Position: 2B, 3B, SS, 1B,
C, CF, SP
2016 Stats: .273/.314/.423, .275 TAv, 2.5 WARP
Year in Review: Some people think that a little intoxication reveals your true personality. It isn’t that drinking turns you into a jerk per se, you just become more of who you really are. If that theory is true, then we’re all probably jerks. Some people also believe that performing under incredible pressure does the same thing to athletes. If you can do it on the big stage, in the spotlight, when everyone is watching—then odds are you have the innate ability to perform during the course of the regular season.
That’s what many a Cubs fans are pondering after Javy Baez’s postseason performance. During the NLDS and NLCS he was an absolute beast. In the World Series…not so much. And while he was good during the regular season—showing some definite progress for his career—it was the postseason that brought more questions than answers. His season was good. His first two rounds of the playoffs were amazing. The last we saw of him was worrisome and raised all those old questions he’s faced from the beginning. Questions about his aggressive swing and his propensity to expand the strike zone. Questions about his readiness for everyday duty at the Major League level.
Which is a shame, because Baez really did have a pretty good regular season, and that’s what should carry more weight than anything else. He managed to cut down his strikeout rate for the second year in a row (41% in 2014 to 30% in 2015 to 24% in 2016), while retaining his ability to hit the ball out of the park. His defensive acumen (3.8 FRAA) proved that Maddon’s early-season gushing wasn’t just a ploy to build up the young man’s self esteem—he’s the real deal. If his season would’ve ended then, Baez fans would have felt pretty good about the tangible progress that he was making. Progress towards becoming an everyday player that wasn’t so easily exploitable. A happy—but not great—ending to the season.
But then the playoffs came around, and a couple of things happened. First, Baez put on a show that convinced everyone that he was on the verge of superstardom. During the NLDS and NLCS, he combined to hit .342/.366/.526, along with his trademark jaw-dropping defense. That small sample under the bright lights got him the NLCS MVP and convinced the nation that he was the real deal. It even had me wondering on the podcast how Maddon could possibly keep Baez from the starting second base job in 2017. But that’s the thing about playing under the bright lights of October—we all get carried away and try to extrapolate more than we should.
Shame on us.
Mind you—that was all in a mere 38 at bats, so we shouldn’t have been surprised when the World Series came around and he reverted back to “bad Javy,” striking out 13 times in 7 games while hitting a Manny Alexander-ish .167. That’s when fans that had just gotten to know him understood why they hadn’t heard of him before: he’s still not a finished product. And when Baez fans saw the old Javy emerge, they wondered who the real Javy was.
[insert ‘will the real Baez please stand up’ joke]
Baez is (still) a polarizing, volatile player. And his postseason performance conveyed that better than any scouting report could have done. But those 450 regular season plate appearances are proof that Baez is making progress.
And that’s OK—it’s easy to forget that Baez is still just 23 years old.
Looking Ahead: Baez just needs to keep doing what he’s doing. In a perfect world, he doesn’t let the up-and-down ride he had in the playoffs mess with the bigger picture. And that bigger picture is to continue with the adjustments he’s been making to continue getting better and better so his natural talents can express themselves on the field.
While Baez pretty much took over the second base position for the entirety of the playoffs, it’s still not clear if that will carry over into 2017. When Ben Zobrist signed with the Cubs, there was an understanding that he would get most of his reps in that position. And this should not be an issue for Baez—his defensive flexibility is one of the things that makes him so valuable. Whether he’s shifting to third base, backing up Addison Russell at shortstop, or actually playing some center field next year (as was the rumor last year after his stint there in winter ball), Baez has to continue the steady progress he made in 2016.
If he’s able to do that without trying to do hit five-run HRs with that violent swing of his, then the epic performance he put together in the NLCS will be a preamble of how he can help the team in the future.
Lead photo courtesy of Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports