To fully appreciate the Javier Báez experience, one must love drama. For those who buy in, thrilling highs, confounding lows, and rare delights await. They know his body of work features more than a few empty at bats. But redemption comes in impeccably well-timed hitting, no-look tags, swimming slides, pilfered home plates, and so much more that’s signature Javy.
Occasionally, following an astounding play or particularly majestic swing, Báez will add another layer of entertainment, directly addressing the TV audience via dugout cameras. From a knowing little wink and a kiss to last week’s relieved celebration after a three-run bomb, he offers that extra piece of himself when the mood strikes.
Some might find it cocky, and…sure. The player who has swiftly incorporated his supernatural-inspired nickname, El Mago (Spanish for Magician or Wizard), into nearly every social media post is no stranger to self-congratulation. But Báez’s inclination to ‘break the fourth wall’ of the dugout may also be an appreciative nod to the oft-frustrated fans he’s dragged on the roller coaster.
The “Finally! Geez!” that Báez exclaimed into the camera after last Tuesday night’s long-ball acknowledged the ugliness of the nine game, 3-for-26, 46-percent-strikeout skid that preceded it. That stretch included two 0-for-5 nights at the plate for Báez, inspiring Joe Maddon’s typically smooth feathers to ruffle for the media. It wasn’t pretty, and even an exuberantly confident young player had to be feeling the pressure.
The swing-and-miss in Báez’s game is why a certain subset of fans and observers can’t quite grasp the appeal. They see a worrisome amount of whiffing in a positionally redundant infielder and might say his real magic trick has been to escape being traded. We now know Báez would have fetched a Justin Verlander, for example, and it seemed a fair number of Twitter voices were hankering for that deal. Although most laughed it off, the post-deadline debriefing by Jed Hoyer directly addressed the question of Báez’s expendability. Spoiler: he’s not.
“I look at Javy as kind of a high-variance player. He was our best player on that six game stretch when we went on the road and won those games after the break – huge homeruns and huge plays. Obviously, he has some ups and downs with the way he plays, and I think those things will smooth out with time and maturity and experience, but I think with Javy, you’re going to get incredible homeruns, incredible plays, and you’re going to get some strikeouts and right now some empty at bats to go along with that. But I’ll certainly take that swap. He’s such an impactful major league player…Javy impacts the game in so many ways that other players can’t, and I’ll certainly take what he provides for us in that regard.”
The choice of ‘high-variance’ as descriptor reflects the statistical nature of his perspective with perhaps a twinge of gambler’s mentality. We know the Epstein-Hoyer fraternity-style origin story included plenty of poker nights, and, as another pastime of intertwined skill, luck, and odds, it’s a fitting metaphor for the potentially shifting thought process on Báez. In place of the developmental promises and calls for patience that once led the discussion, Hoyer now seems willing to accept a tradeoff. The up-and-down player Báez is now may very well be who he is. And that’s more than okay. The Javy hand might be beatable, but it’s still plenty good to push all in.
Any skilled card player, or magician for that matter, knows timing is everything. Báez’s middling stat sheet will never do him justice in terms of the ‘impact’ Hoyer referenced. But he has proven invaluable over the last two years with incredibly opportune hot streaks. In his contribution to curse-breaking, most remember Báez’s co-MVP honors for the 2016 National League Championship. Yet, for Joe Maddon, that series paled in significance to the one before it. Báez hit the game winner in two of three in the NLDS, including the all-important Game Four comeback that clinched it. Maddon recalled:
“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”
And the final score hinged on a high-leverage, 0-2 single up the middle from Javier Báez. M.O. be damned. Fast-forward to 2017, and the Cubs’ current ability to contend may also have his occasion-rising bat to thank. As Hoyer mentioned, Báez simply crushed it out of the All Star Break, catching fire at a .500 clip with an OPS of 1.424 over the first two series. In addition to big homeruns, his highlights included working full counts, lacing two-strike singles, and hitting to all fields.
