Javier Baez: The Best (Defensive) Player in Baseball

Whether tuned into the game’s various intricacies, no matter how subtle, or merely a casual observer, everyone has different reasons for watching Major League Baseball. For me, it’s stellar defense through and through. A love of defense is the reason that I openly advocated for Nick Ahmed to have a starting gig on a real life baseball team. And as many things as there are to be ecstatic over with these Chicago Cubs heading into 2017, it’s defense that has me bouncing off the walls ready for their return in the new campaign.

Javier Baez has been the subject of a couple of pieces here recently, both focused on what he does on offense. Dan Hodgman looked at Baez earning a spot in the lineup with regularity in 2017, while Sam Fels examined what an occasional appearance in the leadoff spot might look like for Javy. But the focus here is purely of a defensive nature—delving into exactly what makes Javy Baez such a special player with the leather.

Baez is Weapon X. He’s so much more than a statistically sound player.  His hands are unbelievable and his instincts are a rarity in the game. While much of what he does is difficult to properly portray on a stat sheet, the numbers that he has posted in regard to defensive metrics are absolutely worth exploring.

Versatility is a large part of what makes Baez such an intriguing entity.  He grabbed time at second base, shortstop, and third base, as well as about 21 innings at first and even a couple in left in the 2016 season. He obviously has the athleticism to spend quality time at each position, but he plays them all so well (did the italics make that dramatic enough?). While the metrics don’t say much about his time at first or in the outfield because of a small sample, there’s a lot to like about his time across the rest of the infield. The following features Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average, as well as a handful of figures from FanGraphs (among them Revised Zone Rating [RZR], Out of Zone plays [OOZ], Defensive Runs Saved [DRS], and Ultimate Zone Rating [UZR]):

Innings (2016) Fielding% RZR OOZ DRS UZR/150 FRAA
First Base 21.0 1.000 .833 0 0 1.0 Total: 3.8
Second Base 383.0 .973 .864 9 11 16.3
Shortstop 194.0 .981 .841 15 4 25.1
Third Base 370.2 .944 .676 16 1 3.9

(Source: FanGraphs)

Given just the two innings in which he appeared in the outfield, those numbers are excluded, and there are obviously elements of defensive metrics that contain gray area, but this still provides something tangible to look at, at the very least.

His RZR, while certainly not widely used, painted him as an above average player in that small sample at first, as well as second and short. And UZR/150 has him afloat in each category, with very strong figures coming out of the middle infield, although it’s important to note that something like UZR doesn’t stabilize for at least 2-3 seasons.

FRAA doesn’t come through for each individual position, but a 3.8 figure overall has him just below “Great” on the various levels, with a chance to grow from there. While some of these figures don’t scream “elite level position player,” it’s important to note that Baez had significantly less time than any player at any one position, so there’s something to be said about the fact that nearly every statistic pictured above can still paint him in a positive light.

What’s particularly impressive is that he was able to come up with 11 DRS at second, which trailed the league leaders at the position by just one, and that’s while playing only 383 innings at the position. The likes of Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler appeared in over 1,290 innings, and Robinson Cano, who tied Baez with 11, came in with 1,376.1. An average of 1,322 innings against Baez’s 383 and the difference in Defensive Runs Saved is microscopic.

That’s absurdly impressive.

But not everything that Javy Baez can do on a baseball field can be quantified and accurately illustrated on a stat sheet. His instincts and his hands are off the charts, something that become more and more apparent the longer the Cubs played last fall. The play that, of course, immediately comes to mind is the liner in Game Two that Baez let drop right in front of him in order to create the force, resulting in a double play. Those instincts play well into a supreme situational awareness showcased in his ability to expertly tag out baserunners on the move.

Statistics don’t necessarily allow accounting for instincts. But when you watch Baez play defense, that’s among the first words that come to mind. He reads the ball so incredibly well off the bat that there are very few plays, in or out of his zone, that he can’t physically make. Which is what makes him such a versatile asset. Whether he’s at second or short or playing on one of the corners, he can read the ball off the bat effectively and make the play. And he has the arm to compensate for almost any play that he makes on the infield, another thing difficult to quantify on paper but that becomes extremely evident within seconds of watching Baez step on a baseball field.

The hands can be somewhat explained. He’s naturally left-handed and does write lefty, among other things. The value of an asset like that cannot be overstated, as we saw time and time again with Baez flashing an ability to quickly bring his hands down to tag out potential base stealers or help a pitcher grab a pickoff in a key situation. Such strength with his left hand is yet another unique quality in an very unique player.

Metrics may never help to depict Javy Baez as an elite player. There are some mental lapses that come with the territory with Baez. It happens. But I would argue that there is not a player in baseball that is more of a defensive asset than him. He can play each of the four positions across the infield, and play them at an above average level, at minimum. That versatility combined with stupid instincts (that’s a technical term), unbelievable hands, and an absolute cannon for an arm provides the Chicago Cubs with a weapon that they didn’t need, but are surely thankful to have.

The bat is going to continue to be a work in progress, especially the approach. But while that comes along, Baez’s constant brand of stellar defense is going to keep him in the lineup as much as possible. When you combine that with his somehow-still-increasing versatility and the Cubs have as exciting a player as there is to watch on the defensive side of things heading into 2017.

Lead photo courtesy David Richard—USA Today Sports

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2 comments on “Javier Baez: The Best (Defensive) Player in Baseball”


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I have never seen a player like Javy. He’s legitimately capable of gold glove caliber defense at 3 high value positions. Players like Oquendo (Mr. Versatility) and Biggio (who actually could play 2nd and catcher in the same game and later cf) were unique, but not elite at any one spot. When people suggest moving him, I have to remind them how incredibly valuable he is–especially to a national league team. He’s basically the Scottie Pippen of baseball when it comes to defense in that there’s no position he cannot lock down

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