After a personal hiatus from all things writing, what better way for me to get back into the saddle than to focus on the primary object of my affection: Javier Baez? The Cubs’ infielder has given us no shortage of things to talk about (some of which he’s responsible for and some of which he’s not) early in the season, and he’s going to continue to be a focal point as this 2018 season wears on. And the reason for the perpetual discussion goes beyond flashes of the glove and flips of the bat; Baez continues to be a player worth admiring for elements beyond those. Whether glaringly obvious or not, Baez has persistently gone about making changes to evolve into a better player worth including alongside the other members of the “core” of the North Side.
The first element worth addressing relates to the comments made by one Clint Hurdle at the tail end of last week:
“You watch their kid flip that bat last night? Where’s the respect for the game? The guy hits four homers in two days, so that means you can take your bat and throw it 15, 20 feet in the air when you pop up like you should have hit your fifth home run? I would bet that men over there talked to him, because I do believe they have a group over there that speaks truth to power.”
Ah, yes, the “respect for the game” that continues to be a go-to slight for the old school toward anyone notably young and flashy in today’s game. Nevermind the fact that Baez owned his frustration with the pop-up and his teammates discussed it with him behind closed doors. The unnecessary dig will likely be a focal point the next time these two teams square off against each other. Nonetheless, it’s not the first time that Baez has been accused of not respecting the game.
Yet, when you look at a player like Baez, he’s doing exactly what you’d want someone “respecting the game” to do. He’s elevating it. He’s making it more enjoyable. He’s a player and a personality worth emulating for the younger generations. As a human highlight reel capable of enormous power, there’s a certain amount of confidence and flash that makes Baez what he is. In terms of instincts, he could be one of the greatest players to ever step foot on a diamond, and his hands in the field are beyond reproach. He’s shown a commitment to bettering himself on the field and is an engaging and enjoyable personality for the fans off of it. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that Baez has more respect for the game as it is in 2018 than someone like Hurdle.
But what makes Javier Baez a player worth emulating and allows him to be categorized as a player who truly “respects” the game, is his continued commitment to getting better at it.
The Cubs drafted Baez and saw him rise through the ranks of the minor leagues with some glaring flaws in his game. Despite enormous power and natural ability in the field, he was an overwhelmingly free swinger with an inability to make contact with any sort of consistency. Yet, while those flaws still exist and will always be something of a detriment to Baez’s offensive game, the fact that he’s worked towards notable and tangible improvements tells you everything you need to know about the type of person that Baez is, both as an athlete and as a human.
Swing rates have remained high, but Baez has come a long way since he made contact at a 59.0 percent rate and struck out over 40 percent of the time upon his arrival at the big league level. It’s also important to note that some injuries in the couple of years that followed hampered his ability to demonstrate notable development on that side of things. But he continues to work. This is a guy who hit over .200 out of two strike counts last season and posted a TAv of .274 that was almost identical to the .275 mark that he posted in the previous season, along with relatively similar on-base rates (.314 in 2016 against .317 in 2017). Consistency from Baez is as encouraging a sign as any.
We’re obviously looking at an extremely, extremely small sample thus far in 2018, but Baez is striking out five percent less in 2018 and is walking at a clip up over 10 percent. His hard hit percentage is up over 40 percent thus far, with an overall contact rate that is up a touch. His ISO? .383. Of course, that’ll come down, just as his monumentally bad luck will conversely improve (.167 BABIP through his first 55 plate appearances).
The skill set is what it is at this point. We know that Baez is a free swinger. There’s some erraticism in his field play, primarily in regard to his arm. But his zone coverage is improving. His patience is improving. The power is a legitimate weapon. His instincts and hands are off the charts. He’s demonstrating a maturity that many didn’t expect upon the Cubs drafting him. Javier Baez is absolutely becoming everything the Cubs hoped he could be, and potentially more. Even if the improvements don’t manifest themselves in some wild statistical manner, the fact that he’s showcased the commitment to bettering the player and the person that he is, serving as a role model in multiple regards, tells you everything you need to know about what Javy Baez is a baseball player. And he’s absolutely one to love and be emulated, no matter what Clint Hurdle tries to tell you.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Young—USA Today Sports