In my last article, we discussed Javier Baez's plate discipline, or lack thereof. We briefly touched on the fact that Javy is making more contact on pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. This year, his Z-Contact% (the % of pitches he makes contact on inside the strike zone) is 79.8% according to PITCHf/x. It was 78.8% in 2014. He's made a negligible gain in this regard. However, his O-Contact% (the % of pitches he makes contact on outside the strike zone) is 62.6% this year, up from 47.1% last year and 39.7% the year before. I surmised that some of this may be due to Javy swinging less at pitches way out of the zone this year. As we saw in the last article, Javy is also swinging a lot more at pitches that are just off the zone. He's more likely to make contact on those pitches a few inches off the zone than the ones that are 6 inches off the zone.
This is a good thing. He's not as often up there hopelessly flailing away at pitches he has no chance of reaching. He's making more contact overall. His K% his rookie year was 41.5%. That was untenable. He simply wasn't going to survive as a major league baseball player while striking out in over 40% of his plate appearances. His K% this year is 19.5%. The major league average is 21.1%. Let that sink in for a moment: Javier Baez is striking out less than the average major league baseball player. Javier Baez. Yes, that Javier Baez. Incomprehensible.
There are a few things conspiring to bring his K-rate down this much. One is obviously the improvement he's made in making contact. But, he's also swinging at a lot more pitches overall. His swing% is up from 46.6% in 2014 to 54.4% this year. So, you have a guy swinging more and making more contact. His K% is bound to drop in the process. By being aggressive and making more contact, he's not going to get as deep into counts. And when he does, we saw in the last article that he's been incredibly aggressive in two-strike counts. Javy is averse to striking out looking. It is evident that Javy has made it his mission to strike out less. Ostensibly, this is a great thing. But, it's not quite such a rosy picture. His BB% is at 2.4%. This is the fourth-lowest of anyone in the majors that's had at least 100 PA. He's not getting deep into counts. He's not working to get on base. He's swinging away.
This is not such a good thing. He needs to be more patient. At this point, he could afford to give back a few strikeouts if it meant getting on base more often via the base on balls. He's a work in progress, though. Hopefully, we'll get to that point eventually. But, for now, what he's doing is working. Whereas the 2014 version of Javy had no identity at the plate, this Javy does have an identity. He is a free swinger to the nth degree. You can survive as a free swinger if you are able to put the ball in play and also possess other positive attributes -- attributes that the 2016 version of Javy certainly possesses. A similarly talented player, Starling Marte, is able to thrive despite a 3.0% BB% this year. Not getting on base at a good rate definitely limits his potential. But, if that's your only flaw, you'll make out fine.
Javy's been worth nearly a full win according to both bWAR and fWAR so far this year. Extrapolate his numbers out to 600 PA and he's playing at about a 4.5-win pace, according to Fangraphs. There were fewer than 30 position players in all of baseball that were worth that many wins last year. Now, this is a really small sample size, and his base running numbers and defense are giving him a lot of value. He very well could tail off. But, he can be even better at the plate. Let's investigate. Time for some more Statcast Fun!
We'll head over to Baseball Savant and break things down. What we are going to be looking for are trends in Javy's balls in play, relating to a pitch's placement in and around the strike zone. As we talked about last time, there is a correlation between BABIP and how far from the center of the strike zone a pitch is when struck. There are good balls to hit (ones in the strike zone) and bad ones to hit (ones not in the strike zone). The problem with Javy is that he's hitting too many of the ones that are bad balls to hit. This could be a problem going forward.
According to Statcast, Javy has a .364 BABIP on pitches that are in the strike zone. He has a .291 BABIP on balls that are outside of the strike zone. Now this doesn't look so bad; a .291 BABIP is perfectly acceptable. You can live with that. Obviously, the .364 BABIP looks a lot nicer. But he's doing alright at making contact on balls out of the zone and putting them in play for a hit.
An aside: (I swear the point I'm trying to make was going to be more salient. And then Javy went and ruined everything by being Javier F'ing Baez. When I planned on writing this article, Javy's BABIP on balls out of the zone was .235. And then Javy had a four-hit game yesterday, with all four hits coming on balls out of the zone. This should serve as a reminder not to read too much into anything with such a small sample size. And it should also serve as a reminder that Javier Baez is blessed with some special talents.)
Javy's shown that he's been able to be a decent bad-ball hitter. Some guys are good bad-ball hitters. (I'd love to have Statcast numbers at my disposal for Vladimir Guerrero.) But, most guys aren't good bad-ball hitters. The league average BABIP on balls in the zone this year is .312. The league average BABIP on balls out of the zone is .276. It also becomes more difficult to hit for power when you go after balls out of the zone. The league average ISO (isolated power, which is slugging % - batting average, essentially taking only extra-base hits into account) on pitches in the zone is .212. The league average ISO on pitches out of the zone is .080.
