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What Happened to Javier Baez?

Javier Baez playing for the Detroit Tigers; CC by License 2.0

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs broke the franchise’s 108-year World Series drought with a seven-game series win over the Cleveland Indians. That season, the Cubs sent seven players to the All-Star Game, including infielders Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, and Ben Zobrist, outfielder Dexter Fowler, and pitchers Jake Arrieta and John Lester. In the years following the title, however, it was second baseman (turned shortstop) Javier Baez who would leave arguably the greatest impact on the Chicago teams of the late 2010s.

Born in Puerto Rico and drafted ninth overall to the Cubs in 2011, Baez debuted with the team in 2014. He struggled in his limited playing time, appearing in just 80 games over his first two seasons in MLB. In 229 plate appearances over 52 games in his initial campaign, Baez collected just 36 hits and 15 walks, while striking out 95 times, averaging nearly two strikeouts per game. This compulsion to swing at every pitch he saw has been a consistent theme throughout his up-and-down career.

With Cubs Manager Joe Maddon’s love for defensive versatility, Baez was a perfect fit for the 2016 title-winning team. At the plate, Baez began to show some promise, slashing .273/.314/.423 while sitting just below league average in the offense-heavy run environment of the late 2010s with an OPS+ of 94. Baez’s true value for Chicago was his defense, which earned him the nickname “El Mago,” meaning “The Magician.” While sharing the infield with four All-Stars, Baez ensured his everyday role by ranking in the 99th percentile in Outs Above Average, as well as the 94th percentile in Fielding Run Value. When combined with his 92nd percentile sprint speed, Baez appeared in the field primarily at second and third base, but also was trotted out at shortstop from time to time. He even started six games at first base and two games in left field in 2016.

Even though his refusal to walk and willingness to strike out persisted into 2017, Baez continued to further his breakout. With 2016 All-Star Addison Russell’s play taking a sharp decline, eventually combined with off-the-field trouble that effectively ended his MLB career, Baez took his elite defense almost exclusively to the middle infield, splitting 153 games between second base and shortstop. Baez was essentially a league-average bat in 2017, finishing with a 102 OPS+, but he broke the 20 home run mark for the first time and accumulated a bWAR of 2.6.

Baez’s true breakout came in 2018 when he finished in second place in National League MVP voting. He smashed nearly all of his career-best marks, racking up 34 home runs, an NL-leading 111 RBI, and a bWAR of 6.4. Baez also made his first All-Star Game and won a Silver Slugger. His strikeout issues persisted, however, as he struck out 167 times, matched with only 29 walks. Baez’s 2018 Baseball Savant page is one of the most telling pages in baseball, as he ranked in the top 10 percent in xSLG, Barrel Percentage, OAA, and Baserunning Run Value, while simultaneously ranking in the bottom 10 percent in Chase Rate, Whiff Rate, and Walk Rate.

Baez’s stardom continued to shine in 2019, although he missed 24 games due to injury. If not for the missed time, Baez’s 2019 season would have been a near mirror image of his previous year. He made his second All-Star team and played such elite defense to complement the strong bat that he piled up a career-high 6.6 bWAR in the slightly more limited playing time. Baez’s most impressive stats in 2019 were his 100th percentile rankings in OAA and Fielding Run Value, seemingly a direct result of Baez taking over his natural shortstop position full-time.

Baez, like so many others, struggled in the 60-game Covid-shortened season, but he rebounded well in 2021. Five years removed from the 2016 World Series title, the Cubs looked to begin a rebuild after failing to return to the Fall Classic. At the 2021 trade deadline, Chicago moved on from the remaining core, flipping Baez to the New York Mets along with pitcher Trevor Williams for top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong. While his bat was once again league-average at the time of the trade, Baez put together the best 47-game stretch of his career in a Mets uniform. As a Met, he slashed .299/.371/.515 and cut down slightly on his strikeouts to form a deadly middle infield with fellow star Francisco Lindor. Despite his triumphant resurgence, the Mets suffered a horrendous collapse in the second half, going 21-37 after acquiring Baez to finish 77-85 after holding a 56-48 record at the time of the trade.

After the 2021 season, Baez signed a six-year, $140 million deal with the Detroit Tigers, as he looked to lead a young team to the top of the AL Central. Instead, Baez’s contract has proven to be one of the worst in all of baseball. In 280 games between 2022 and 2023, Baez collected just 245 hits and 26 home runs while striking out a whopping 272 times. His saving grace over those two seasons was his defense, which remained elite at his primary position of shortstop. That has not been the case in 2024, however, as Baez has slipped into the bottom 10 percent in OAA and Batting Run Value, as well as his usual Chase Rate and Walk Rate. 

In 2024, Statcast introduced new technology to track bat speed, which shows how fast a player’s bat moves during a given swing. Baez ranks in the 93rd percentile in bat speed, with an average of 75.4 miles per hour, showing that his discipline and contact issues may be a consequence of him swinging out of his cleats nearly every at-bat. Baseball Savant’s zone charts show that the majority of pitches Baez receives are down and away, out of the strike zone. Baez has shown throughout his career that he simply cannot adjust to the down and away breaking ball, resulting in countless clips of him chasing sliders in the other batter’s box.

It is not as easy as it sounds to just stop swinging at bad pitches, but if Baez can make the necessary adjustments, there is still hope that he can return to the player that he was for Chicago. For the time being, however, the Tigers are stuck with his contract for another four years as they continue to battle in the surprisingly strong AL Central.

1 Comment

RJ Craig
RJ Craig
Jun 06

Sucks to see him fall so hard...if only he could retain his Mets' form.

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