The clutch performance helped conjure a faster divisional recovery than any thought possible, and post-deadline revelations proved how very necessary it was to quickly erase that deficit. According to Theo Epstein, slipping a few more games back in the standings at that point would have likely turned defending champs into sellers just nine months later.
Grinding onward toward the repeat goal, Báez will continue to represent a wildcard in the Cubs’ deck, but clearly the potential upside is huge. On the same day Hoyer espoused his faith in him, Joe Maddon earnestly walked back his loss-fueled criticism and replaced it with trademark positivity:
“…I don’t want [Báez] to worry about striking out. He’s going to strike out, and you have to accept that as being part of his game. If you want to pound him with that thought, he’s probably not going to play any part of this game well. I believe that’s going to eventually go away as he gets more at bats and matures as a major league baseball player. So I think the primary thing is he goes and he plays not encumbered by any negative thoughts. You see him play the defense all the time, and when he gets on a roll offensively he’s very, very dangerous…He’s really calmed the mental mistakes out on defense, his base running is outstanding, I think the next thing with the mental mistakes is offensively to just organize his strike zone, and when he does that, it’s going to be really dangerous. I’ve seen young hitters all of a sudden figure that out, and they really take off.”
Báez taking off at precisely the right time is what the Cubs need down the stretch, especially since their usual bastions of offensive consistency have wavered this year. The two-strike approach that so far has made intermittent cameos in Báez at bats will be key. Maddon concluded his discussion with the importance of locking in on that philosophy the rest of the way:
“It’s all count related. Why would you want to try to hit homers on 0-2 or 1-2 counts with a runner on second base?…homeruns are groovy, they’re great, but most of the time pitchers throw them, and most of the time they throw them in hitter’s counts or early in the count. And as the count gets deeper, against a good pitcher, probably in the latter part of the game, that impact goes away. So it’s always about one big barrel. I mean, okay the homeruns are there, and I love homeruns, everybody loves homeruns, but when do you hit them and who do you hit them against? And when you get to the guys who are a little bit more difficult, what do you do against those guys? Do you have plan B in your back pocket?…I want to have it all. I want our hitters to have it all.”
To Maddon’s point, that “Finally! Geez!” homerun was practically served to Báez on a platter. The blast came on a weak, 2-1 sinker in the zone as the roughed-up T.J. McFarland slogged through a rout. Based on his dugout reaction, the outcome likely provided an emotional charge and confidence boost. But a valuable lesson or gauge of progress it was not.
Only time will tell if Báez can become a ‘have it all’ hitter for Maddon and the Cubs. A consistent, disciplined approach may continue to elude. He can recognize the dreaded “trying to do too much” in himself, but considering how he attacks every other facet of the game, turning that off is easier said than done. Striving to do more in the field and on the base paths, indeed more at times than seem humanly possible, has defined the Báez brand and paid considerable dividends to date. Worrying about the downside of such heroics, as Maddon warns, won’t help anyone.
No matter the game, managing variance and unpredictability depends on cushioning the falls. The Cubs have bankrolled (they hope) sufficiently reliable bats elsewhere in the lineup to keep riding El Mago’s wave. The expected payoff is simply too tantalizing not to. Some will remain unconvinced, but each trade season passing with Báez untouched may eventually enlighten them. The whole Javy package, from eye-popping intangibles to timely power hitting to camera-loving marketability, is, for his team, more than worth the risk.
Numbers fail to sufficiently define Báez’s impact, but it doesn’t take much soul-searching for the Cubs to understand it. Though a calculated risk, continuing to bet on Báez may actually be the only safe move from here. It alone protects against watching him do Javy things for any other team [shudder].
In poker, in baseball, indeed in life, success often means catching a few fortunate cards – especially when outmatched. With serious contenders looming, October odds won’t favor the Cubs this year. But if another shot at chaos arrives, they know it’s anyone’s game. Skill and luck will not be enough: magic is mandatory.
And, at the very least, they won’t be the team who traded their wizard.
Lead photo courtesy John Hefti—USA Today Sports