Major League Baseball is being dominated by high fastballs and there was a time when it looked it might also be dominated by Javy Báez. That wasn’t the case in 2020 as the Gold Glove shortstop struggled to find any of the offensive rhythm he’d established in previous seasons. But while most of you probably assume that was a result of his unquenchable thirst for sliders, Javy’s real problem was the inability to eat high heat.
By using exit velocity, we can visualize the degree to which Javy struggled. In 2019, he was blasting high fastballs with an average exit velo around 100 mph. But during the shortened season last year, El Mago was only hitting high fastballs around 80 mph.
Javy’s struggles against high heat also coincided with a general inability to make contact. He whiffed through roughly 30-50% of fastballs thrown high in 2019, a stark contrast to his 50-80% whiff rate in 2020.
What happened? Why didn’t Báez hit high fastballs well as he did in 2019? The answer isn’t singular, but we can speculate using some of the available data. Pitchers threw 14% fewer fastballs to Javy in 2020 vs. 2019, opting instead for more breaking pitches. He saw nearly twice as many cutters last season in addition to 20% more sliders.
Put yourself in his shoes. You’re up to bat, your high socks look perfect, the eye black looks great, the chains are out. But you’re up there seeing way more breaking stuff. So now, after realizing that you’re seeing twice as many cutters, you’re anticipating more of them. So you’re caught off-guard when you get a fastball instead. You whiff. You keep whiffing. You’re feeling lost. But at least you still look cool cursing your way back to the dugout.
It hurts to even type the words that Javy was one of the worst hitters in MLB last year with a .203 batting average, 57 wRC+, and a .256 wOBA. Yikes.
Javy has an incredibly high baseball IQ and he’s made several adjustments over his illustrious career, like incorporating a two-strike B-hack in 2016, a more upright stance and getting more open in 2018. It was those changes he made against high fastballs in 2018 that propelled him to MVP candidacy.
Over time, perhaps Javy won’t struggle against that high heat anymore, especially if/when he makes the necessary adjustments against breaking pitches over the course of what we hope will be a full season.