Second City October: The Beauty of Belief, And Those Who’d Take It Away

Javier Baez, Most Valuable Player of the 2016 NLCS, has fourteen postseason hits for seven RBIs through Game One of the World Series. That’s better than Kris Bryant. It’s better than every other Cub. And it says nothing of his dazzling defense. Willson Contreras has knocked a cool .409 in his October attempts, which is the best of any position player on the team thus far. It’s important to begin with these facts, because they remind us that what these two are doing is decidedly working.

And yet, they are also the only Cubs who have felt the need to apologize for their style of play at some point during the playoffs. Each have become the target of baseball traditionalism’s distaste for swagger, motivating the same tired debate between respect for the game and having fun. Occasionally, the more nuanced discussions will also include the cultural influences at hand, recognizing how baseball is actually taught and played differently around the world (and I encourage everyone to read John Baker’s poignant account on this issue).

But, in reducing an individual player’s behaviors down to these matters and judging them accordingly, an even more salient point is missed. The game they play, the game they love, is, perhaps more than any other, a mental one. The built-in rate of failure, the unpredictability, the waiting punctuated by high-speed drama, and the jarring contrast of the regular season grind and high stakes playoff chaos, all take a considerable toll. Players have to eschew the baggage and approach each on field opportunity anew, staying positive and playing loose in any way they can. Unsurprisingly, as with all matters of the brain, this is not a one size fits all proposition.

Contreras caused a stir last night with a bat flip. When the suspected home run revealed itself as a double, Joe Buck’s lamenting the lost chance for an extra base lit up twitter with cries of “disgrace,” “humiliation,” and “arrogance.” The certainty of Buck’s conclusion was debatable, but the impact of a double versus a triple down six runs in the ninth is not. Zero impact. Publicly shaming a player for being himself, however, could prove significant. Assuming, of course, that the play-the-right-way set still enjoys winning.


During his MVP ceremony last week, Javy Baez was asked only one question. It fittingly focused on the most outstanding feature of his play and perhaps the only thing that matters postseason: confidence. A nebulous construct that sports psychologists have been unpacking for decades, the relationship of confidence and athletic success is inarguable. Baez, despite considerable struggles in recent years, has been building confidence all season, and is now apparently oozing with it for the playoffs.

This powerful self-belief has allowed him to successfully execute plays that guys with similar physical ability would never even attempt, particularly in October, and his manager’s vote of confidence may have been the key. Those in the national audience just getting to know Baez might be surprised to learn that he lacked a position and shared playing time for most of the season. That Baez worked diligently on his two strike approach while unveiling simply stunning abilities with his mind, glove, arms, and feet to achieve indispensable status in his manager’s eyes.

By mid-September, Joe Maddon had fully bought in. His postseason strategy would involve placing Baez directly in the path of where balls are most likely to be hit, which speaks as much to Baez’s unique mental approach and resilient personality as to his remarkable physical tools: “I just try to match him up with the hottest spot. That’s the truth. He’s arguably one of the best defenders in the National League right now, and he’s going to keep getting better…on a daily basis you try to position Javy the best you can to have the most impact on the game.”

True to his word, Maddon has started Baez in each postseason game, finally making him feel valued as an everyday player. The rest is history, as Baez has taken the postseason by storm, leaving his mark at the plate, on the base paths, and of course in the field. From depositing a game winning home run in the basket to start the Division Series, to brashly stealing home in the Cubs’ first NLCS victory, to turning the double play that sparked Wrigley’s biggest party to date, and doing it all with a winning smile and carefree attitude, he has not for one moment flinched under pressure.

Even so, his magnificent run has not completely escaped scrutiny. His turn to apologize followed the bit of ugliness surrounding a missed offensive opportunity way back in Game Two of the Division Series against the Giants. After admiring a deceptive double for a beat too long off the bat, an awkward collision and replay-assisted out at second base ensued. For Baez, playing hero the previous night was not enough to ward off criticism on the theme of “inexcusable.”

Unfortunately, it was the second well-struck ball in two nights that had Baez celebrating momentarily in the box, and a mini narrative was born. Though the gaff did not prove particularly costly as the Cubs went on to win, it spurred a Bob Costas lecture on the insidiousness of “Cadillacking” these days. And, with so much yet unknown of what the postseason would hold, similar vitriol flowed from those suffering on social media from what may best be described as extreme Cubs fan fragility.

