Baez debuted at A in May 28, 2012. In his first month, he “struggled,” hitting .298/.330/.500. Sure, his career line at A was .333/.383/.596, but you have to stretch pretty hard to get struggling out of that. His strikeout rate was 21.7% and his walk rate was 6.6%. He was eventually promoted to A+, and he absolutely struggled when promoted. His first half-season was terrible: .188/.233/.400.
He rebounded in 2013, closing out at .275/.338/.535 (his adjustment eerily similar to his first month at A ball. Quite the stuggle, huh?), and earned a promotion to AA. In the first month after he was promoted, he “struggled,” hitting (get this) .273/.333/.612. That’s a .945 OPS (Willie Mays has a career OPS of .941, Ty Cobb is right at .945). If that’s struggling, sign me up.
Baez struggled in his promotion to AAA, there’s no doubt about that. If we tally those up, there were 2 clear bad first months, and 2 no-doubt strong performances. At every level, Baez got better as the season progressed; however, that is not the same thing as automatically struggling with every promotion. How he received this instant struggler label is absolutely beyond me.
Baez is struggling at the major league level, and there’s no sugarcoating this. The line is .198/.233/.465 (comically enough, his SLG is still 77 points above the league average). He strikes out 10 times as often as he walks (44 to 4), and those numbers are: 44.4% strikeout rate, 4.4% walk rate. Baez has only put the ball on the field of play in 43.3% of his plate appearances; pair that with a .256 BABIP and you’ll struggle to reach the Mendoza line regardless of your home-run rate (which, by the way, is 1 every 13 or so plate appearances. Yowza.)
I’m absolutely unconcerned about any of this. First, there is no way that Baez’ true BABIP is .256. No one who hits the ball that hard will have a BABIP that low unless they are slower than Prince Fielder. Baez’ minor league BABIP is right around the .320 level – it was .322 at AAA, and I’d say you can easily pencil him in for .305 or so at the major league level. He also won’t strike out at 44.4% of his plate appearances. The 95% confidence interval given 90 plate appearances has a lower bound of 34.1% and the 99% CI is 30.9%. It’s conceivable that Baez’ is already at a 35% rate or so and that he’s just had negative luck. It’s also reasonable to assume that Baez, a 21-year-old who has never faced MLB pitching, is just having trouble adjusting to the game (an attribute he would share with 90% of all successful major-leaguers).
Baez will get 31 more games against the best pitching in the world when the games mean nothing (in fact, less than nothing. Our CBA gives us a perverse incentive to lose as many of these games as possible), and he’ll do so with a better hitting coach (we hope) than he’s ever had. Baez is swinging at too many bad pitches, and he’s not making contact with them. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar. You can copy and paste that sentence to describe most new hitters. None of those hitters have the bat speed and power potential that Javier has.
For all of Baez’ warts, his OPS (.698) is higher than the following Cubs (or former Cubs: pour one out for the fallen) who have at least 100 PA:
Welington Castillo (679)
Darwin Barney (594)
Nate Schierholtz (541)
Junior Lake (608)
Ryan Sweeney (642)
Mike Olt (575)
Arismendy Alcantara (659)
John Baker (532, but Baker has a way better ERA+)
Ryan Kalish (633)
That’s 9 players of varying repute that Baez is already doing better than. He’s not quite as good with the stick as Travis Wood (.255/.296/.471), but he’ll get there. This is the point where you might expect me to convince you that Baez is providing positive value with his glove – and that may well be true. However, playing in 21 games absolutely does not provide you with enough hard data to make a claim. It isn’t really even enough to give the eye test (and I certainly haven’t watched him play enough to make any claim on his defensive value). It would kind of be like guessing who will win a marathon after the first mile (rule of thumb: defensive data takes three years to be meaningful).
Mike Trout is the best baseball player alive right now, and he should be the best thing to happen to baseball in 20 years. The only negative is that he is so much better than he has any right to be, and became so good so quick (don’t mind that .220/.281/.390 line in 40 games as a rookie. hey, wait a minute…) that people have unrealistic expectations of their own top prospects. Javier Baez (and Arismendy Alcantara, and I wager I can edit Jorge Soler‘s name in here in a month) is not Mike Trout, and comparing one to the other is an exercise in futility. Baseball is ridiculously hard, and even the best players struggle when they first play it. Just don’t try to tell me that it’s what Baez has always done.