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Blind Battle: Javier Baez vs. Ian Happ

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Heath takes a “blind” look at this pair of Cubbies, who are more similar than you might think.

USA TODAY Sports/Peter Rogers Illustrations

These two men play for the same team. Player A has an ADP of 14 and Player B has an ADP of 261. Sure, it’s obvious who is who, unless you’re just beginning to start your fantasy baseball research. But for the sake of the exercise, I am removing the names. Let’s proceed.

Note: All data was derived from Fangraphs and Baseball Savant.

PHYSICAL TOOLS

Player A: Age 26, 6’0”, 190 lbs, 28.9 ft/sec sprint speed. In 2018, this player logged time at second base, shortstop, and third base. In fact, those are the only three spots Player A has seen time, aside from four appearances as a first baseman.

Player B: Age 24, 6’0”, 205 lbs, 27.6 ft/sec sprint speed. In 2018, this player logged significant time at all three outfield spots and third base. He has also had 38 appearances as a second baseman, as well as a pair of appearances at first base.

Physically, these dudes are pretty similar, but Player B has the upside of versatility as an infielder or an outfielder, something we haven’t seen from Player A.

STANDARD (Career numbers)

Player A: 4.9% BB%, 28.1% K%, .203 ISO, .337 BABIP. .267/.309/.470, .327 wOBA, 103 wRC+

Player B: 12.5% BB%, 33.8% K%, .217 ISO, .339 BABIP. .242/.341/.459, .338 wOBA, 109 wRC+

Fairly similar, but Player A hits the ball more and reads like a “free-swinger” who doesn’t draw many walks. Player B is well above-average in walks but has major strikeout issues. One big difference is age—Player A is 26 and has played in 527 games, while Player B is two years younger and has played in only 257 games.

Additionally, Player A slashed .290/.326/.554 with a 4.5% walk rate and 25.9% K-rate in ‘18.

Player B underwhelmed with a .233/.353/.408 line, with a 15.2% walk rate and 36.1% K-rate.

ADVANCED (Career numbers)

I wanted to make one quick note with regard to wRC+.

Player A has a lower career mark and has been below average in all but one season. Here are his finishes by year: 54, 97, 94, 98, 131. Do you trust one big outlier?

Player B has only played in two seasons, and had marks of 114 and 106. So he’s younger and he’s been above average in both seasons.

BATTED BALLS (Career)

A: 19.3% LD, 45.2% GB, 35.5% FB, 18.6% HR/FB, 42/34.8/23.2 (PCO), 19.2/48.1/32.7 (SMH)

B: 21.3% LD, 39.9% GB, 38.8% FB, 21.8% HR/FB, 40.6/33.9/25.5 (P/C/O), 18.1/46.4/35.4 (SMH)

That’s not internet shorthand for “shaking my head,” that’s me abbreviating for Soft%, Med%, and Hard% so it all fits on one line. I don’t know about you all, but I prefer Player B here. More line drives, less ground balls, more fly balls, more fly balls becoming homers, similar Pull/Cent/Oppo percentages, less Soft%, and slightly less Med% which means more Hard%. We’ve established that Player A actually hits the ball more, but when Player B does hit the ball I like his profile better.

PLATE DISCIPLINE (Career)

A: 43.7% O-Swing, 71.1% Z-Swing%, 54.4% Swing%, 80.3% Z-Contact%, 67.5% Contact%

B: 27.8% O-Swing, 71.2% Z-Swing%, 45.8% Swing%, 73.9% Z-Contact%, 65.2% Contact%

Player A swings way more, but Player B isn’t far off from last year’s MLB average 46.6% swing rate. So it’s not that Player B doesn’t swing enough—it’s that Player A swings a TON.

Also for reference, Player B is above the MLB average in Z-Swing%, which was 67.3% last year. Again, Player A’s recognition and swing rate are just much higher than average—especially last year, when Player A registered a whopping 78.0% Z-Swing%...or 11% higher than the MLB average.

Both players are below average in Contact% and Z-Contact%, but the difference is that Player A is taking advantage when balls are in the zone, while Player B is not. Player A’s chase rate is tremendous, at 45.5%...or basically 15% more than league average. This drags Player A’s overall Contact% down and contributes to a massive 17.4% career swinging strike rate—and that’s in line with his 2018 production, too (17.9%).

Player B has a career 15.6% swinging strike rate, which is in line with last year’s 15.3% mark. Both players are worse than last year’s MLB average of 10.7%. Still, in my opinion there is room for growth for Player B, who improved his chase rate last year (from an average 31.5% to a very good 24.7%). His contact rates went down in his second year, but he’s still a youngster. If he can rebound to his rookie season levels (or exceed those levels) then his high walk rate, plus power, and decent speed will begin to show.

Barrels/Launch Angle

Player A’s career marks in Brl%: 9.6%, 6.0%, 8.4%, and 12.6%. Again, one big outlier. However, seeing this player’s recognition in the zone is encouraging. Sure, his chase rate is absurd. But he will destroy mistakes and crush it in the zone. Also, this player’s launch angle was 9.2 degrees in 2018, in line with career mark of 9.9 degrees (and just off the MLB average of 10.9). So that’s a tolerable launch angle for an infielder, in my opinion.

Player B’s Brl% marks are a robust 13.3% and 12.2% over his first two seasons. Again (much like wRC+) this player has begun his career ahead of Player A. We’ve established that this player has some swing-and-miss tendencies, but if he can figure out how to make more contact and handle balls in the zone, things could get ugly (for the opposing starting pitcher). Player B also has an above-average launch angle, with marks of 12.9 degrees and 14.1 degrees in his first two years. His career hard hit rate (according to Statcast) is 40.2%, higher than Player A’s 37.3% mark.

CONCLUSION

With regard to Javier Baez (Player A), you’re trusting his growth in the zone and banking on that to carry him through. His chase rate is obscene, but when baseballs are in the zone they get destroyed. Baez also has more of a floor with stolen bases, as he boasts a faster sprint speed and a higher success rate on steals (49 SBs, 18 CS, 73.13% success).

Player B is Ian Happ. Happ (16 SB, 8 CS, 66.67% success) doesn’t have the upside of Baez with regard to steals, but his high walk rate is encouraging if he does rebound in the contact rate department. He’d be more likely to slot into the top of the order than Baez, who reads like a stud middle-of-the-order bat to me. For what it’s worth, Ben Zobrist is nearly 38 years old. The Cubs can’t want him to leadoff for the majority of 2019. Imagine if Happ is setting the table ahead of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber.

My own takeaway is that I’ll want to pay attention to each player’s plate discipline during Spring Training. If Baez can cut down ever so slightly in chase rate, I like how he damages baseballs when they enter the zone. So I’m coming around slightly on Baez, but I’m still out on him right now at his ludicrous ADP. If I have a late draft just before the season and I’ve seen a tiny bit of focus on this area from Baez, I’ll take some chances on his ridiculous power/speed combination...if he falls well past his ADP of 14 (per NFBC).

For Ian Happ, it’s all about the price. With an ADP of 261, he is essentially free. You’re taking him past Round 20 in a 12-team, 30-player league. Per recent NFBC ADP data, Happ is being drafted right after Willians Astudillo and right before Danny Jansen. Other IF/OF types in that general area are Jeff McNeil, Shin-Soo Choo, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Brian Anderson. Only one of those guys is laced with upside, and it’s the 24-year-old Cubbie. Sign me up all day for Ian Happ, on every single one of my rosters in 2019.