The Elite Skill You Won’t Find on Javy Baez’s Scouting Report

Certain people on a baseball field possess the type of abilities that lend themselves to being noticed. It’s very easy to notice Giancarlo Stanton when he hits a massive home run. It’s tough to miss Noah Syndergaard pumping 101-mph fastballs in the first inning. Others possess the type of abilities that only become noticed when things go wrong. We don’t really notice the first-base umpire until he blows the call that ruins a perfect game. Nobody knows the third-base coach’s name until he holds the runner that could’ve changed the World Series. And then there’s a third group who possess extraordinary abilities, one way or another, that go completely unnoticed. Someone is the best in the world at playing ricochets off the wall in the outfield, but we’ve got no real way of knowing. There’s a king of the “second-base-glove-flip-to-first,” but we haven’t crowned him.

For some time, Javier Baez existed in that third group, of having an elite skill that’s not as obvious as hitting a home run or throwing 100. Lately, he’s been moving into group one. It’s getting hard not to notice Javy Baez’s tag game.

I can honestly say that a player’s tagging ability is not something toward which I’d ever put more than a brief moment’s thought, until recently. Jesse Rogers, who covers the Cubs for ESPN Chicago, noticed Baez in this regard for the first time back in 2014, barely a month into his major-league career:

Lately, it’s become something of a phenomenon within Cubs circles.

A Twitter search for “Baez tag” yields hundreds of results, really picking up steam over the last month or so. Cubs Catcher Miguel Montero, who’s been MLB’s most detrimental catcher at controlling the run game this year, began requesting Baez exclusively cover second on stolen-base attempts when he was catching — even with Baez playing second and a lefty at the plate. The good folks over at Cubs Related even put together this Baez tag compilation, set to Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube”:

He’s not a one-trick pony when it comes to his tags. There’s a few different genres of the Javier Baez Tag Experience. There’s the behind-the-back tag:

The acrobatic, pirouette tag:

And, perhaps most impressive, and certainly most common, is the jumping, snap-down tag:

As the title implies, this isn’t something that ever appeared in any of Baez’s pre-debut scouting reports. No scout ever came back from the backfields saying, “Man, that kid can tag.” But this particular ability is borne out of other strengths, of which scouts certainly took note. In fact, it’s probably not a complete surprise that, if anyone were to cement themselves at being the best quick-tagger, it would be Baez. This is the kid whose quick-twitch movements and 80-grade bat speed at the plate drew comps to Gary Sheffield as he ascended through the minors. This is the kid who Baseball America said had “strong instincts and is much more under control as… a defender” in 2013. We’re just seeing those preternaturally quick hands, reactions, and instincts create value in a way we couldn’t have ever expected.

Joe Maddon put it well:

“It’s like a really good boxer,” Maddon said. “There’s a natural fast twitch or whatever people want to call it. He’s just that guy who moves very quickly within his hands. That’s where the bat speed is. That’s where the tag speed is.”

Baez’s tags have certainly created value for the Cubs this season, though it’s not something we’ve got a number to measure. But Baez ought to be given some credit for this. If he’s truly the best at tagging, and I’ve got no reason to believe otherwise, that’s worth some fractions of a run each time he executes a tag your typical defender wouldn’t execute.

Flip back through that YouTube video. There’s a number of tags I’m comfortable saying would be made by, I don’t know, a quarter of all middle infielders or fewer. Of course, the pitcher and catcher are still mostly responsible for the out by getting the ball to Baez in enough time to make the tag, but the pitch and throw pictured in the final .gif above almost never turn into an out without Baez’s hands getting the job done. The run value of a caught stealing is about 0.4 runs, so let’s give Baez credit for, say, a quarter of that on his most difficult tags. Add that up a dozen or so times for the tags shown and not shown in that video, and I’m fine tacking on an extra run or two toward Baez’s defensive value for the tags alone. Obviously, it’s not huge, but it’s something.

And there’s other ways in which this general ability manifests itself. Baez is so great at the tag because he’s got quick hands, great instincts, and a lightning-fast reaction time. Seems like that would help in turning the double play, no? Both DRS and UZR isolate middle infielders’ contributions toward turning double plays and render them into run values. Here’s the combined leaderboard in that statistic of second baseman with at least as many innings as Baez since he entered the league in 2014:

wGDP per 1,000 innings, second baseman, 2014-16

  1. Jonathan Schoop, +2.7
  2. Javier Baez, +2.6
  3. Carlos Sanchez, +2.6
  4. Danny Espinosa, +2.0
  5. Cliff Pennington, +2.0

Baez, alongside the plus-plus arms of Schoop and Sanchez, is in a league of his own among second basemen at turning the double play. Baez has a plus arm, too, but the exchange is perhaps where he’s plus-plus. And I’d wager Baez is an above-average relay man for the same reasons he’s among the league’s best double-play men:

Over the course of a season, the numbers show that he’ll save a few runs with the double plays. He’ll save another run or two, in my estimation, with the tags and relays. How about on the other end of the tag? On the slides?

The swim-move slide is something that Francisco Lindor has practically patented this season, but Baez can pull it off, too. And he can pull it off for the same reason he can pull off everything you’ve seen in this post: he is just a ridiculously gifted reactive athlete, with the type of hand-eye coordination and instincts that stand out, even from a group of the world’s best baseball hitters.

And in this age of instant replay, things like tags and slides are more important than they’ve ever been. Used to be, you just had to go through the motions of a tag or a slide, look the part, and you’d get the call. Now, you’ve got to actually execute those tags and slides, lest the opposing manager toss his proverbial challenge flag on the field and call your bluff. With Javier Baez’s hands, though, there’s no need for bluffing.

We hoped you liked reading The Elite Skill You Won’t Find on Javy Baez’s Scouting Report by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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asreitz
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Member
asreitz

Even as a Cardinals fan, love seeing stuff like this. Baez has continually gotten better this year and adds a lot to that Cubs roster. He’s a big part of their continued success in the 2nd half this year. Him and A. Russell.

Johnston
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Johnston

Russell’s been great, too. Thanks for being so dumb, Billy Beane.

Joser
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Joser

It is kind of amazing to contemplate an A’s team that features both Russell and Donaldson on the left side of the infield and in the lineup.