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The strangest thing about Javy Baez’s hot start to 2019

Javy Baez is a free-swinger. That’s not some earth-shattering statement.  It’s well known Baez is not up there to walk and there’s a solid case to be made that he is the most aggressive hitter in baseball — Salvador Perez is the only other qualified hitter since the start of the 2018 season who swings…

 

Javy Baez is a free-swinger.

That’s not some earth-shattering statement.

It’s well known Baez is not up there to walk and there’s a solid case to be made that he is the most aggressive hitter in baseball — Salvador Perez is the only other qualified hitter since the start of the 2018 season who swings at pitches outside the strike zone more than Baez.

So then how is it that one of Baez’s problems this year is actually that he’s not swinging enough?

He struck out looking twice in Friday’s series opener with the Cardinals at Wrigley Field, which brought his season “backwards K” total to 10 already. That puts him on pace for nearly 56 strikeouts looking in 2019.

Last season, he had only 27 such strikeouts all season. So what’s going on?

“I just think it’s how he’s processing the at-bat,” Joe Maddon said. “He’ll learn to balance this out. There’s certain counts that they would just not throw him a strike that maybe they are right now and so we gotta get away from that.

“There’s been certain moments that, historically, he’s never seen a strike, and now he’s seeing a strike. So it’s just an adjustment he’ll make again.”

Because Baez is so aggressive, most teams have resorted to throwing him pitches way out of the strike zone in hopes that he would get himself out.

But one of the main reasons for his breakout 2018 campaign was improved plate discipline and laying off pitches he can’t handle on a more regular basis — particularly the slider off the plate from a right-handed pitcher. Maddon has always said that as Baez learns to lay off that slider on a more regular basis, he can essentially become Manny Ramirez at the plate.

So now it appears as if teams are trying to utilize Baez’s aggressiveness against him earlier in counts and then mixing things up by actually surprising him and throwing a pitch in the zone with two strikes.

Take this sequence against Cardinals righty Jack Flaherty in the first inning Friday:

Flaherty got a pair of strikes on that slider off the plate and then came back well into strike zone with a 94 mph fastball to catch Baez looking and left him standing at the plate bewildered.

Then in the bottom of the sixth inning, we saw a similar sequence, as Flaherty set Baez up with a slider low and away (but in the zone this time) and then another fastball (this one at 96 mph) clearly in the strike zone:

Flaherty is a perfect pitcher to deploy such a strategy, as he has both a very good slider and a very good fastball with good velocity.

But it’s not just Flaherty and the Cardinals that are attacking Baez in this way.

It’s been happening a lot more lately. He went more than two weeks without a backwards K, but then struck out in that manner in four straight games — Sunday in Arizona, Tuesday and Wednesday in Seattle and then the aforementioned pair Friday.

This is just another area Baez will have to work on and adjust back to the league. Baseball is a game of adjustments and hitters are constantly trying to refine their approach as opposing pitchers change their plan of attack.

But even with all that, Baez’s strikeout rate overall (27.9 percent) is right in line with his career mark (28.1 percent) and only a slight jump over his 25.9 percent mark from last year’s MVP runner-up campaign.

It’s not like Baez is struggling, either, as he woke up Sunday morning slashing .318/.353/.659 and leading the Cubs in both HR (11) and RBI (26). This is just one quirky stat from the first five weeks of the season.

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Before Saturday afternoon’s game against the Cardinals, Cubs manager Joe Maddon talked about how he wanted to see starting pitcher Yu Darvish throw on a ‘visceral level.’ He wanted him to ditch the scouting reports, the manager said, and “just become primal.”

The results — four innings, five earned runs and five walks in a no-decision — may not evoke quite the same colorful adjectives. Though it was another rocky start for Darvish, the concern that many outside the Cubs’ clubhouse share could not be found in it.

“Honestly, I thought he looked good for a while there,” Maddon said after the Cubs’ 6-5 win. “I felt good about him in the beginning. Even when [Jose] Martinez hit the home run – I’d prefer a homer to a walk right there.”

Darvish continued to struggle with command, as the five walks he issued were the most since he walked seven in Texas back in late March.

“We had a good game plan, and I felt really good about my sinker today,” Darvish said. “But I used too much of [it].”

The game unraveled for Darvish in the 4th. After Jose Martinez led off with a ground rule double to right, walks issued to Kolten Wong and Dexter Fowler loaded the bases with only one out. Then it was Cardinals’ starting pitcher Michael Wacha, of all people, who poked a ground ball into left field for a two-RBI single. Matt Carpenter followed that with a RBI ground ball of his own, and the damage was done.

