Back in March, when Kenny and I launched this site, I wrote a piece about Javier Baez‘s horrific plate discipline in his first full professional season. The list of top 100 prospects who had posted similar K%-BB% splits in A ball was short, and those who appeared on it very rarely developed into viable major leaguers. While it is obvious to anyone who has seen him swing that Baez’s tools were uncommon even for top-tier prospects, it was still disconcerting to see how few players had succeeded from such a free-swinging professional debut.
After demolishing at High Class A Daytona, Baez has allayed the fears of many Cubs fans, and climbed into the top 10 prospects in baseball according to Baseball America. But there is still cause for concern – despite a June where he walked in 9% of his plate appearances, Baez has only put him in an even more exclusive group of players who walked as infrequently and struck out as often as he has. Baez is amongst only six (!) of the six-hundred-fifty-two top-100 positional prospects since 1990 who walked as infrequently and struck out as often in High-A as Javier Baez did*. Even if you relax the cutoffs to allow for incompetent umpires (7% and 20%), only 7 names join the group. Simply put, Javier Baez is in largely uncharted territory for a prospect of his caliber.*As a simple reminder of my process of data collection: I have used Baseball Prospectus’ great minor league data to pull data for every major and minor league ballplayer since 1985. I converted Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect lists, which date back to 1990, into an excel spreadsheet, and have used a series of VLOOKUP functions to assign the data from Baseball Prospectus to the correct names. A player’s stats at a level include every game played at that level entering 2013. To be consistent, I will be referring to Baez’s entire time at Daytona, including his retched stretch there in 2012.
In 423 plate appearances at High-A, Javier Baez struck out 99 times while walking only 26 times. On it’s own, not walking often is not a huge concern. The list of top-100 players who only walked at a <6% clip in High-A is star-studded, including players like Vladimir Guerrero, Pudge Rodriguez, and Hanley Ramirez. But most of the players included in this list had walk issues because they were swinging and making contact early in counts, as evidenced by miniscule strikeout rates (5.4%, 4.6%, 8.3% for the previously mentioned players, respectively). Baez is not this kind of player. Without even looking at his strikeout rate (which we will in a minute), scouting reports invariably refer to him as a free swinger, and many have called his ultimate pitch-recognition skills into question. When you do look at the strikeout totals, the scouting reports are validated. Baez’s strikeout rate of 23.4% is enormous for a player at that level, especially one thought of so highly by the scouting community.
In the history of Top-100 prospect lists, only 6 players K%-BB% splits as bad or worse as Javier Baez in High-A. These players are Preston Wilson, Earl Cunningham, Wilin Rosario, Greg Halman, Ryan Harvey and Chris Davis. Two of those players, Cunningham and Harvey, busted spectacularly. Halman was stabbed by his brother in a tragic incident in his home country of the Netherlands. Wilson had an alright career, Rosario has not walked in the bigs but has provided value, and Chris Davis has finally figured it out at the age of 27, breaking out for 5 fWAR in the first half this season.I have pulled the scouting reports for Rosario, Halman, Harvey, and Davis. All were described as players with easy plus power with hit tool and approach concerns. Anecdotal reports on Cunningham said he had 40+ HR power and was built like a linebacker, so I believe it is fair to throw him in with this group too. Given their statistical records, this is not surprising, but it confirms that these players were mostly the same type of player as Baez, though Baez has been ranked much higher than any of the others.
Can we learn anything from such a small sample of comparable players? While the 6 comps all showed similar trends between A and High-A ball (marginal BB% and K% increases), the sample is too small to discern a real trend amongst those types of hitters. However, that only six players have had such extreme plate discipline issues in the 24 years Baseball America has been ranking Top-100 prospects tells us that players with such severe plate-discipline issues are rarely projected to succeed in the first place. This alone should give you an idea of what an uphill climb Baez has in front of him.
Double-A baseball is going to be a true test of what Javier Baez has in him. Pitchers there are advanced enough to pick apart good hitters with command and/or great stuff. The three productive MLB players of the group saw their walk rates improve while also striking out less after their promotion to AA. Halman and Harvey saw small increases in their walk rates, but saw no improvement in their strikeout rates (Cunningham never left High-A).
It is tough to know what to expect from Baez from here on out given the lack of comparable top prospects, but given that and the scouting reports about his hit tool and pitch recognition, it would be wise if Cubs fans tempered their expectations. Chris Davis is clearly the best player on the comp list, but it took Davis four seasons in the majors to figure out how to hit, and up until this season he still didn’t walk. Rosario’s numbers have been just average early on, inflated by the thin Denver air. Halman and Harvey struggled at and beyond AA.
If Baez goes to AA and mashes without making any changes to his approach, he will firmly establish himself as an anomaly in the recent history of prospect development. I wish I had a better list of players to show you, to point out that many prospects have been down this path in the past and gone on to be great, but it’s just not the case. This is not to say I don’t think Baez can succeed, because his tools are tremendous and his defensive value should help him ride out extended slumps caused by a poor approach, but I remain concerned about Javier Baez’s ultimate future.