Cubs

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

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 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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Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

A year ago Friday, a foul ball off the bat of Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. struck a young girl in the stands at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The young girl was rushed to the hospital and her family later revealed she suffered several head injuries as a result. The moment brought forth league-wide changes to protect fans from injury. 

One year later, here is a timeline of key dates in the fallout from the incident.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

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How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

Among the more interesting Cubs storylines sidelined with the rest of baseball during the coronavirus shutdown was the career restart center fielder Albert Almora Jr. seemed to promise after an emotionally trying 2019 season.

A tumultuous, wrenching 2019 season unlike any he had ever experienced in his baseball life.

“That’s a fact,” Almora said after a strong start in spring games, and just before professional sports across the country were shut down indefinitely in March.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the harrowing night in Houston when Almora’s foul ball struck a young girl in the head, an incident that caused serious, lingering injuries, resulted in league-wide action to better protect fans and that in the moment dropped Almora to a knee, shaken and in tears.

TIMELINE: Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

It was the most emotionally fraught moment in a Cubs season that was otherwise filled with competitive extremes that finished on a low note, off-the-field drama that finished with the release of a former All-Star shortstop and failed expectations that finished with the manager getting fired.

What followed for Almora was his worst performance as a baseball player, including a .215 average and .570 OPS the rest of the season, and a two-week demotion to the minors in August.

Almora has repeatedly denied his performance was impacted by that moment in Houston.

“No,” he said again this spring. “That’s an excuse.”

But the father of two young kids won’t deny that “it definitely impacted me.”

What’s certain is that by the time he returned to the team this spring, he had a new, quieter swing and a renewed mindset that had him in what he called a better place mentally.

A strong inner circle of friends and loved ones were part of the reset, he said, and in particular “just me listening and opening up to new advice.”

Almora, of course, did nothing wrong, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the horrible moment — like so many other players and fans and similar moments at games that came before that one.

And while that knowledge won’t eliminate the emotions that might linger, one valuable outcome of the incident was near immediate action by the White Sox and Nationals to extend their protective netting to the foul poles at their ballparks — and MLB announcing in December all teams would expand protective netting by the start of the 2020 season.

Almora’s response, meanwhile, has been about just that — focusing on his response to the way his performance fell short last year, on the things he could change to regroup and restart a career that seemed on the rise until 2019.

“I’m glad [the struggles] happened,” he said. “You have to grow from things like that. You have two options: You can fold and let it beat you, or you learn from it and grow.

“I’m fortunate I had good people around me that gave me an easier chance to just turn the page, man. You hear that phrase a lot in this game: Turn the page, turn the page. But it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re constantly failing and constantly not performing the way you know you can and letting your guys down …

“It was tough,” he added. “And it’s not figured out. No one here figures it out. But you do the things you can control. … I’m in a good mental spot right now, and that’s all I can really ask for.”

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