Javier Baez, the Chicago Cubs, and the Value of Versatility

Javier Baez is the Chicago Cubs’ current starting second baseman. It’s a new role for him. In four postseason games, he’s made four starts at the position. By contrast, he’d already played 38 regular-season games before he made his fourth start at second, on June 2. It’s not a role he took over at the All-Star break or even later in the season, like teammate Addison Russell did at shortstop last year. Baez made just 38 starts at the position all year long, and as the team prepped for playoffs in September, Baez received just six starts at second base in the final month. Baez’s versatile regular season — as well as the versatility of other Cubs teammates like Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist — prepared for any role in the postseason, and that versatility enabled by Joe Maddon has played an important role in the team’s success.

Baez is the most shining example of that versatility on the Cubs. He’s played more than 25 games at each of second base, third base, and shortstop — one of only 68 players in history to accomplish that feat, per the Baseball Reference Play Index. While it isn’t so unique that Jedd Gyorko and Darwin Barney weren’t able to also do it this season, Baez’s age is a differentiating factor. Turning 24 years old in December, only Joe Dugan and Rogers Hornsby nearly a century ago accomplished the feat at a younger age (both by just a few months). Baez is also one of only 66 players in history to record at least 50 games at both second and third base. Given that he’s the only name on both lists, it appears safe to say he’s the only player in baseball history with at least 25 games at shortstop, 50 games at second base and 50 games at third base.

While Baez might have most diverse position profile on the Cubs, and perhaps in baseball, he isn’t the only Cubs player to play multiple positions this season. Of the seven Cubs who played in at least half of the team’s games, the only players who didn’t log at least 150 innings at multiple positions were Dexter Fowler (center field), Anthony Rizzo (first base), and Addison Russell (shortstop) — and even Russell split his time between second base and shortstop last season. Having a utility player or two on a team is commonplace, but the Cubs are functioning at another level.

Back in August, Ken Rosenthal noted that Kris Bryant could become the first player since Stan Musial to win an MVP award while receiving at least 30 starts in both the infield and the outfield. How many other teams or managers would ask their MVP-caliber third baseman to split time in the outfield? The most recent example of such a thing is probably Tony LaRussa’s use of Albert Pujols during the latter’s first few years in the majors, before arm injuries and Scott Rolen permanently moved Pujols to first.

Here’s another relevant fact: the Cubs have gone the entire season without a regular left fielder. Willson Contreras has gotten time in the outfield and behind the plate. Before the season, if the Cubs had gotten a .259/.370/.463 line with a 122 wRC+ and 5.0 WAR that ranked second in MLB, it would be fair to assume Kyle Schwarber had just produced a really good year. However, no Cubs player recorded more than 200 plate appearances from left field this season and only Bryant and Jorge Soler had more than 100 PA. Their current left fielder, Ben Zobrist, had just 59 plate appearances from the position all year.

In MLB this year, 71 players logged at least 150 innings at multiple positions. The Cubs had five of those players (Baez, Bryant, Contreras, Zobrist, and Jason Heyward), the most of any team. If you take out players whose multiple positions include only outfield positions, there are only 38 such players. The Cubs have four of them (the list above without Heyward), tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the most in baseball. No other team had more than two multiple-position players. The Cubs tend to have fairly unique combinations, as well.

Chicago Cubs Defensive Versatility
Positions Other Players with that Combo
Javier Baez 2B-3B-SS Jedd Gyorko and Darwin Barney
Ben Zobrist 2B-RF None
Kris Bryant 3B-LF Jose Ramirez and Brandon Drury
Willson Contreras C-LF None
Jason Heyward RF-CF 10

The other benefit for the Cubs is that these players are generally good defenders. Compare the group of Cubs to the group of Cardinals (the aforementioned Gyorko plus Matt Carpenter, Greg Garcia, and Brandon Moss) and we see fielders who are natural fits for their various positions on the Cubs, while the various Cardinals are less well suited for their various defensive responsibilities.

Baez was certainly the hero of the Division Series against the Giants, with game-winning hits in two of the three wins, and his versatility gave him the opportunity to receive regular playing time this year. However, Baez wouldn’t even be playing absent the versatility of Joe Maddon’s proto-Baez in Ben Zobrist. As well as Baez has played in the Division Series — both with the glove and the bat — at all three of his best positions (2B, 3B, SS), he’s still second-best on the Cubs. Baez is no Kris Bryant and Addison Russell with his glove has cemented himself as the Cubs shortstop. Even at second base, where Baez is playing now, he is not near the quality of Ben Zobrist.

This post is sort of about Javier Baez’s versatility, but it’s also about how Ben Zobrist’s versatility helped make Baez’s performance possible. Ben Zobrist just recorded a batting mark of 114 wRC+ or higher for the sixth straight season, recording a 124 wRC+ mark that was roughly 30 points ahead of Baez’s. He’s put up average defensive numbers this year consistent with his age and a standard decline from his formerly elite numbers. With his offense, that has been good for a 4.0-WAR season, the fifth time he’s reached that number in the last six seasons.

While I spent some time questioning Joe Maddon’s strategic decisions yesterday, he is due some praise for utilizing the team’s versatility all season long and trusting that his players could handle the difficulty in moving around. All series are filled with what-ifs, but you have to wonder how this series would look if Baez had not started every game. By moving Ben Zobrist to left field, where he has played some, but not a lot, this season, Maddon has enabled playing time for Javier Baez and allowed Baez to shine in the NLDS.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

> Even at second base, where Baez is playing now, he is not near the quality of Ben Zobrist.

This seems like a questionable assumption, especially given the line later in the article saying Zobrist has “put up average defensive numbers this year”. Did we just watch the same NLDS?