As soon as Chicago Cubs prospect Javier Baez was called up in August, he was a must-watch, for one very specific reason: he swung a bat just about as hard as you can imagine anyone swinging.
Sam Miller’s “non-scout’s scout-like not-scouting report” on his MLB debut broke down the remarkable phenomenon of the rookie’s swing. This approach led to three home runs in his first three games; it also led to strikeouts. A lot of strikeouts. I noticed early on that Baez was on an historic pace with his strikeout rate, and began to religiously check box scores and switch over to Cubs games just to see Baez plate appearances. After all, there was a pretty good chance that I would see either a violent swinging strikeout or a ball leaving the park. It wasn’t just that watching the swing itself was fun; it was the fact that something new seemed to be happening, and as a fan of stats and records, I was captivated. Rookies had certainly been called up and allowed to strike out at ludicrous rates in limited playing time before, but the Cubs seemed committed to hitting Baez second in the lineup and playing him every single day.
So just how often was Baez striking out? Below is a list of all single seasons in MLB history with a strikeout rate of at least 35% (minimum 200 plate appearances), courtesy of the Baseball-Reference Play Index*:
Obviously, Baez’s strikeout rate of 41.48% was a new record, and it’s not particularly close. Teammate Mike Olt, who was one strikeout away from breaking Melvin Nieves’ record himself, was barely within 3 percentage points of Baez. Chris Carter and Mark Reynolds, who lead this list in total strikeouts, were over 5 percentage points behind Baez. While 200 PA is an arbitrary cut-off, even if the minimum number of plate appearances is reduced to 150, Baez is still top. Only when the PA criterion drops all the way down to 144 does Baez fall off the top of this list, with pitcher Wilbur Wood’s 1972 season (65 K in those 144 PA) taking top spot. For position players, it has to drop to 136 PA, giving Rick Ankiel’s rate of just over 44% in 2013 this dubious distinction.
Despite not making his debut until August 5th, the second baseman also holds the all-time record for most strikeouts in a single month, whiffing an incredible 49 times in just 116 PA. It didn’t get any better in September, as Baez fell just three short of matching that total. Baez tied a number of players for second place on the list of hitters with most four-strikeout games in a season by doing it five times, despite only playing 52 games. The record holder, Dick Allen, had seven in 1968, playing exactly 100 more games than Baez did.
One of the few records Baez didn’t get close to, simply because he was only up for two months, was the single-season record. Mark Reynolds struck out 223 times in 2009 to set the existing record. By just how much could Baez shatter the record, and will Joe Maddon and the Cubs allow him to stay on the field long enough to get there?
It should first be noted that players in general are striking out more than ever. Only 20 seasons met our original criteria and, as can be seen in the table, a quarter of those came in 2014. 60% of the qualifying seasons took place in 2009 or later. Per Fangraphs, there has been a new league strikeout rate high in every season since 2008, with 2014 marking the first year it has risen above 20%. This goes hand-in-hand with a greater tolerance for players with high strikeout rates.
If Baez did strike out at the same rate in 2015 and was still somehow allowed to stay in the lineup, he would need 540 PA to reach 224 strikeouts and break Reynolds’ record. If the Cubs allowed Baez to start every game and bat second, as they did for the full duration of his two-month major league stint last year, he could amass in the region of 700 PA. At the same 41.48% strikeout rate, he would rack up 290 strikeouts. Even with an improvement in plate discipline of 3 or 4 percentage points, Baez could top 240 or 250 strikeouts if given a prominent batting order position.
Of course, even in the current high strikeout environment, it’s hard to believe that could actually happen. Even for a team that was playing for nothing and had every incentive to let their young players gain some extra at-bats, it seemed somewhat implausible that Baez was given the maximum playing time possible and a consistently high position in the batting order after he had spent a month striking out in almost every other plate appearance. For the 2015 Cubs, who should be much more credible contenders, batting Baez and his .227 OBP second would be out of the question. That in itself shouldn’t be a problem, however: even the ninth spot in the batting order averaged 608 plate appearances in 2014 (and Baez naturally wouldn’t bat ninth in the NL). On that pace with the same K%, Baez would need around 144 games to accumulate the 540 PA needed to break the existing record.
