CHICAGO — His teammates had looks of disbelief on their faces. They didn’t believe the numbers at first. Some — including closer Brandon Morrow — just stared into space, standing at their lockers, while trying to do the math. Is it really possible for a hitter to compile anything close to a 1.000 OPS over the course of a month or longer without earning a single walk?
It is if your name is Javier Baez.
That’s right. The Cubs’ lead-off hitter on Saturday hasn’t taken a free pass in over a month. The last one came on April 11 — and that was an intentional walk. His last regular walk was April 7. Yet from April 8 through Saturday’s game against the White Sox, he compiled an eye-popping 1.003 OPS.
“Really?” slugger Kyle Schwarber said. “Over .900 for a month without a walk? That’s hard to do.”
The ultimate work-the-count and take-a-walk guy, Ben Zobrist, was equally impressed as he was shocked.
“With no walks? That’s amazing,” Zobrist said. “I did not know that. That’s really crazy. You have to be able to hit every kind of pitch all around the zone. And some outside the zone, for sure.”
All those asked agreed there’s only one way to accomplish such a feat: by swinging. A lot. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Baez leads the majors, swinging at 61 percent of all pitches and 54 percent of first pitches in an at-bat. He swings at 46 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, also the highest in baseball. The last Cub to accomplish an OPS of .900-plus over course of a month withoout a walk was Starlin Castro in 2010.
“He’s always been a bad-ball hitter,” Morrow said. “You just had to miss the bad spots that he was good at hitting. Right now, he’s probably still swinging at those bad pitches that he’s good at hitting but not swinging at the bad pitches that he’s bad at hitting.”
It took an Abbott & Costello answer by Morrow — after thinking about it for a minute — to half-explain what Baez is doing. It really is hard to comprehend.
“That would be like hitting .450 on singles,” Schwarber said without really making a point.
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In fact, Baez has kept his numbers up in a variety of ways, beginning with earning an inordinate amount of extra-base hits during his walk-less time. Of the 35 hits he had between April 8 and Saturday, 20 went for extra bases, including 10 that left the park.
“It means you’re slugging,” shortstop Addison Russell said while shaking his head at the thought of Baez’s numbers. “Walking in this game is significant whenever you’re talking about final batting averages and stuff, but if anyone can do it [keep his numbers up], it’s him.”
Players who walk often were the most amazed at the work Baez has been able to do while his batting average and on-base percentage have stayed exactly the same since his last free pass.
“He’s fouling off more pitches to get to another pitch where it might be a mistake,” Anthony Rizzo said. “You don’t change someone’s approach. That’s not the objective. Walking is a product of great at-bats. He’s not walking but still having great at-bats.”
And that’s what makes Baez unique. When Rizzo fails to take a walk for a long period of time — he just came off one of those stretches — it means his offensive game isn’t right. For Baez right now, it means nothing.
“That’s still the one item I’d like to see him get better at,” manager Joe Maddon said. “[But] when he does make contact, something good usually happens.”
Before Schwarber was informed of Baez’s walk-less month, he opined on what someone’s stat line might look like without taking a free pass for that long.
“That slash line would be low because you’re not eliminating any at-bats,” Schwarber said.
After being told of Baez’s OPS, Schwarber had the look of a confused kid at school trying to do a math problem.
“Wow,” he finally said. “Really? That’s really good. He’s just locked in with that swing, I guess.”
Zobrist was asked what those numbers would mean even without seeing an at-bat by Baez during that time frame.
“It tells me when he’s seeing the ball and his swing is on, there is no way to pitch him,” Zobrist responded. “Unless you just walk him like you have to walk him. Almost an intentional, unintentional walk.”
Perhaps teams have tried that tactic, but they haven’t been successful because Baez keeps swinging while mostly making contact. He struck out only 24 times in 114 plate appearances during his month-plus stretch without a walk. But there was one player who wasn’t as shocked as everyone else. Perhaps it took a free swinger to understand another one.
“The plan isn’t to get a walk,” outfielder Albert Almora Jr. said. “Hitters are going to hit.”
Almora has just eight walks on the season, which looks like a large total compared to the two unintentional free passes Baez has taken so far. Some guys just don’t have it in them to hold the bat on their shoulder. Almora has been on base often when Baez has come to the plate.
“I’m on my toes every time he’s up to bat,” Almora said. “He’s trying to hit; he’s not trying to walk. He’s trying to do damage.”
Damage he’s done. Plenty of it. Without a free pass. And to the amazement of most his teammates.
“I’ve never heard of it,” Russell said with another shake of his head. “Only Javy.”