After yet another four-strikeout game Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds, there must be some growing concern about Chicago Cubs rookie Javier Baez. Maybe not within the team, but definitely within a portion of the fan base that hasn’t seen a player like this in a long time -- maybe ever.
It’s understandable to be confused by what you’re seeing. There’s the prolific home runs -- seven of them so far -- and the many strikeouts. He has 40 already, including striking out four times in each of four separate games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no one has accomplished that feat within their first 21 career games in more than 100 years. And he’s the first player ever to hit six or more home runs and strike out 30 or more times in his first 20 games, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
We are seeing something unique, and making a judgment on him for that reason alone would be premature. It’s hard to compare him to anyone in baseball. At his current strikeout and home run rate, he would hit about 42 long balls and strike out 240 times. Let that sink in.
For now, the comparisons to other major leaguers won’t sound favorable on the surface. Adam Dunn comes to mind. So does Mark Reynolds. These are/were high strikeout, low batting average, high home run hitters. In fact, former Cub Dave Kingman might be best as a comparison. He was a career .236 hitter and on a per-162 game basis he would average 37 home runs, 101 RBIs, 51 walks and 152 strikeouts. Kingman had four seasons of hitting sub-.240 with 30 or more home runs. That looks a lot like what Baez’s stat line could be over a full year, though both the home runs and strikeouts could be even higher.
"He's always going to be a player who has extremes in his game," Cubs president Theo Epstein said Wednesday on "The Carmen & Jurko Show" on ESPN Chicago 1000. "Extreme bat speed, extreme raw power, extreme home run output and probably some extreme swings and misses. And extreme strikeout totals to go with it. That said, whenever he gets to a new level he hits a couple of home runs then gets overwhelmed, they find some of his weaknesses and (they) attack them. He never backs down from a challenge, never shirks away from it. He just works harder and adjusts. I think you'll see a lot of that in the big leagues. That's why we called him up now."
Here’s the good news: These seem to be worst-case scenarios for Baez. We can already safely say he has power that won’t disappear for a long time. That’s not an easy statement to make regarding a 21-year-old middle infielder. But it is for him. So he has the power; now the rest of his game has to come along. He doesn’t feel like the type who would have to sacrifice home runs to bring up his batting average and on-base percentage. Experience and coaching should do that.
Dunn hasn’t exactly had a bad career. If Baez can reach base as much as Dunn did in his prime, no one will care about the strikeouts. And that’s the point here. It’s not about how Baez makes his outs -- or even how the team makes them -- it’s about how many he makes over the course of the season. And, of course, when he makes them. Cutting down on just a few strikeouts in favor of a few more walks while being able to perform in high leverage situations -- instead of just swinging for the fences -- are the adjustments he’ll need to make. The talent in him says he can do it, but his head will have to catch up.
Here’s an idea moving forward. Forget about the strikeout totals and just look at his home runs and on-base percentage. If they are headed in the right direction then so is Baez. Otherwise, the Cubs may have to “settle” for Dunn or Reynolds. There are worse outcomes. Plenty worse. He could be a .210 hitter with no power. Let’s see how this plays out while admiring the uniqueness he brings -- both the good and bad.