Now, anyone who has actually watched Baez all season could not honestly question his dedication or hustle, but that’s beside the point. These moments and similar — a bat flip here, a Sammy-esque hop there, goofing around on an infield fly, displaying a lovely grass-grazing line drive catch instead of just tossing to first and removing any doubt — make white-knuckle postseason fans so uncomfortable because such a player doesn’t seem to be giving proper deference to the situation. In fact, he is being precisely himself, no matter the stage, and refusing to bend to the moment. And that, like it or not, is an MVP mentality.

Joe Maddon gets it. His take on Baez after the first two series is not merely of a young talent on a hot streak. He sees a team leader setting the right example for October: “Obviously he’s able to control his emotions. He plays it as it should be. It’s a game. That’s how he plays it. He grew up in Puerto Rico, he played a lot of baseball as a youth, played a lot of winter ball. He’s been taught properly and well. And when he goes out there…he’s just being himself. I love that. I love everything about that because when he goes out there he’s not afraid of making a mistake. And that’s the big thing. When you get players that are en masse not concerned about making mistakes, really good stuff can happen. And he leads the pack with that.”

Maddon’s propensity to integrate psychological wisdom into his management style is well established, and this attitude is directly in line with sports psychology research. From its birth in Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory, confidence among athletes is a continually evolving area of investigation. Currently, self-confidence in sports is considered a multidimensional concept derived from at least nine sources of influence and contingent upon individual demographic, cultural, and personality traits.

When it comes to a player’s confidence, which is so key to achieving peak performance, there is no single formula. Sources of self-belief are now understood to extend well beyond physical preparation and mastery of technique to concepts of social support, positive imagery, environmental comfort, and a sense of being in control. Individual confidence profiling is the latest wave in managing a player’s mental performance. To optimize achievement, an athlete’s game has to have the right feel for them. The Kris Bryants of the world may find comfort in steady stoicism. But that simply won’t work for everyone.

A delightful story came out the night Baez broke a dual shutout with his game winning dinger. Pedro Strop apparently put Baez up to it, daring him to take charge, and cementing the image of success clearly in his mind. The conversation reportedly went something like this:

Strop: “You better take charge of this game right now! You’re the man! I’m telling you right now, I think you’re going to do it!”
Baez: “Wait a second. I’ll do it right now.”

Confidence like this, rewarded by a well-struck ball with a chance, demands a gleeful reaction. That’s clearly how he’s built. Joy and love and appreciation for the game are evident in everything Baez does on the field. He plays the right way, the only way, for him. Psychologists know little good comes from inauthenticity in performance. It has to have the right feel, or forget it.

That MVP interview question about how he has maintained such confidence under pressure evoked a perfect answer from Baez: “Just having fun. Living my dream, playing like a little kid. Moving everywhere, catching the ball and making plays.” He’s being himself: bold, joyful, and fearless. With four final hurdles remaining, and one fewer opportunity to jump them, Maddon hopes the rest of his men can follow suit.


Self-belief is tenuous, and it cannot be taught. Baseball likes to destroy it. That Willson Contreras and Javy Baez possess it to the degree demonstrated this year – perhaps, the year — is a gift to fans and teammates. Though some may perceive irreverence at times, these young stars have come to remind us that the right way to play is whatever fuels the heart and tricks the mind into believing dominance at such a difficult game is possible. Expected, even. What we are seeing this postseason is a clinic in confidence.

Even though winning easily evaporates these needling little narratives, they remain, lying in wait for the next wave of frustration. It’s easy to pick on what appears to be inappropriate behavior in a raw moment of disappointment. Of course there is a limit, but none of these guys ascended by hurting their teams’ chances. Today’s bat flip may be the little release that keeps a healthy mentality going for tomorrow’s battle. If on field personality is feeding confidence, trying to suppress it may simultaneously plant dangerous seeds of doubt. Public questioning may become private second-guessing, which is the last thing anyone pulling for the Cubs should want.

If these players are going to shoulder the weight of history and pull off the all but unprecedented, each will have to tap into their own unique sources of self-belief. It’s not about respect or fun. They must remember how they got here, on varied but convergent paths, and just do whatever works. What has always worked, for them.

Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports.

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username