Javier Baez has truly amazing, turn the wind around with the power of his wrists, bat speed. I saw him live for the first time last Wednesday, when he sent a screaming line drive on to Waveland for his first Wrigley Field home run. His bat speed led to comparisons with the king of elite bat speed from the prior generation of players: Gary Sheffield. You heard the comparisons when Baez was drafted. You heard them as he sped through the minors. You heard them when he was promoted to the Majors, and over the past two weeks numerous outlets have shown side by side swings of Baez and Sheffield.
But is Sheffield actually a good comparison Baez?
In short, no, he is not. Sheffield had elite bat speed that went along with an advanced approach at the plate not only from the day he hit the Majors Leagues that led to him walking more than he struck out over his career (13% walk rate, 11% strikeout rate), but also in his short time as a prospect in the Minor Leagues, where Sheffield struck out in just 8.5 % of his plate appearances and walked more than he struck out. On the other hand, Sheffield was a very poor defender both as a shortstop very early in his career, and as an outfielder after that. Despite his defensive issues, the primary reason Sheffield is a fringe Hall of Famer as opposed to a sure fire one is time missed due to injuries, particularly in his prime.
Aside from the bat speed, Baez has nothing in common with Sheffield aside from being drafted and moving through the Minors as a shortstop. Baez has an approach at the plate that needs a lot of work, with a 38.7% strikeout rate and a 3.1% walk rate in his brief Major League career. His similar issues in his minor league career, particularly a high strikeout rate (26% for his minor league career), were also widely reported. On the plus side, Baez should be at least an average defensive second baseman, with good odds of ending up as above average to plus at the position.
In other words, aside from the bat speed and some bat waggle, Baez and Sheffield have nothing in common as Major League baseball players. If you want a better comparison for Baez, look to recent Cub Alfonso Soriano, who had elite power but also tallied a lot of strikeouts. Baez won’t steal nearly as many bases as Soriano did through his prime (Soriano stole at least 30 bases in 4 of 5 seasons before joining the Cubs), but should play far superior defense to Soriano at second base, where Soriano was terrible. And if Javier Baez ends up being Alfonso Soriano with better defense, that would be a great result for the Cubs. Well, as long as they don’t decide to lock him up to an 8 year, $138 million contract starting his age 31 season.