Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Friday, August 8, 2014
Javier Baez isn't yet Ramirez or Sheffield

By David Schoenfield

After hitting the winning home run in his major league debut, Javier Baez followed up with two home runs in his third game. Not a bad start for the 21-year-old regarded as one of the top prospects in the game. Here's the report from ESPNChicago. He's just the fourth Chicago Cubs player to have a two-homer game at age 21 or younger and Cubs fans can only dream that he'll turn out as well as Ron Santo.

The two comparisons I see most often for Baez are Gary Sheffield and Manny Ramirez. Like Sheffield, Baez has sick bat speed and a similar pre-swing wiggle and bat wrap. His stance and follow-through echo Ramirez, who worked with him at Triple-A Iowa and has received credit for helping Baez turn it on after a miserable first six weeks to the season when he was hitting well under .200. Like both of those guys, Baez produces big power and that rare "crack" when he connects just right. I saw him hit two home runs in spring training, both mammoth shots where the sound of the blast thundered through the ballpark.

Let's make it clear, however: Sheffield and Ramirez were special hitters, two of the best right-handed hitters ever. The big difference between them and Baez is those two combined bat speed and power with excellent plate discipline, and in Sheffield's case, supreme contact skills. Baez hasn't shown near the same ability to control the strike zone.

In his career, Sheffield finished with a 13.5 percent walk rate and 10.7 percent strikeout rate. Even adjusting for the higher strikeout rates now, that's phenomenal hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition. Sheffield had this ability from the moment he turned pro. As a 19-year-old in Double-A and Triple-A, he had 56 walks and 63 strikeouts in 587 plate appearances. He walked more than he struck out as a 21-year-old for the Brewers. In his first season in the majors at 22, Ramirez had 42 walks and 72 strikeouts in 336 plate appearances and the next year he walked 75 times. At Iowa, Baez had 130 strikeouts and 34 walks in 434 plate appearances.

The good news for Baez is the strikeout-to-walk ratios improved slightly during the season:

April: 22/4
May: 41/8
June: 34/11
July/August: 36/11

There's a chance he ends up more like Alfonso Soriano: Lots of home runs, but with good-not-great averages and high strikeout rates and low walk rates that drag down his OBP. That's still a valuable contributor, especially since Baez should contribute more value defensively than Sheffield, Ramirez or Soriano if he can stick in the infield. But Baez is just 21; there's time to learn and improve. Even if the strikeout rates remain high, the hope is he'll eventually learn to take more walks.

There will likely be some growing pains as he adjusts to big league pitching. And Cubs fans should prepare themselves that Baez isn't guaranteed to be a star, let alone a hitter at the Sheffield-Ramirez level. But the talent is amazing and I expect in the long run he's going to be a very good player, a .260-ish hitter with 30-35 home run power (and maybe more).