The Cubs just moved past the Giants in four games, and over those four games, Javier Baez batted .375, with a .974 OPS. He drove in the only run of Game 1 with a late and dramatic solo dinger, and he drove in the winning run of Game 4 with a late and dramatic line-drive single to center. Even given Baez’s offensive heroics, I’m going to remember him for one play he made in the field, a play that didn’t even ultimately result in an out.
A good number of ballparks across the country have setups where fans can try to throw pitches in front of a radar gun. On the primary level, it functions as fleeting entertainment — here, see how hard you can throw it, and we’ll even give you three chances. It’s a weird way to spend five dollars, but, how often does one get to be objectively measured? That part’s appealing, but there’s also a subliminal element. The radar gun works as an advertisement for the product on the field, because it isn’t until a fan gets measured that said fan begins to realize how extraordinary the players really are. It’s kind of a Dunning-Kruger thing; people happily underestimate the difficulty of throwing accurately, with speed. The worst pitcher in the major leagues is amazing. The worst pitcher in Single-A is amazing.
It’s been some years since I was measured, myself, and, granted, I didn’t exactly prepare. I also hadn’t pitched regularly since high school. But I did pitch, and I’ve got a long body, so you’d think I could do okay. When I stepped in, my first pitch was 68. My second chance sailed in at 71, and then I muscled up for my final, explosive delivery. It was also 71. I then returned to my seat, a little more sore than I used to be.
Yesterday, Javier Baez got to this Denard Span grounder up the middle.
It was enough that Baez got to the ball. It was enough that he handled it cleanly. But then Baez got to his feet — or, more accurately, his foot. Baez had his left leg off the ground. His right foot pointed to third base. He twisted his torso to throw the ball to first while airborne, all the while falling backward. Not only was Baez’s throw somehow on the money. The ball left his hand at 72 miles per hour. Javier Baez is amazing.
That was the week, and series, of Javier Baez. I know that, after further review, it was determined that Span ever so slightly beat out that throw. That doesn’t take anything away from Baez’s effort. That was one of the better defensive plays I’ve seen that didn’t result in an out, and if you’d like to see a more successful version, you could just look at a play from the game before.
That one was its own kind of controversial, as the Cubs got the out even though it couldn’t be seen whether Anthony Rizzo had his foot touching the bag as the ball reached the back of his glove. Again, it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to be so results-oriented, especially with the series complete. Javier Baez twice did something amazing, launching strong throws to first even when it looked like some deity was pulling on his puppet strings.
Flash back to Tuesday again. Span’s on first, despite Baez’s best effort. Span takes off, drawing a throw. The throw from David Ross short-hops the infielder.
Javier Baez might be baseball’s best tagger. That’s not a skill I’d ever before considered. Never thought there could be a best and a worst at something like that. Didn’t know there was technique. Javier Baez has mastered the technique. Or even, not really, because Javier Baez has mastered his own technique. Look at how he put himself in perfect position. Baez had his glove in place such that as the ball would arrive, a tag would be immediately applied. You can train yourself to field a short-hop. Every baseball player does. You can’t so easily train yourself to make the same play with a whole grown man closing in, threatening to snap you at the wrist. Javier Baez made a great play to nearly earn an out. Within minutes, he made a great play to erase the baserunner who had just barely reached.
The Cubs can’t say enough about Baez’s defense. He’s one of their best defenders. He’s arguably one of the best defenders, and he’s one of the best at multiple positions. You’ve heard baseball described as a tribal game: Fans mostly just pay attention to their own favorite teams. They don’t watch so many games in which they don’t have a strong rooting interest. The playoffs always grab a bigger audience, and this is how Javier Baez was introduced to a nation. Re-introduced, I suppose. But anyone who watched now understands that Javier Baez is fantastic out there.
Of course, he’s not just some defensive specialist. What did you know before about Baez’s baserunning? Maybe it’s not a surprise that he has good speed, but he blends that with excellent instincts. Tuesday, he hit a ground ball to Brandon Crawford, and when Crawford spiked the ball in the dirt, Baez advanced all the way to third base, setting up a run. More impressive, I think, was what Baez did in Game 2.
That’s Kyle Hendricks hitting that flare, and that’s Baez leaving second base. You see that there’s nobody out, and the ball didn’t drop all that far in front of Span. As the camera pans to the outfield, Baez is already sprinting out of the picture, and then he comes around to score. You could try to make the argument this was risky — if Span makes that catch, Baez is easily doubled up. But it seems instead like Baez properly read the ball off the bat, after properly evaluating Span’s position. Baez’s instincts told him to go, and it made the play into a two-run single.
Defense: present. Baserunning: present. The first thing anyone loved about Baez was the power, and the power won a game in the series:
That’s Baez responding to a full-count quick pitch, and even though the ball barely got out, it’s important to understand Baez hit that fly almost directly into the wind. He muscled the ball out nevertheless, and the Cubs won 1-0. The most conspicuous part of Baez’s game is the bat speed. It’s what gives him such an incredible ceiling. But don’t overlook what Baez did against Hunter Strickland in Tuesday’s decisive ninth. The at-bat lasted three pitches. Here’s the first:
Classic Javy Baez, swinging for the moon. We’ve seen that swing before, and it put Baez behind in the count. The Giants read the swing and figured Baez might be vulnerable against Strickland’s heat, on account of the leg kick. The second pitch:
You see that? The leg kick is gone. Baez brought his leg up in going after the first pitch, but on the second pitch, Baez’s foot stayed on the ground, and he just about timed the fastball. Still, the ball was fouled off and Baez found himself behind 0-and-2. And then:
That’s not a bad spot for that pitch. Maybe you’d like it a little wider, or maybe you’d like a breaking ball, but that was a big-time heater, well down and away. You’d think that pitch would draw weak contact, but Baez kept his foot down, and he timed the pitch, and he smacked it up the middle to effectively win the NLDS. I watched a lot of Baez in 2014. He didn’t have a two-strike approach. His two-strike approach was basically his 2-and-0 approach. This is a sign of his growth. Baez back then struck out 42% of the time. This year, he struck out 24% of the time. Baez back then struck out 66% of the time in two-strike counts, with a .361 OPS. This year, he struck out 45% of the time in two-strike counts, with a .601 OPS. Javier Baez is 23, and he’s made himself a more complete hitter.
You definitely don’t want to exaggerate. Baez’s aggressiveness can still be taken advantage of, and at the end of the day, he finished 2016 with the same wRC+ as Cheslor Cuthbert. Javier Baez isn’t yet an actual superstar, and most players never get around to making that leap. But on one side, Baez is remarkably well-rounded, with good instincts and elite-level defense at more than one position. And then, even at the plate, Baez is already far more polished than he was as a rookie. He’s no longer a clueless opponent with 80-grade bat speed. The bat speed’s still there, but now Baez has ideas, ideas that aren’t to simply try to hit the ball 600 feet.
Javier Baez is coming together, and if he were to develop into a star, he’d look a lot like how he just looked for four games. It’s always been fun to dream on his upside. That upside is now maybe one step away.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.