Javy Baez’s rookie season followed the pattern laid out by most Cub phemons. That is to say, it began with talk of Gary Sheffield and Miguel Cabrera but ended with Corey Patterson, Felix Pie, and Brooks Kieschnick. Back then, going through a list of Cub prospects was like reading Kevin Costner’s IMDB page. You could pick out any one at random and there’s a good chance it’d be a synonym for “Alan Smithee.” For that first year, it appeared that Javy was no different. It’s worth another look at Baez’s 2014 stat line just to get a sense of how bizarre his rookie season was:
Ye Gods. Check out that home run number combined with that slash line. It looks like what would happen if Andre Dawson stepped into one of the telepods from The Fly and didn’t realize that the other one contained Gary Scott.
But here we are less than two years later and (small sample size caveat notwithstanding), Baez appears to have avoided the fate of his predecessors. And he accomplished this due to one of the most important qualities a young and talented baseball player can have: self awareness. Specifically, after his first two months with the Cubs, Javy had the ability to recognize that his phenomenal skills by themselves weren’t going to be enough for him to make it on the big league level. And in order to advance his career, he was going to have to put in even more work to make the changes necessary to survive.
In fact, by calling him up to the majors in 2014, Theo Epstein was betting that Baez would realize he would have to do just that:
“Sometimes you have to experience it and if the light goes on with one swing or one video session or one offseason where you can take a deep breath and come back differently, it’s like human learning.”
I just did a quick Google search and found that no one has yet produced a motivational poster that reads “The first step on the path to learning is to suck.” Theo’s sitting on a goldmine.
Baez’s struggles were a shock to his system. Because of that, Epstein’s hopes that those very struggles would inspire Javy’s work ethic played out exactly according to plan. By Spring Training of 2015, Jed Hoyer was eager to inform reporters that “Javy is, if not the first, one of the first guys in the complex every morning… Every day, 6:30, 7:00 in the morning, he does individual hitting with our coaches, working on the things he needs to make adjustments.”
This wasn’t a case of Corey Patterson continuing to swing like a power hitter year after year despite a slugging percentage that made you think “I didn’t know Baseball Reference had a comp for Eddie Gaedel.” Javy Baez showing up to the ballpark for Spring Training drills at 6:30 AM showed the dedication of a player who realized that his rookie season was a painful experience and wanted to do everything in his power to prevent it from happening again.
As the 2015 season played out, Baez’s eventual success in Iowa (.324/.385/.527) was a direct reflection on his personal motivation and commitment to make the changes necessary to realize his potential as a player. Much is written about the negativity that envelopes the Triple-A level and after getting an extended taste of the majors, it would have been easy for Baez to be bitter about having to spend another summer in the minors.
For a player with enough faith in himself to tattoo the MLB logo on the back of his neck, it couldn’t have been easy to look and see it reflected in the mirror of an Omaha Days Inn. But Baez’s performance at Iowa left no doubt that he knew precisely what he was there to work on and if he could be successful at making those changes, he’d be able to make an impact back in Chicago.
Baez made these improvements by displaying an all-too-rare quality in top prospects: the ability to listen. While in Des Moines, Javy famously became Manny Ramirez’s padawan and his bond with the hitting Jedi was tight enough for Ramirez to say “I was kind of sad when he left [to go to the big leagues] because I got so close to him. To be honest with you, now he’s like my favorite player.”
It turns out the most impressive thing about the Baez/Ramirez relationship was that Manny was able to teach Javy proper swing mechanics while holding up a boombox playing “In Your Eyes.”
But it didn’t stop there. What truly demonstrated Baez’s growth and self awareness was that while he was in Triple-A, he was just as willing to listen to the advice of instructors who had less than 555 career home runs. Indeed, at the end of Iowa’s season, hitting coach Brian Harper offered sincere praise about Baez’s willingness to make necessary changes in his approach:
“I’m seeing Javy really making some commitments to kind of cut down his swing and lessen some of the movement with his lower half and upper half… He’s making a commitment…with two strikes to cut down on his swing and you can see it in the numbers.”
Because Baez realized he needed to dramatically improve himself in order to earn back his big league playing time, he was willing to listen to others’ help. And it didn’t matter whether or not they were a baseball celebrity—if what they had to offer was useful, he made an effort to incorporate it. It follows that such a mature approach to self improvement would lead to a more mature approach at the plate.
Once Baez got back to the big league level, that maturity began to benefit the Cubs on the field. While his swing was still big and vicious, it was no longer the uncontrollable monster easily exploited by major league pitchers. And his lessons about strike zone judgement and pitch anticipation with Ramirez also proved beneficial.
But even when the pitcher doesn’t tip the pitch by literally screaming it for everyone to hear, Baez had matured enough as a hitter to know how to play the mental game with the opposing pitcher. As he explained following his walk off home run last Sunday:
“After the second strike, I sat on the slider because they’ve been throwing it to me this series a lot. And I was just looking for that pitch.”
That’s precisely the kind of adjustment Baez wasn’t making in his rookie season. And it’s because he was able to recognize his own shortcomings in his first attempt at the big leagues and didn’t try to pretend they were an aberration that he was able to eventually learn how to make such an important change.
And now he can finally say that his tattoo isn’t the only thing thing about him that’s major league.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.