Cubs infielder Javier Baez

Matt Marton/USA Today Sports

Spiegel: An Appreciation Of The One-Of-A-Kind Javier Baez

Baez thinks the game like few in the history of baseball.

Matt Spiegel
April 24, 2018 - 11:03 am

By Matt Spiegel--

(670 The Score) As baseball evolves, decade after decade, certain players seem perfectly suited for the era in which they play.

Cubs infielder Javier Baez is a fitting prototype for baseball in 2018. Let’s count a few of the ways:

  • His defensive versatility and brilliance fits the utilitarian needs of a smart manager with a flexible roster. 
  • His incredible hand-eye coordination makes him a tagging and sliding superstar via umpire’s replay. 
  • His home run-or-bust swing has been granted major league time to evolve, as strikeouts have never been more acceptable.
  • He’s passionately, entertainingly flashy in an era in which most fans and analysts have grown beyond the ruffled feathers of grumpy traditionalism.

The key word there in the last point: most. This past Sunday, Baez again acted on his bold, smart baseball instincts. And this move was followed by some silly opinions.

You know the story by now. The Rockies’ D.J. LeMahieu was on second base, with Nolan Arrenado at the plate. LeMahieu seemed, to Baez, to be looking in to try and steal the catcher’s signs so he could share info with Arrenado. Baez stood in front of LeMahieu to block his view.  Here’s more than two minutes of the action, as called by the Rockies’ home broadcasters:

That’s an embarrassing level of analysis by the Rockies' television team.   

Yes, sign stealing is as old as the game itself, and if you want to say it’s a part of the enjoyable espionage of the sport, I’m with you. I get it. But how in the hell is trying to keep a player from stealing said signs then not acceptable? Yes, get better signs. But blocking the runner’s view is perfectly within reason. It’s exactly the same as a pitcher covering his mouth with his glove as he talks to a catcher on the mound. Withhold information physically when you can. 

You can find more examples of stupidly angry or dismissive reactions to Baez’s move on the web if you want.

That’s an impressive logical stretch to find the cynical derision necessary to even have that thought. Let’s just skip that path, shall we?

Back on point: Issues with sign stealing in recent years have centered on the use of technology -- center-field cameras, the Red Sox and their Apple watches. I think we all agree that using technology to steal signs is beyond the pale. Hell, it was wrong when the 1951 New York Giants did it and it helped Bobby Thomson hit baseball's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." 

I know that keepers of the game in the media and dugouts alike believe this as well. Don’t use technology, but if you’re good enough to steal a sign, good for you. Follow that logic through then. Baez isn’t using technology. He’s cleverly, annoyingly getting in the way of a runner to cut off what appears to be espionage. It’s human. The fact that it hasn’t been on our radar before is kind of amazing, actually. That speaks to both the standard laziness of accepting the status quo and to the thought at the beginning of this column.

It took Javy Baez to think of and do this. As a runner and fielder, Baez thinks the game better than anyone on the field and has the skills and talent to make the most of it.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who admittedly would stand up for his players no matter what, enjoyed the creativity and execution from Baez.

"Javy did something out there, where necessity is the mother of invention," Maddon said. "We're always talking about this technological method of stealing signs. That was old-school. They're trying to give location or signs, and Javy was blocking. I loved it. I've never seen that before. That's some grassroots stuff. You might see that more often."

Baez has long been a wonder as an overall ballplayer, and it seems his offensive breakout may have finally come this year. You see him going to the opposite field with regularity. You see him cutting down his once standard Big Bertha driver swing to try and keep an at-bat alive. You see his numbers exploding so far.

On Fangraphs, Sheryl Ring crunched some relevant data

Overall, Baez has recorded positive numbers against fastballs, sliders, curveballs and cutters. It’s the first time in his career that he’s fared better than average against more than three pitches in the same year — and the first time since 2015 he’s been in positive territory against more than two in the same year.

So is Baez seeing pitches better? Perhaps. The book on Baez has always been that he lacks discipline, swinging too often, especially out of the strike zone. Entering play Sunday, his out-of-zone swing rate (O-Swing%) was at 44.0%, right around last year’s 45.1%, so he doesn’t seem to transformed much in this regard. And yet, his in-zone swing rate (Z-Swing%) is at a career high, and it’s not close. Baez entered Sunday swinging at 81.2% of pitches inside the strike zone, an increase from last year of almost nine percentage points. What makes that more impressive is that Baez is seeing only 38.9% of pitches inside the zone. And Baez’s hard-hit rate is a career high, at 40.4%. Paired with a career-best 0.8 GB/FB and 40% fly-ball rate, and Baez is dwarfing all his previous power numbers. Even better, Baez is absolutely torching the ball: his average exit velocity as of Sunday morning was nearly 93 mph, sandwiched between Anthony Rizzo and Gary Sanchez.

If Baez becomes even just a consistently above-average offensive player, his overall value will be absolutely incredible. The defensive wizardry is well0documented. The base-running instincts and skills are through the roof. And there's a desperately needed human element in Baez for the Cubs' success.

His spark is obvious and special. He's many of your friends’ favorite player, and he's many of your favorite players’ favorite player. The power of watching him do "Baez things" every once in a while is indisputable for you. And it's abstractly important for his teammates too. Imagine the confidence that comes from seeing that on a regular basis -- "we got that guy." Yes, you do. Between Baez and Willson Contreras, there's enough special athletic talent and explosive energy to bring a sleepy dugout back from the dead.

Because of Baez's glowingly obvious instincts, his developing bat and this incredible likability, I've been constantly reminded of how I once was ready for the Cubs to move on from him. I saw the length of his swing in that 52-game stint in 2014 and couldn’t fathom how he’d shorten up and adjust to big league pitching regularly. The strikeout rate was 41.5 percent in 2014, when the league average was just more than 20 percent. I wanted the Cubs to talk to the Mets, and try and swing a deal for the likes of Zack Wheeler or Steven Matz.

My wife never lets me forget this. How dare I even say aloud that I didn’t believe in her favorite player. She told me I should get a T-shirt. I tweeted about it, and a listener made me one.

Matt Spiegel in his custom-made Javy Baez T-shirt
Matt Spiegel/670 The Score

Oh, the shame, the shame.

I’ll live with it. It’s made easier by the fact that Baez is now the third-most valuable Cubs position player, behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. His development is testament to Tim Wilken’s scouting, Jim Henry’s drafting, Theo Epstein’s patience, the organization’s coaching and Baez's work ethic.

In the age of official review and the super slo-mo, Baez's tagging and sliding skills have emerged as unique. Who had ever even talked about a player's tagging skill before these past few years? And now Baez is the standard.

On Sunday, Baez stood in front of a base runner at second base, causing a minor uproar. It was completely within baseball’s official rules, and I bet you will soon be an accepted part of the unwritten rules as well.

Javier Baez was made for these times.

Follow Matt Spiegel on Twitter @MattSpiegel670.