The Cubs have seen only eight individual seasons of 600 or more plate appearances since 2015, and six of those have come from Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Only Dexter Fowler (690 in 2015) and Ben Zobrist (631 in 2016) join the Bryzzo boys in that rarefied air. But Joe Maddon believes there could be another name added to the list by the end of the coming season.
“[Javy Baez is] at that point now (that) to get those 500 to 600 plate appearances, (he needs to) organize (his) strike zone, accept walks and use the whole field,” Maddon told Mark Gonzales earlier in the week. “That would be the next level for him.”
What Maddon’s really talking about is doing those things on a consistent basis, since we’ve all seen that Javy is capable of being a tremendous hitter in fits and spurts. He’s at his best when he’s willing to take what pitchers give him and turn those low-outside pitches into base hits up the middle or to the right side. Brendan Miller went into great detail on that earlier this winter, examining the ways in which Javy’s recklessness could actually be a good thing.
In order for the versatile defender to really make the most of his offensive talents, though, he’s going to need to channel his free-swinging ways into a more sustainable approach. That means not going all John Daly early in the count and then laying off of those 0-2 sliders in the dirt that everyone knows are coming. And if he’s pretty much indispensable now, with all the flailing and the potential for golden sombreros, just imagine how good he’ll be if and when everything finally clicks.
We saw flashes of that last season, runs during which Baez looked like a legit major league hitter and not just a guy who was running into mistakes. Hence the 508 plate appearances in 2017, a career-high total that ranked third on the team behind Rizzo (691) and Bryant (665). And even though that jump in playing time was fueled as much by injuries to the two other primary middle infielders as it was Javy’s production, Maddon sees another leap forwad this season.
“We still have to fit him in with Zo,” Maddon said. “Hopefully injuries stay out of the way. We want to give Addison Russell a day off, (so) you’ll probably see something close to (600 plate appearances).”
The Zobrist dynamic is an interesting one, since the the 37-year-old figures to be in better health this season than last and probably doesn’t figure to get as much time in the outfield at this point. Russell should be much healthier as well, provided his shoulder and foot issues are really behind him. So where do those extra 90-plus plate appearances for Baez come from?
Zobrist believes he can get 600 plate appearances of his own, though it’s hard to envision him logging more than 500 even with nearly perfect health. Still, that’s right where he was last season, so that wouldn’t really be a change for Javy. The real surplus lies in the 433 PAs left behind by Jon Jay. And no, I’m not saying Javy should get time in center.
Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. figure to pick up the lion’s share of that surplus in a more direct fashion, but the former doing so means opening up that much more time at second for Javy. Let’s just say Happ trades out half of his 125 PAs as a second baseman for more run in the outfield. All other things being equal, that gets Javy to around 560-570 plate appearances. And if he can truly dial in his plate approach, he could also see an increase from the eight pinch-hit appearances he made last year.
Listen, a whole lot has to go right for Baez to reach 600 plate appearances. Not monkeys in a room recreating the complete works of Shakespeare level good fortune, but some pretty serious factors all need to fall in place nicely. If that happens, though, it means very good things for Javy and the Cubs. Well, unless it means there were lots of unexpected injuries, in which case it’d be very bad.
We’re going to stick with the good for now, and just imagine what it would look like to have a version of Javy Baez who is good enough to earn 600 plate appearances on a Cubs roster as stacked as it is with redundant talent. And that, my friends, would be fun as all hell.