Baez, '18 NL MVP runner-up, eyes 'better year'

Despite high strikeout-to-walk ratio, Cubs shortstop had a breakout season

March 10th, 2019

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Look at it from a particular statistical perspective, and had a unique season in 2018. That’s “unique” in the surest sense of the word. As in, it had never happened before.

The runner-up in the National League MVP race, Baez posted a 126 OPS+, which means his offensive production, adjusted for league and ballpark context, was 26 percent better than the league average. He put up this impressive mark despite a lofty strikeout total (167) and a lowly walk total (29). According to Baseball Reference, in Major League history, there had never been a qualified hitter to put up an OPS+ that high with a strikeout total that high and a walk total that low.

Due to the difficulty of repeating the unique, Baez, who singled and scored a run in the Cubs’ 8-0 win over the Giants on Saturday afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium, is roundly labeled in fantasy and analytic circles as a regression candidate for 2019. The thinking is that you can’t have a strikeout-to-walk ratio that pronounced and expect to maintain elite production overall.

You might not be surprised to learn Baez doesn’t agree with the regression projection, nor does he pay it any mind.

“People always talk about numbers and stuff,” he said. “But baseball can go any way. I don’t pay attention to what’s going on and what people say. I don’t control it, and we don’t control it as a team. That’s one thing that happened last year. We paid attention to what was being said. And that’s what we’re trying not to do now.”

You won’t hear any bold boasts from the 26-year-old Baez about shushing any critics this year. This is a quiet, humble player who, even on the heels of a big breakout, has maintained a low-profile presence in this year’s Cubs camp. Manager Joe Maddon speculated that the 2015 death of Baez’s sister Noely, who had spina bifida, has contributed to the way Baez comports himself.

“He’s seen the tougher side of this whole thing we call ‘the human race’ or ‘living,’” Maddon said. “So he’s probably got a perspective a lot of guys don’t have. You see this flashy player, maybe a chain sticking out, maybe a tattoo or whatever. But one-on-one, is there a more humble guy? He’s got a tremendous amount of respect for others.”

That’s a good quality to have. And on the field, Baez has many qualities that separate him from the pack. He is a gifted ballplayer whose terrific tagging, athleticism and flair make him a delight to watch on a daily basis. His versatility -- Baez will again fill in for the suspended Addison Russell at shortstop before likely shifting back to second when Russell returns -- adds to his appeal and value.

It will be interesting, though, to see how much Baez can improve on his strikeout rate (25.9 percent) and walk rate (4.5 percent), which were the only knocks on his otherwise splendid 2018 season. The closest comparable to Baez’s 2018 was Alfonso Soriano’s breakout 2002 season with the Yankees, in which he had a 129 OPS+ with 23 walks and 157 strikeouts. Soriano finished third in the MVP voting that year, and of course went on to a distinguished career in which he was selected to seven All-Star Games and won four Silver Slugger Awards. If that’s the sort of career the future has in store for Baez, well, there are far worse baseball fates.

For now, Baez is focused on maintaining his ability to hit the ball with authority when his bat does meet the ball. His strides last year didn’t come in fewer chases on pitches outside the strike zone, but, rather, more swings (and more contact) on pitches within it. He attributes this to something refreshingly simple: watching the pitch.

“Just following the ball,” he said. “In the cage and while doing my routine, I worked on that. Because that was one of my biggest problems, is I wasn’t following the ball all the way through the zone. Last year, I did it a bit better and had a great year.”

Can Baez have another great year? He already proved you can be a very productive player with a low on-base percentage, but his age and improved attention to detail in the batter’s box offer the potential for growth in the OBP area. So while Baez likely won’t have another truly unique season, he might not necessarily need to.

“I’m just trying to make the adjustment,” he said, “and have a better year for myself and as a team.”