It’s extremely difficult to think of a player who has the ability to change the game on a dime in the way that Javier Baez can. In the past few weeks, the injury to Addison Russell has seen the door open to an everyday role for Baez, with the impact being felt at the plate, in the field (both with his glove and his arm), and on the basepaths at one point or another. While there are occasional drawbacks to his style of play, there’s no question that the enormous benefits that come along with Baez’s skill set are absolutely worth it.
What is worth discussing, however, is what the future holds for Javy Baez from a positional standpoint. The injury to Russell has led to the Cubs leaning heavily on their flashy infielder at his original position, rather than serving roles all over the infield in the way that we’ve become accustomed to seeing. This has led to some recency bias across social media, as some fans are ready to dispatch of Addison Russell and his enormous upside in favor of an everyday role for Baez at the shortstop position. Others, of course, are quick to point to those drawbacks that Baez possesses, especially his occasional lapses and errant throws to first. It’s those moments of unpredictability that tend to make a case against such a situation. But with Baez latching onto an everyday role at shortstop basically for the first time in his career, it’s certainly worth exploring what the best role for him is, from a defensive standpoint, moving forward.
It’s those moments of unpredictability that tend to make a case against such a situation. But with Baez latching onto an everyday role at shortstop basically for the first time in his career, it’s certainly worth exploring what the best role for him is, from a defensive standpoint, moving forward.
Oddly enough, defensive metrics do not tend to paint Baez in the most favorable of lights. His Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) currently sits at -5.5 for the season. That would classify him as a ‘poor’ defender, in a general sense, which is not necessarily an adjective anyone would rush to apply to Baez. Similarly, FanGraphs’ defensive metric, Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has him at a -9.6 UZR per 150 games specific to shortstop. It’s also worth noting that despite appearing in barely more than half the amount of innings at the position as Addison Russell, Baez has only one less error and three more throwing errors than his middle infield counterpart.
And those figures alone seem to make a pretty strong case against Javy Baez as a full-time shortstop. Obviously, a full-time role at the position would allow for more development and perhaps subsequent improvement. However, as much as his game-changing ability has been realized in his time at the Major League level, there aren’t a whole lot of surprises for left Baez at this point. We know what he is and we know the erraticism that his game tends to entail. With that in mind, those questionable metrics at short become less surprising and could certainly serve as an indicator of what a full-time role at the position for Baez would feature.
As such, it’s really not overly difficult to make the case against Baez as a full-time shortstop at any point in the future for the Cubs. The variability that occurs with each passing throw alone is enough, let alone the metrics.
Again, though, it’s really difficult to harp on those numbers when you consider the total body of work for Baez as a defender. He’s appeared at five different positions, for however short a time, and plays a strong second base. While his FRAA is likely being dragged down by some of that defensive production at short, FanGraphs loves him as a second baseman, with four Defensive Runs Saved and a 3.6 UZR/150. And his skill set really does allow for him to be a strong second baseman first, with an ability to adequately spot start all over the infield second. With such quick and natural hands (and there’s no way to overstate the quality of those tools), he’s an asset on the turns in the middle infield, with less distance to cover in order for the throws to go awry.
Ultimately, when Russell returns there shouldn’t be a dispute over whose position it is. However, Baez’s gamebreaking ability should easily keep him in the lineup and continuing to serve the role that’s made him successful: a second baseman first, with the ability to bounce around the infield as needed.
His glove and his arm will play anywhere. It’s just the matter of longevity at certain positions not paying off as much due to his consistency in harnessing those tools. As such, as much as people would prefer to rush to the idea of replacing Russell with Baez in the long-term, a middle infield with both, and the opportunity for Baez to move around as needed, continues to be the best possible situation for the Cubs. Javy’s skill set reflects that. The metrics reflect that. It’s rather simple, regardless of whether one is looking in the short or long-term.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports