Much has been said about Javier Baez and his propensity to swing at pitches out of the zone. He's always been a free swinger, and this year is no different. Today, we are going to examine his zone profiles at BrooksBaseball and Fangraphs to see if there is anything that's changed in his approach at the plate. First, let's look at his approach at the plate in his rookie season in 2014. Actually, "approach" is a misnomer; he didn't really have an identifiable approach. There has been a lot written about Baez's approach in his rookie season. There were a lot of problems with what Javy did at the plate, and pitchers took advantage.
It's hard to tell which problem was the worst for Javy in 2014: fastballs up and out of the zone or breaking balls out of the zone, low and away. It was probably the high heat, though. Javy had trouble with the high heat, even if it was in the upper portion of the strike zone. He swung and missed a lot -- and that's an understatement.
This problem was amplified by Javy swinging so damn much at high, hard stuff.
Javier Baez is supremely self-confident. He thinks he can hit any pitch. The problem was that the 2014 version of Javier Baez could hardly hit any pitch. He did himself no favors by swinging at pitches that all players have a tough time hitting. The breaking balls low and away from right handed-pitchers were his kryptonite.
As such, pitchers knew where to put the breaking stuff when facing Javy.
This year, Javy's not swinging as much at the breaking balls low and away. It's still a problem, but not quite as much of a problem. Notice the two squares in the bottom right-hand corner compared to in 2014.
He's attacking breaking balls in the zone more often, but he's laying off the ones low and away a little more often. The one frustrating thing is that he has also started swinging at breaking balls that are zone high, but inside. He needs to quit doing that. Overall, though, this looks much better. As we go on, you'll notice this trend from the 2014 version of Javy: He honestly had no approach at the plate. There was no rhyme or reason for why he swung at pitches. Look at the chart from 2014 for his swing % against right-handed pitchers' breaking balls again. Every box is about the same, purplish-red throughout. It didn't matter if it was in the zone or not, he was just as likely to swing at it. It's as if he couldn't identify any pitches.
Now, we have dark red in the zone, specifically the heart of the zone. There's a noticeable difference in his swing patterns for balls in the zone and balls out of the zone. He still swings too much at balls out of the zone, but it appears that now he can at least recognize when a pitch is in the zone. (Let's keep this in mind when I mention any differences in Javy's approach: He still has a terrible approach. Of players with 100 plate appearances this year, Javy swings at the third-highest percentage of pitches that are out of the strike zone. When I point out that things are getting better in certain aspects, it's really only because Javy entered the league with such a horrible approach that calling it an approach is being incredibly generous. So if I compliment Javy, it's more that I am complimenting him for having any semblance of an approach, even if it is a bad approach.)
We're now going to look at Javy's heatmaps from Fangraphs against breaking stuff from right-handed pitchers. Since these things are broken into grids, they aren't going to tell the whole story. There is a 10X10 grid available at Fangraphs. But, with such a small sample of pitches, there's going to be some randomness in these grids sometimes. So we're going to bounce back and forth from BrooksBaseball's 5X5 grid and Fangraphs' 10X10 grid and see if we can get a better grasp on the whole picture by looking at both.
Let's first look at how right-handed pitchers attacked Javy with breaking pitches in 2014. It wasn't just that they were pitching breaking balls low and away against Javy; it was that they were way low and away. This makes intuitive sense: The low, outside slider is a wipeout pitch for many pitchers. So they are going to throw the pitch in that location a lot. But the usage against Javy was drastic. Most of the time you don't have to go that far off the zone with the pitch. In fact you don't really want to, as most big league hitters can lay off of the pitch if it is so far away from the zone. Let's compare that to how pitchers are using the breaking ball against a more disciplined hitter. Here's the same chart, except for against Kris Bryant this year. Notice how pitchers aren't drifting so far off the plate. There's more just off the zone and less way outside.
This year, pitchers are still attacking Javy in much the same way with the breaking ball. Except, something's changed. Here is the chart showing how often Javy swung at these pitches in 2014. Here is the same chart for this year. This is the same stuff we looked at earlier in the 5X5 charts from BrooksBaseball, except for the differences are more pronounced. In 2014, Javy liked going after breaking balls low and away and was indifferent to breaking balls actually in the zone. This year, he's attacking breaking balls in the zone more often. It's what's happening outside of the zone that is the most interesting, though. Javy's swinging pretty much every time a breaking ball is close to the zone. But, he's laying off of the stuff that is way low and way outside more often. He seems better able to identify what pitches he has no chance of getting to.
His next step is to narrow his zone down more. We'll go back to Kris Bryant. This is his zone profile by swing% on breaking balls from right-handed pitchers. That's the look of a disciplined hitter. He's equally adept at laying off of the ones way outside as he is the ones just outside. This is a hitter with a good eye. Javy's not there. He will swing if you put it close. But, at least he's now making pitchers get closer to the zone.
Let's now go back and examine Javy vs. the high heat again. Here is Javy's 2014 zone profile of contact % against two- and four-seam fastballs against all pitchers. This is his zone profile of swing % against those pitches in 2014. So he had a ton of trouble with fastballs up... and his plan to rectify this problem was by swinging at those pitches more than when they were placed anywhere else. That's a big problem. Has Javy improved his approach against high heat this year? Nope. He's still a sucker for that pitch. He thinks he can hit these balls out of the park, and he falls for it every time. Except, whoa... he's actually making contact against high fastballs this year.
Here is a screenshot of Baez's BrooksBaseball Player Card from an article written by Mauricio Rubio for Cubs Den last Spring regarding Javy's troubles with the high heat.
A "disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss" at fastballs. That seems foreboding. Here is his Player Card for this year. "A league average likelihood to swing and miss" on fastballs. Much better. Except, is it really?
Here is Javy's zone profile by slugging % against hard stuff in 2014. Notice how he wasn't slugging well on high heat, even on the ones that were high but in the zone. A lot of this is attributed to him not putting balls in play if they were fastballs up. But, here is his BABIP by zone on those pitches in 2014. He wasn't even doing damage on the balls up in the zone that he did actually put in play.
Here is Javy's zone profile by slugging % against hard stuff this year. Here is Javy's zone profile by BABIP against hard stuff this year. It's clear that Javy is now doing more damage to high heat in the zone. But, he's still been incredibly ineffective against the stuff up and out of the zone. Why is this? Well, he's hitting line drives when pitchers don't get the high fastball high enough. In 2014, he was popping these balls up. This year, he isn't. Except, what's that? He's now popping balls up when he goes after fastballs up and out of the zone.
This is the problem with Javy making more contact on high fastballs. It's probably better than the alternative: striking out swinging, like he was in 2014. But, when you chase pitches up and out of the zone, you are more likely to pop them up. In fact, there is a correlation between BABIP and how far from the center of the zone a pitch is when it is put in play. It looks like this:
This is a problem for Javy. Javy is making more contact, but it hasn't necessarily been the right kind of contact. His contact% in 2014 was 59.0%. This was nearly unprecedented -- until Joey Gallo came along the following year, that is. His contact% this year is up to 71.6%. But, most of the gain is coming on pitches outside the zone. His Z-Contact% (% of pitches in the zone he's made contact on) is only up from 77.5% in 2014 to 78.2% this year. It's his O-Contact% (% of pitches out of the zone he's made contact on) that's risen from 42.2% in 2014 to 64.8% this year. We might attribute this to Javy swinging at more pitches close to the zone and laying off more that are way off the zone -- as shown earlier in the article. But, regardless, he is putting more balls in play on pitches that are out of the zone.
As we just saw, this is going to lead to more weak contact, like pop-ups on fastballs above the zone. Javy will need to correct this issue. He's shown that he is no longer overwhelmed by the high heat. But he needs to lay off the ones that are too high and concentrate on just hammering the ones that are more conducive to power.
So now we've seen that Javy has corrected a few things in his approach to the types of pitches that were killing him in his rookie year. There's still some troubling signs, sure, but things are... different. But, what about his overall game plan for approaching an at bat? Anecdotally, it seems to me that sometimes Javy goes to the plate taking the first pitch no matter what. And then when he gets the first pitch called for a strike and he gets behind, he tells himself, "Well, I'm not going to let that happen again." And then he goes into hacking mode. Other times, he goes up hacking at pitches out of the zone from the first pitch on. It's hard to tell what goes through his mind.
Here is a zone profile of Javy on the first pitch of at bats in 2014. Like we've seen before, there's really no rhyme or reason why Javy did anything in 2014. He had no approach. Let's turn to Kris Bryant again to show what an actual approach looks like. This is Bryant's zone profile on the first pitch this year. That's a man with a plan. He's looking for something in his happy zone and if it's not there, he'll watch it pass. This is Javy this year. Eh, it's not much better. He's probably been sitting on the high heat some. Though, we've seen this isn't such a good thing when it is too high, and too high hasn't deterred him. He's done a good job laying off stuff outside. But, really, it's not much of an approach.
What about when Javy was behind in the count in 2014? Again, there's no rhyme or reason for why he swung at pitches. He swung more. But he was just as likely to swing at a pitch out of the zone as in the zone. This year his plan is obvious. If he is behind in the count, he is going to swing at anything close to the zone. He's laying off on the stuff way off the zone more often. But anything in the zone or even close to the zone, and Javy is attacking. Compare that to Kris Bryant again. Bryant will attack pitches in the zone when he is behind, and he'll offer at stuff inside that he can easily get to and fight off. But, he won't chase low or outside very often.
This approach is even more pronounced when Javy has 2 strikes against him this year. It's not a particularly effective approach. But at least he's not up there just guessing, as it appears he often was in 2014. He can identify when pitches are at least close to the zone. Again, he just needs to shrink that zone down now.
The most troubling thing with Javy this year might be his approach when he gets ahead in counts -- which, granted, doesn't happen very often anyway. Here was his approach in 2014 when ahead in the count. At least for Javier Baez, that's semi-respectable. He would attack pitches inside, but didn't offer at stuff outside as much. And he wasn't too aggressive -- at least by Javier Baez's standards. It would be better if it looked like Kris Bryant's approach when ahead in the count. But, this was probably the least of Javy's problems. This year, Javy is expanding the zone up and down, when he is ahead in the count. He's also been more aggressive overall. He's laying off the stuff way off the plate. But, he needs to be a lot more patient, as evidenced by his 2.7% BB%.
All in all, Javy is still a free swinger. But, there are some differences here and there. And his approach is better in some spots. Namely, he actually has an approach. In 2014, you couldn't even say that. But Javy's motto this year appears to be: Swing at anything close! Dude, at least it's an ethos.