If Baez becomes a part-time player, loses his job altogether, misses time through injury, or – in a shocking turn of events – cuts that strikeout rate down by a significant amount, then there won’t be any record-shattering. One of the biggest problems is the acquisition of Tommy La Stella from Atlanta. La Stella is everything Baez isn’t: he struck out less than half as much as Baez in 2014 in almost twice the number of games, walked almost as often as he whiffed, and has almost no power, hitting just one home run in 360 PA. In the minors, Baez had more home runs (23) and strikeouts (130) in his four months at AAA in 2014 than La Stella did in his entire minor league career, spanning 288 games. La Stella made contact 83.6% of the time in 2014; Baez posted a paltry 56.3% rate, another league-worst mark. If the Cubs want to slot someone in at second base who will both not swing wildly at every pitch and have a relatively good chance of making contact with the ball, or at least taking a walk, they now have that option. It would, of course, be tremendously boring if that happened, but it would also probably give them a better chance of winning baseball games if Baez does not improve on his 2014 performance.
There is some hope, from the limited sample size we have. The power did show up: Baez hit nine home runs in that 52-game stretch, a pace that would give him a good chance of being the home run leader amongst second basemen if he could maintain it for a full season. He also started to walk a little in September; not a huge amount, but he recorded 11 free passes, enough to make his strikeout/walk ratio a somewhat respectable 4:1, as opposed to the 12:1 it was in August. If Baez could walk in at least 10% of plate appearances, make contact enough for his batting average to rise above the Mendoza line, and still retain 25 home run power, it might be enough to make that huge strikeout rate palatable on a close-to-everyday basis. Being a respectable defender at the keystone would also help, but it’s that power that has always been his calling card.
Fundamentally, it will be very difficult for Baez to keep striking out at record-breaking pace and maintain positive value to the team, because it’s really quite hard to put together a good line when over 40% of your opportunities are taken away by strikeouts. Mike Trout might have led the AL in strikeouts last year, but he also had an OPS well north of .900 and didn’t get anywhere near a 40% K rate. If Baez is going to be a major league regular, that strikeout rate probably needs to come way down. Just to see if there is any hope for players with this kind of early career rate, I used the Play Index to find players with a strikeout rate above 35% in not just their first, but also their second season, and these were the limited results:
There’s Melvin Nieves again, as well as failed catching prospect Taylor Teagarden. Neither outcome is particularly promising: Nieves was worth -2.3 WAR over the course of his career, while Teagarden is yet to have a season in which he has reached even 250 plate appearances, although he does have positive WAR (0.6). Could Baez be like the good version of Dan Uggla: tons of power and strikeouts, low batting average but a high walk rate to compensate? Perhaps, but Uggla struck out around 25% of the time, not 35%, and that walk rate was comfortably into double digits in his best seasons.
So while I’m going to be eagerly tracking the 22-year-old’s strikeout totals, I’m tempering my expectations for a new record. It’s more likely the Cubs won’t let him get exposed as much if he doesn’t adjust quickly, or he’ll learn to refine his approach at least enough to cut that rate down to the point where the record is no longer in play. A small part of me still believes that Baez will be like a full-season version of Melvin Nieves’ 1997 campaign, when he struck out 39% of the time, hit 20 home runs in two-thirds of a season and still managed a .762 OPS. Maybe Baez will develop this season but will ultimately become the new Reynolds or Adam Dunn; still a power threat and established enough that he won’t get benched, but with enough swing-and-miss left in his game to top 223 strikeouts. Whatever the outcome, it’ll be a whole lot of fun to watch.
*I did not use any of the embed functions available via Baseball-Reference as I wanted to include the strikeout percentage, which is not shown on Play Index queries.Next post: Off-Season Thoughts, or: Thoughts on Bending Time, Space and Destiny
Previous post: EW Rewind: Episodes 15 and 16