Raise your hand if you remember the Dark Ages of Cubs baseball, those days in which our only reprieve from the banality of the big league brand was to look to the bucolic settings of Iowa and Tennessee for some sign of life. Ooh, that’s a lot of hands. Well, with the coinciding returns of depressing baseball to Chicago and Javy Baez to Des Moines, those days of longing appear to be back.
Over the last 5 games, the Cubs have basically been a series of fart noises punctuated by cheering in the bottoms of the 4th and 9th innings on Monday night. Tuning in to the games has been like watching Andy Dufresne enjoy freedom after escaping Shawshank State Penitentiary by crawling through five hundred yards of stinking foulness only to be busted on a tax evasion rap and sent right back.
But there is still some joy in Mudville, folks. That’s because Ednel Javier Baez returned to the I-Cubs lineup Tuesday for the first time since breaking a finger sliding into second base on June 7th. Prior to the injury, Baez had been enjoying what was perhaps his best season as a professional, batting .314 with 8 homers in only 37 games with Iowa. The strikeouts were still there, but at a 25% rate vs. 30% at AAA last year.
If that doesn’t sound like a lot, go ahead and extrapolate it out over 600 plate appearances; that’s 30 fewer K’s, a very significant total. Of course, it remains to be seen whether he can improve upon his 41.3% rate with the big league club last year. But the way Baez has played, particularly the way he has picked right back up where he left off, certainly seems to indicate that he’s ready to try.
John Arguello of Cubs Den is down in Arizona and commented recently on Baez’s demeanor and desire to get back to playing on a bigger stage.
And tbh, it looked like Javy was more than ready to leave AZ. Timing is off but just looked like he was mentally ready for bigger challenge.
— Cubs Den (@CubsDen) July 28, 2015
And based on Tuesday’s results, I think we can definitively say that John was correct. Baez hit two home runs in his first game back at AAA, an impressive enough feat in and of itself. But what I really loved seeing in the videos is how he hit them. Here, have a look for yourself.
First, not that this homer came on an 0-2 pitch up and out of the zone, exactly the kind of offering Javy would have whiffed on last season. I can’t really tell from the clip what kind of pitch it was, but it looks as though some of the adjustments in the slugger’s swing have allowed him to be more productive when down in the count.
The tremendous power is still there, borne on the wings of a freakishly quick swing. But the whole process looks a lot quieter now, less violent and herky-jerky. Baez’s initial leg kick is nigh imperceptible; in fact, I don’t believe his left foot ever fully leaves the ground. And his load appears reduced as well (more on that below).
In his final at-bat in the 9th, Baez took a ball that was thrown behind him to run the count to 2-1 before absolutely vaporizing a slider out to deep left-center. While this swing appears to be a bit bigger than the first, it’s still more muted than what we have seen from him in the past. The kick is perhaps slightly more exaggerated, the feet not quite as set, but you can’t argue with the results.
Now let’s take a look at some video from Javy’s stint with the Cubs last year. It’s a montage, so you can see several swings, but I’d draw your attention to the :20 mark for a perfect example of some big differences in the young man’s mechanics. Look at the way he gets out on his left (front) foot, rolling it over as his right foot comes out from under him and flies back a good two feet.
It’s almost as if Baez is lunging at the pitch, just selling out for power like a slow-pitch softball hitter or Happy Gilmore. While fun to watch and devastating when it works, this leaves a hitter unable to adjust when he doesn’t get the pitch he’s looking for.
Now go back and watch the first video again, taking particular note of his feet. As I mentioned before, the kick isn’t very pronounced, though he does still get out on the side of that front foot. But the back leg doesn’t come out from under him, doesn’t really move at all. Baez appears much more balanced and under control here, with fewer moving parts.
The second homer bears more resemblance to the Javy of old, but I think that may be more a function of selling out in an 8-0 game and just going for broke. But as I alluded to earlier, it’s more than just the feet that have quieted; the hand load, or hammer, looks to be less pronounced. It’s definitely still there, but my untrained eye sees a motion that is more compact. Think of it like when the guys from Metallica cut their hair back in ’96; all the same rawk, just without the mullets.
I’m not sure we’ll ever know, as the Cubs will probably never say one way or the other, but I will continue to maintain that Baez would have been called up in June over Schwarber had he not gotten injured. It really doesn’t matter though, and the resultant roster moves have probably worked out better for the team and the individual players involved.
Now healthy and with a little less motion in his swing, Javy has room for a slightly bigger chip on his supremely talented shoulder and he’s showing the Cubs that he’s ready for another shot at the Bigs. With Starlin Castro struggling and being mentioned in a new trade rumor every 5 minutes, there may be an opportunity right around the corner too. This time, though, Baez will be surrounded by a bit more talent and will come up with a lot less hype.
Rather than being a rose blooming in the desert, Baez can be one of many flowers in the greenhouse. And if he can actually carry these adjustments with him to Chicago, he could very well be a key to igniting the Cubs offense down the stretch. At the very least, he’ll make things quite a bit more interesting.
Finding room for him on the roster might not be easy, but Baez has nothing left to prove and AAA and should be back and trying to prove he belongs in the majors very soon