Javy Báez drew a walk in his second plate appearance Sunday afternoon, giving him a team-leading four free passes so far. That’s good for a 28.6% walk rate, nearly six times his career average. It took Javy 20 games to reach four walks in 2019, a span of 89 PAs (4.5%), so I think we can say definitively that he has become an elite on-base machine.
Or, you know, maybe not. El Mago actually walked four times over his first 25 plate appearances (16%) of the 2018 season, then drew just 25 bases on balls over his next 620 trips to the plate (4%). It gets really crazy when you consider that three of those first four walks came in one game, after which he walked multiple times on only two other occasions.
Following that walk-a-thon, El Mago’s patience all but disappeared. He drew just two free passes over a subsequent span of 184 plate appearances, including a streak of 172 PAs without a walk. It’s actually 182 if you take out the time they just waved him to first. There are undoubtedly similar stretches throughout the course of his career, but it hasn’t been a big issue because he’s so athletic that he makes up for the dearth of walks.
That can’t continue forever, though, and Javy knows he needs to improve his game.
“If it’s not a strike I’m trying not to swing at it,” he told Jesse Rogers of ESPN. “I’m working on it. I’m starting backward, not swinging 100%. I’ve been taking that approach. I just don’t want automatic swinging on 3-2.”
Good thing he was only in a 2-2 count against Cody Anderson on Sunday, because he most definitely put a full swing on a pitch that ended up high on the berm in center. The controlled violence of his trademark hack isn’t going away, it’s just going to be deployed a little more judiciously. Laying off those sliders away in the dirt won’t just make Javy a much more dangerous hitter, it’ll provide entertainment value for his teammates.
“I look in the dugout and everyone is laughing,” Javy said of the response to his newfound patience.
As fun as this is in theory, we won’t know for certain how real this change is until the games start to count and the Cubs are facing guys who aren’t wearing wide receiver numbers. And even he has made a legit adjustment, it would be borderline shocking to see him get close to a double-digit walk rate over a full season. But just improving to 7.5% would result in another 15-18 times reaching base.
That’s another 15-18 opportunities to disrupt the opposing pitcher or go first to third on a single, big value-adds for a team that has struggled to score runs consistently over the past two seasons. If that all seems like too small a difference to matter, consider that just a single additional run or two in one 2018 game would have been the difference in winning the division and playing Game 163. The Cubs would have hosted a playoff series and who knows what might have happened.
Incremental improvement can be hard to spot unless you know what you’re looking for, but the good news is that you do know what to look for. Then again, Javy Báez truly being more patient and taking his walks will yield much bigger results than what the stat line can show you.