“I thought he was going to settle in, but then there was a ground ball base hit by the pitcher and a ground ball base hit by Carpenter – those were ground balls, that’s actually a good pitch,” Maddon said. “Then going back out, after we scored those runs, I wanted to give him an opportunity and he was just unable to settle back in. That’s where he’s gotta grab the game and pitch into the 6th inning possibly.”

After Darvish opened the 5th with two more walks and a wild pitch, his afternoon was over. A well-rested Cubs bullpen took over, with six different guys holding St. Louis to three hits over the final five innings. He wasn’t exactly cheated, either: Wacha’s two-RBI single had an exit velocity of 98.6 mph; Carpenter’s left the bat at 95.

“I think Yu threw the ball really well,” catcher and Saturday’s star Taylor Davis said. “The results are going to be misleading for people that didn’t watch the game. I think at the end of the day he had some really quality pitches.”

The postgame quotes would almost certainly be different had Javy Baez not crushed a game-winning homer into the right field bleachers during the bottom of the 8th inning. It’s easier to swallow four innings of tinkering when you come away with the win regardless. Still, between Darvish himself, his personal catcher, and his manager, the message was a unified one: there’s improvement happening, in some way, each time out.

“I was talking with Tommy [Hottovoy] after the game, and my fastball was very good today,” Davish added. “My program is about throwing strikes with my fastball, but now I can throw strikes with my two-seamer, so I can do a lot more.

“I’m close.”

When the Cardinals chose to intentionally walk Kyle Schwarber to load the bases for Taylor Davis in the fourth inning Saturday, it seemed like a no-brainer move.

St. Louis had just jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the game in the top half of that inning and looked to have Yu Darvish — and the Cubs — on the ropes.

Davis was 0-for-6 on the season entering that at-bat and was not regarded as a big home run threat with 0 dingers in his 24 MLB at-bats and only 31 longballs over nine minor-league seasons. Couple that with the wind blowing in at Wrigley Field at 8 mph and nobody was predicting a game-tying grand slam in that situation.

Of course, you know where this is all going, even if you didn’t watch the game or see the highlight.

Davis smacked the first pitch into the left-field bleachers to tie the game and watched as the Cubs bullpen kept things even until Javy Baez’s own hero moment in the bottom of the eighth inning.

It gave the Cubs their sixth straight victory as they improved to 18-12 on the season and pulled within a half-game of the Cardinals in the division.

“That’s so unlikely,” Joe Maddon said of Davis’ grand slam. “I’m not degrading him or anything, it’s just unlikely. He crushed that ball. [Cardinals pitcher Michael] Wacha just made a mistake right there and he did not miss it.

“Very unlikely event right there, but he’s an outstanding defensive catcher, he’s hit well in the minor leagues also and hopefully that’s one of those things that can get this guy really rolling offensively. But he does a really good job receiving, calling a game, etc. And then to do that, it’s quite a moment for him.”

What’s even more unlikely about Davis’ Arya Stark moment was the fact it was only his second start since he was called up from Triple-A Iowa on April 12 to replace the injured Victor Caratini. Davis had notched only 6 plate appearances across a span of more than three weeks prior to Saturday afternoon.

But Maddon and the Cubs wanted to pair him up with Darvish again after the battery worked well together last weekend in Arizona. Plus, the Cubs need to give Willson Contreras a day off somehow coming up, so Saturday was as good a time as any.

The Cubs are in the midst of a 10-game homestand without an off-day and only have only one breather (May 13) between now and May 30, so there’s no way Contreras would be able to catch every game during that stretch. In the three weeks since Caratini got hurt, the Cubs have had so many off-days that they’ve naturally been able to keep their star catcher fresh and haven’t had to rely on Davis much.

Before the game, Maddon spoke about the importance of depth and then watched as the Cubs’ little-used backup catcher gave his team a boost with the bat against a division rival even though he was in there more for his work behind the plate.

“We do have the depth there and he’s been really touted loudly by the guys upstairs,” Maddon said. “Analytical guys for years have really liked his work based on how well he receives the baseball.”

Davis said the whole moment still hadn’t set in for him yet but his phone was ringing off the hook after the game and he was informed the Cubs were able to retrieve the baseball for him as a keepsake.

“Amazing,” Darvish said. “I was watching from the dugout — that was, like, perfect. It looked like a movie.”

Baez eventually played the hero alongside Davis as Saturday afternoon turned into evening, but the Cubs’ shortstop actually celebrated his catcher’s homer more than Davis did.

“I pimped it myself,” Baez said. “I was at third base and as soon as the ball was hit, I knew it was going. The wind was blowing in, too. He really crushed that ball. It was a huge moment for him and his family and our teammates.”

 

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