Javier Baez is back in the majors to try to meet his own expectations as well as those of fans and prospect junkies. Last year, he struggled mightily, flashing his huge power potential but posting the worst strikeout rate in history. So since winter ball and spring training, Baez had been working to revamp his approach and mechanics. Changes are easy to see; compare this GIF of a home run last year off a righty pitcher’s slider…
…with this GIF of Baez’s only 2015 home run, which also came off a RHP’s slider:
The increased control of the 2015 version is palpable, right? A big leg kick that went back, around, and forward is gone; now, Baez’s toe just barely lifts off the ground as he shifts from a closed stance to a square stance right before the pitch enters the hitting zone. He’s more balanced now, attacking pitches with less torque but still plenty of it. He previously had two phases of his takeback:
But that’s been reduced to one motion, and a quieter one at that:
The bat used to be nearly parallel to the ground with the pitch having completed most of its journey to home plate. From that point in the swing, Baez had just 8 frames in the GIF until he made contact for his 2014 homer. That positioning would require the bat to complete a long journey in a rapid timeframe to enter the hitting zone.
In the 2015 swing, the bat is tilted slightly inward towards the pitcher at an earlier point. So the bat has more time (11 frames away from contact in the image below) to travel a shorter distance.
These seem like a good improvements, but the 2015 swing isn’t representative of all the cuts I’ve seen in ~20 Baez plate appearances this year. Think of the 2014 and 2015 home run motions as endpoints on a range of swings that Baez often falls between. Sometimes he sticks with the simplified mechanics throughout his plate appearances, and other times he’s used them as a two-strike approach. The big leg kick still makes appearances as well, as he used it and less-exaggerated hand movement in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
And earlier in the month, he reverted and took a former teammate’s advice as literally as possible:
One could argue that Baez should get a pass on that last swing, since it came on a 99 mph Cholula from Aroldis Chapman. But I argue the opposite—this swing reflects particularly poorly on Baez. In a crucial matchup against baseball’s best closer, Baez took a non-competitive swing when he had the count (3-1) in his favor. The 22-year-old’s erratic and overly-aggressive approach was on full display in the Chapman PA. Clearly, there are more adjustments to be made.
Where does this leave Baez? The statistical improvement was there for him this year, but this multi-swing approach would seem difficult to maintain moving forward. Few MLB hitters (let alone successful ones) have hitting mechanics that can change so drastically from swing to swing. Baez is young enough to figure it out, but he’s very much a work in progress.