Need a dude who can belt home runs and lace little singles to all parts of the field? No problem. How about a plus glove at three different infield positions? Yup. Want someone with speed to burn? Okay. What about a guy who takes as much joy as anyone from his teammate’s home run off the video board? Check.
When the Javy Baez hype train pulled out of the station back in 2014, Cubs fans hopped on for what promised to be the first really exciting ride they’d had in several years. Between the big swing and the big swagger, he was a kid who was supposed to represent the rebirth of the team from the ashes of the abandoned Jim Hendry/Tribune Co. warehouse that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer burned to the ground. And for a short while, it looked as though Baez was indeed a phoenix as he sent home runs soaring.
Then reality struck and the ride ground to a halt before it had ever even left the station. By the way, are you keeping up with the various metaphors I’m bandying about here? Yes? Good. As I was saying, Baez kinda fell to earth and then was left off the MLB roster coming out of spring training in 2015. Then he saw Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber promoted while he remained in Iowa.
He even endured the loss of his sister to complications from spina bifida and had to spend some time on the DL with a broken finger. All things considered, the unicorn was starting to look like a horse with a papier-mâché horn glued to his forehead. The young man who was supposed to personify the new Cubs with his prodigious talent was actually highlighting their sound rebuilding strategy through his futility.
But then a funny thing happened. Just as people were starting for forget about him, Baez came back up late last season. He was humbled, but no less hungry. The vicious, looping swing was still there at times, though it had been toned down to better fit given situations. No longer relied upon to be a cornerstone, the shortstop-cum-second baseman was freed to roam around the infield.
Baez acquitted himself well down the stretch in 2015 and has stepped right back into that role this season. He is the very definition of a utility player, a guy who can do a little bit of everything and who can contribute with bat, the glove, or legs. Even if he’s not putting any light towers in jeopardy these days, he’s helping the Cubs by simply being a very, very good baseball player.
That was on full display Thursday afternoon, as Baez went 2-for-4 with a homer and 3 RBI while making a pair of tremendous plays at second base.
Perhaps the biggest change in Baez’s game has been his in his approach, which reminds me of the story of a young bull and an old bull standing on a hill discussing their amorous plans while surveying a herd of cows below. I’ll spare you the details of the joke/parable, but suffice to say we’re now watching a player who has learned to pace himself and to make the most of his opportunities while still realizing that there will be more such opportunities to come.
If you look at the popular numbers, you’ll not be too impressed by what Baez is doing from an offensive standpoint. After all, a .253/.295/.384 slash line looks like something you’d expect from Mike Fontenot. And even if you look to slightly more esoteric metrics like wOBA (.297) and wRC+ (83), Baez’s production remains underwhelming. Oh, his 2.9 percent walk rate is pretty awful too. So why would I want to praise what he’s doing offensively?
Again, it’s about the approach. When Baez first came up, he struck out 40 percent of the time he stepped to the plate. That’s an incredibly gaudy figure and made for a shaky foundation that no amount of talent could shore up. As such, we got the predictable drop-off in 2014. When he came back up last season, however, that K-rate was a much more sustainable 26.7 percent. And this season he’s worked that all the way down to 18.1 percent.
What we’re seeing now is, in essence, the opposite of that disastrous debut two seasons back. I’m not predicting a scenario in which Baez suddenly busts out and becomes the mythical creature some had made him out to be, but I would not be at all surprised to see his production continue to trend upward throughout the summer and fall.
Either way, the overall skillset Baez brings to the field each day has made him an indispensable part of this Cubs team. To be able to validate his spot on the roster regardless of offensive production is no mean feat, and it’s why I’m so bullish on him moving forward. Think about it: if Javy is important to this team as is, what could his value be if he really starts to hit?
I’ve always viewed Baez as sort of a force of nature on the field, a whirling dervish who always seemed to be moving a little faster than necessary. And though I never cared for the narratives that painted him as a me-first, uncoachable kid, I do think the hype and the expectations led to him being a bit of a man apart. Now, however, he appears to be comfortable on the team and in his own skin.
The featured image above tells the whole story for me, really. Javy Baez is just having fun out there, and he’s bringing joy to his teammates and fans in the process.