Cubs seek cure for Baez's batting slump
Theo Epstein didn't mention any names during this postseason critique of Cubs hitting, but it was easy to imagine video footage of Javy Baez strikeouts playing over his words.
"We were getting beat in the strike zone by fastballs and that's not something that had really happened in the past," Epstein said. "To me, when really good hitters are getting beat in the strike zone by fastballs, it means they're off."
There's no need to downplay Baez' dismal performance at the plate in 2020. He led the National League in outs made and ranked dead last among qualified batters in OPS.
The stats tell a variety of stories. According to baseball-reference.com, Baez hit .113 this year against power pitchers (those who ranked in the top third in strikeouts plus walks) and .280 against finesse pitchers. The splits over his career are .222 vs. power pitchers, .276 vs. finesse.
According to NextGen stats on mlb.com, Baez did his best hitting against four-seam fastballs (.269) and was bad at off-speed pitches like the changeup (.100) and the curve (.147). But the pitch type doesn't account for velocity.
The eye test told us all Cubs hitters struggled against the hard-throwing Miami pitchers in the Wild Card series, where Baez went 1-for-8.
Plenty of explanations were explored for the Baez slump. Maybe since he feeds off the energy of the crowd, the absence of fans in the stadium hurt his performance more than other players. That could be true, but Baez has always hit better on the road.
He was one of several players who complained about MLB prohibiting in-game video analysis. Baez was used to watching his at-bats after they happened and making adjustments. MLB said the rule was designed as a social distancing tool, to keep players from congregating in video rooms. Some believed it was an overreaction to the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal.
At this point, there's no telling if there will be fans in the seats or in-game video in 2021.
Another theory is Baez lost some of his aggressiveness. The Cubs went into the season with a strategy of taking longer at bats, and Baez followed the program, seeing 3.87 pitches per at bat, up from 3.52 in 2018. He also swung at the first pitch 48.3 percent of the time in 2018, compared to 39.1 this season. Baez will always be a free-swinger, so why not turn him loose?
Just two years ago, Baez finished second in MVP voting to Milwaukee's Christian Yelich. Coincidentally, Yelich had an equally miserable year at the plate, with one exception.
Baez hit .203 with 8 home runs and 24 RBI. Yelich checked in at .205 with 12 home runs and 25 RBI. The big difference was Yelich had an on-base percentage of .356, compared to .238 for Baez. Yelich walked 46 times, while Baez accepted just 7 free passes.
An argument can be made that 2018 was an outlier for Baez, since he hit career-highs in nearly every offensive category. Still, from 2015-19, Baez' lowest batting average was .273, so something was clearly off this summer.
"Without video, without fans ... I feel like I was back in rookie league trying to figure out who I was," Baez said when the season ended. "It was just so different and so confusing this year. I don't know what to think about. I'm going to work this offseason to get better and we'll see how next year goes."
Baez is one of several Cubs who can become a free agent after the 2021 season. He discussed an extension in the spring, but both sides said they decided to table negotiations due to the pandemic uncertainty.
Is there uncertainty about whether Baez has a future with the Cubs? At least they're able to see how next season goes before making any decisions.