up following the 2020 season full of whiffs, and the second is his stolen base numbers. He attempted just three stolen base attempts in 59 games last season. Amongst all things, that could be Baez’s biggest wild card for 2021.
After down years in terms of exit velocity and barrel rate, I think those metrics will rebound just fine for Baez. His contact rate should go up a bit and hopefully that strikeout rate drops below 30 percent. While I’m not convinced he hits .280 in 2021, he should comfortably sit in the .260-.270 range while providing 28-30 home runs with double-digit steals. Where will that stolen base total wind up? Your guess is as good as mine! Getting on base more will open up more opportunities, but 12-15 bags is a safe, albeit slightly aggressive projection for Baez in 2021.
While he’s not my ideal shortstop or preferred target, he’s an excellent fall back option with immense fantasy potential in the fifth round or later.