A few years ago, Javier Baez was a mythical fantasy baseball prospect. He had 30 homer power, 20 steal speed and the glove to stick in the middle infield at a time, when the middle infield was a wasteland for fantasy purposes. Times change, expectations change and flaws get exposed. The middle infield landscape is overflowing with talent – there are twelve middle infielders with ADPs below 40, an evenly distributed six a piece at 2B and SS. However, Baez, who also carries eligibility at 3B, is not among that top tier of middle infielders going at an ADP of 116.36.
Before we address whether Baez is worth that selection, we will examine Baez’s production from last year to determine if what he did was repeatable, could be improved or is primed for regression. The first notable thing with Baez’s 2016 was that he corralled his unruly strikeout rate down to down to 24% after being over 40% in a short 2014 sample and 30% in a smaller 2015 sample. The contact did improve a bit – his Contact% sat at 72.4% up from 59% in 2014 and 67.7% in 2015. The swinging strike percentage showed a similar ositive trend improving from 19.2% in 2014 to 16.4% in 2015 down to 14.4% last year. While not ideal,these are improving trends for a player that faced substantial questions regarding his contact approach.
However, in the underlying data, there is a one major red flag that makes me think this strikeout rate improvement may not be the new norm for Baez. Last season, Baez actually swung more outside the zone (42.9% up from 39.3% in 2015) and basically all of his contact improvements came from pitches outside the zone (O-Contact% 62.4% up from 48.6%). This could be a skill change, but it could also indicate that Baez experienced a one year anomaly and jump to a league average O-Contact%. It also means that Baez still the free-swinger that struggled the first time through the league. Although Baez was never the bastion of patience, the increased swings outsize the strike zone shrunk his walk rate down to a Jonathan Schoop-esque 3.3%.
Despite the swing-and-miss and plate discipline elements of his game, Baez filled the stat-sheet across 450 PA with 14 homers, 12 steals, 50 runs, 59 RBI with a .273 AVG. Given his pedigree, the power and speed results are unsurprising and seem perfectly legitimate. My only concern is the Hard Contact rate sitting at just 29.1%, however, if you watch Baez, you can see that there is more than enough power in his bat to support a 20+ HR pace. There are a couple of batted ball aspects that do concern me though. The 18.7% Soft% indicates to me that the .336 BABIP might be a touch high, as does the 19.5% line drive rate (on the lower side) and 11.3% infield hit percentage (on the higher side). These are minor adjustments, but any increase in the strikeout rate would make a .330+ BABIP critical to Baez’s continued success regardless of power and speed. While I cannot doubt his ability to produce category juice, especially in the Cubs lineup, I do have some reservations about the batting average.
The other, and perhaps larger, area of concern is Baez’s playing time. His 2016 line of 450 PA is in the vicinity of strict strong-side platoon type player – see Brandon Moss’s 464 PA and Seth Smith’s 438 PA in 2016. Players with those sort of PA totals can have value and are underrated, particularly in daily lineup leagues. Of course, Javier Baez hits right-handed so he does not have the platoon advantage. Plus, players of this playing time ilk are normally post top 200 picks, if they are drafted at all.
What Baez does have is a good glove and defensive versatility, which shows in his multi-positional eligibility. Barring an unforeseen injury though, Baez will need that flexibility to reach a 450 PA appearance threshold again. What seems lost in any projection where Baez receives 500+ PA is the fact that he only received that volume of plate appearances because Kyle Schwarber went down with a devastating, (fantasy) season-ending knee injury. We cannot travel back in time to see what would have happened if Schwarber does not get hurt, but I believe it’s a safe bet that Baez would not have received 450 PA.
And this is probably the biggest strike against Baez. Let’s forego the volume of PA argument and say that Cubs find him another 450 PA somehow, someway, likely through the attrition of the baseball season. He was 14-12 .273 in that sample last year. Based on the information above, I believe the average will probably tick down due to an increased K-rate and slightly worse batted ball luck. So let’s say he keeps the power at 14 HRs, loses 2 SB because he is on-base less and hits .255. Factor in some replacement level production (150 PA, 4 HR, 3 SB .255 AVG) and you’re looking 18 HR, 13 SB .255 AVG from Baez + another player. It’s still a pretty good player, but is it a player worth pick 116.36?
If you select Baez at his current ADP you are passing on a number of quality players at any of his three position. At 3B, you are passing on the following players to take Baez: Maikel Franco (124.78), Justin Turner (128.91) and Jake Lamb (147.42). At 2B, you are passing on: Jose Peraza (135.77); Dustin Pedroia (142.17); and Ben Zobrist (171.08); Jonathan Schoop (171.63); and Devon Travis (205.58). At SS, you are passing on: Eduardo Nunez (115.28); Addison Russell (133.8); Aledmys Diaz (149.56); Elvis Andrus (153.27); Troy Tulowitzki (158.36); and Brad Miller (161.00).
As I stated in piece yesterday about Brandon Drury, eligibility is often an overlooked and undervalued asset in fantasy baseball. However, in this case, with Baez, it is being overrated. The two reasons why it is being overrated is: (1) Baez does not have a present, clear path to everyday ABs; and (2) there are other players like Drury going much later that have similar eligibility and better playing time situations.
I would not touch Baez until close to pick 200 and certainly would not be drafting him in front of teammates Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell, who have assured roles and playing time, in the same lineup.