The strangest thing about Javy Baez's hot start to 2019


Javy Baez is a free-swinger.

That's not some earth-shattering statement. 

It's well known Baez is not up there to walk and there's a solid case to be made that he is the most aggressive hitter in baseball — Salvador Perez is the only other qualified hitter since the start of the 2018 season who swings at pitches outside the strike zone more than Baez.

So then how is it that one of Baez's problems this year is actually that he's not swinging enough?

He struck out looking twice in Friday's series opener with the Cardinals at Wrigley Field, which brought his season "backwards K" total to 10 already. That puts him on pace for nearly 56 strikeouts looking in 2019.

Last season, he had only 27 such strikeouts all season. So what's going on?

"I just think it's how he's processing the at-bat," Joe Maddon said. "He'll learn to balance this out. There's certain counts that they would just not throw him a strike that maybe they are right now and so we gotta get away from that. 

"There's been certain moments that, historically, he's never seen a strike, and now he's seeing a strike. So it's just an adjustment he'll make again."

Because Baez is so aggressive, most teams have resorted to throwing him pitches way out of the strike zone in hopes that he would get himself out.

But one of the main reasons for his breakout 2018 campaign was improved plate discipline and laying off pitches he can't handle on a more regular basis — particularly the slider off the plate from a right-handed pitcher. Maddon has always said that as Baez learns to lay off that slider on a more regular basis, he can essentially become Manny Ramirez at the plate. 

So now it appears as if teams are trying to utilize Baez's aggressiveness against him earlier in counts and then mixing things up by actually surprising him and throwing a pitch in the zone with two strikes.

Take this sequence against Cardinals righty Jack Flaherty in the first inning Friday:

Flaherty got a pair of strikes on that slider off the plate and then came back well into strike zone with a 94 mph fastball to catch Baez looking and left him standing at the plate bewildered.

Then in the bottom of the sixth inning, we saw a similar sequence, as Flaherty set Baez up with a slider low and away (but in the zone this time) and then another fastball (this one at 96 mph) clearly in the strike zone:

Flaherty is a perfect pitcher to deploy such a strategy, as he has both a very good slider and a very good fastball with good velocity. 

But it's not just Flaherty and the Cardinals that are attacking Baez in this way.

It's been happening a lot more lately. He went more than two weeks without a backwards K, but then struck out in that manner in four straight games — Sunday in Arizona, Tuesday and Wednesday in Seattle and then the aforementioned pair Friday.

This is just another area Baez will have to work on and adjust back to the league. Baseball is a game of adjustments and hitters are constantly trying to refine their approach as opposing pitchers change their plan of attack.

But even with all that, Baez's strikeout rate overall (27.9 percent) is right in line with his career mark (28.1 percent) and only a slight jump over his 25.9 percent mark from last year's MVP runner-up campaign.

It's not like Baez is struggling, either, as he woke up Sunday morning slashing .318/.353/.659 and leading the Cubs in both HR (11) and RBI (26). This is just one quirky stat from the first five weeks of the season.

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