Javy's ISO on pitches in the zone is .233. His ISO on pitches out of the zone is .110. So Javy's profile on pitches in and out of the zone is similar to the league-average profile. There is a noticeable difference in both BABIP and ISO, with the differences being similar to the rest of the league's differences. At first blush, bad-ball hitting isn't something hurting Javy too badly, since his efficacy against them is a little above league average. Here's the rub, though. According to Statcast, Javy has put 55 balls in play on pitches out of the zone and only 33 balls in play on pitches in the zone. Only 37.5% of his balls in play are on pitches in the strike zone. The league average in this regard is 66.1%.
Javy's simply putting too many balls in play on bad pitches. He's not able to dictate the result of his at bats as well when he does this. It's sapping his power, and he would be better off if he lays off of these pitches more often. He's shown the ability to drive pitches in the zone. Now he needs to wait for them. This is the problem with his approach. It's great that he's making more contact. But, this amount of contact outside of the zone is holding him back offensively.
The average exit velocity on balls in the zone hit by Javy is 87.8 mph. The average exit velocity on balls out of the zone by Javy is 87.2 mph. That's not a big difference, but these are small samples. The difference was more severe before yesterday. Of the three batted balls Javy hit that had a recorded exit velocity, two were hit over 100 mph and the other was over 90 mph. Occasionally, you can square up balls that are out of the zone. But, over a larger sample, it's evident that it is hard to hit bad-balls as hard as balls in the zone. The league average exit velocity on balls in the zone is 91.7 mph. The league average on balls out of the zone is 83.9 mph.
The average distance on balls in the zone hit by Javy is 233.2 feet. The average distance on balls out of the zone hit by Javy is 208.3 feet. The league average distance on balls hit in the zone is 226.3 feet. The league average distance on balls hit out of the zone is 191.5 feet. Simply put, it's more difficult to hit bad-balls as hard or as far as balls in the zone.
Research has shown that a batter is five times more responsible for exit velocity than a pitcher when a ball is hit. Batters control the zone and dictate the outcome of balls put in play. This helps validate the reasoning behind FIP (fielder independent pitching), which assumes league average results on balls in play for pitchers. There are some outliers -- ahem, Jake Arrieta -- that can freakishly control exit velocity by inducing weak contact. But, generally, a batter is better able to control the outcome of a ball in play than a pitcher.
I would suggest that a batter has less control when a pitch is out of the zone, though. I'm not sure if there's been any research on this, but it makes intuitive sense. For one, look no further than the numbers presented above. Secondly, a pitcher is generally throwing a ball outside the zone because he wants the hitter to chase it. He's dictating the action by working out there. The hitter might control the strike zone. But, once you get outside of there, the pitcher gets the hitter out of his comfort zone. Most hitters' swings are tailored in such a way to hammer pitches in the zone. Also, most hitters don't want to chase out of the zone. So when they are swinging at a pitch out of the zone, they probably were fooled to some degree.
In my last article, I showed that Javy is doing damage on high fastballs in the zone this year, unlike in his rookie year. And I also showed that he hasn't had as much success with high fastballs out of the zone. Statcast shows us that his average exit velocity is 94.3 mph on fastballs hit in the upper third of the zone. On fastballs middle-up that are either inside, outside, or above the zone, his average exit velocity is 88.5 mph. He's had four batted-ball results that Statcast has gathered on fastballs in the upper third, though. So we aren't going to be able to tell anything with this data. Let's get a larger sample size by using data for these types of pitches for the whole league.
The league average exit velocity on fastballs hit in the upper third of the zone is 89.9 mph. The league average exit velocity on fastballs hit middle-up and inside, outside or above the zone is 83.0 mph. What player has the highest average exit velocity on fastballs hit in the upper third of the zone? Bartolo Colon, of course. It's only one batted ball, but it's a beaut. The league average distance on fastballs hit in the upper third of the zone is 236.1 feet. The league average distance on fastballs hit middle-up and inside, outside, or above the zone is 202.8 feet. Again, the differences are noticeable.
We could go through other pitch types in other parts in and off the zone, and the results would match. I don't want to bore you that much, though. My point still stands: It is better to hit balls that are pitched in the zone. And Javy is putting far too many balls in play on pitches outside of the zone. It's not the worst development, though. In fact, Javy went from a guy with a .248 wOBA in 2014 to a guy with a guy with a .319 wOBA this year. It's better to make contact on these pitches than swinging and missing them. His lowered K% speaks to this. You can also put these balls in play and still find some success, which he has. He's taken great strides as a hitter. But, there's still plenty of room for improvement. He can improve a lot by waiting for better pitches to hit. If he does so, he would be able to tap into his immense power more often. And if Javier Baez does improve as a hitter, he could be a really special ball player.