By Randy Richardson
World meet Javy Baez.
Sorry, San Francisco, that includes you.
A week ago, few outside of Chicago, except perhaps for some hardcore fantasy baseball enthusiasts, had probably even heard the name Javier Baez before.
Much to the chagrin of Giants’ fans, the brash 23-year-old Cub decided to use the National League Division Series as his platform to introduce himself to the rest of the world.
On Friday, in Game 1 of the NLDS at Wrigley Field, the third-year super-utility player stepped up to home plate in the bottom of the eighth inning in a scoreless tie. Giants’ stud pitcher Johnny Cueto had held the Cubs’ to just two hits, a double off the bat of Kris Bryant in the fourth and a single by Baez in the fifth. With one out and a 3-and-2 count, Cueto made his first mistake of the game, a fastball that caught too much of the plate. Baez didn’t let Cueto get away with it. He thought he got all of it and maybe he did. But a strong cool wind nearly kept it in the park. As it was it landed in the basket that lines the wall in front of the left field bleachers. A home run.
In post-game remarks, the Giants’ All-Star catcher, Buster Posey, reportedly took exception to the young Cub standing in the box a little long for a ball that barely made it out of the park.
Baez maybe admired his work a little too long. But who could blame him? You’re 23. It’s the postseason. The fans are going wild. You get caught up in the moment.
“I was just trying to get on base,” Baez told Fox Sports. “I knew we had some people coming in to hit for the pitcher. (Cueto) had been pitching me inside and I was waiting for him to make a mistake and he did.
“I hit it really good.”
Giants fans let Baez know how they felt. They booed him during player introductions before Game 3. They booed him again in the second inning as he walked to the plate for his first at-bat They booed even louder when he signaled the ump for time, stepped out of the box and knocked some dirt off his spikes with his bat.
Baez’s responded with an infield single. He later scored on Jake Arrieta’s 3-run homer.
Later in that game, Giants’ reliever Hunter Strickland brushed back Baez, sending a clear signal his way.
Baez responded to Strickland in Game 4, in the top of the 9th, by smacking a single up the middle off him, driving in the game-winning run.
Take note, Giants: Baez doesn’t back down from adversity – even in the form of a 90-plus-mile-per-hour fastball at his chin. If you knew his back-story, you’d know why. But more about that later.
For the four-game series, Baez went 6-for-16: a .375 batting average. Not only did he record two game-winning hits, he led the Cubs in runs scored with four for the series.
But perhaps even more impressive was what the third-year Cub did with his glove. He was a human highlight-reel at second base, making one out-of-this-world play after another. The flash tags he pulled off were a thing of wonder, turning sure-thing stolen bases into outs.
FanGraph’s Jeff Sullivan analyzed Baez’s NLDS performance and concluded that Baez is, simply put: “amazing”.
“Javier Baez is coming together, and if he were to develop into a star, he’d look a lot like how he just looked for four games,” Sullivan wrote. “It’s always been fun to dream of his upside. That upside is now maybe one step away.”
Cubs fans have seen Baez’s superhero-like abilities all-season long – be it at second base, shortstop or third. He makes plays that rival the glove work of Ozzie Smith and Brooks Robinson, the best fielders of their times. Even when manager Joe Maddon has put him in the outfield, Baez holds his own.
Baez also displays uncanny instincts on the base paths, routinely taking an extra base – or two – with his heads-up, hard-driving hustle.
So where did this budding superstar come from? Did this modern-day Roy Hobbes come out of nowhere? No, not really. He just took a little longer to blossom than some of his young Cub counterparts.
Baez is one of the few leftovers of the pre-Theo Epstein regime. In the spring of 2011, then General Manager Jim Hendry selected Baez in the first round, with the 9th overall pick of the draft. A few months later, Hendry got his walking papers. For a team that up to that point had a dismal record with draft picks, Hendy looks like he got this one right, giving incoming Cubs’ President Theo Epstein a nice building block to work from.
By 2013, Baez was the top-ranked prospect in the Cubs’ system. Those who worked with him saw even then that there was something special about him.
“He always saw the game ahead of everybody else,” Brandon Hyde, the first-base coach who used to work as the organization’s farm director and minor-league field coordinator, told CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney. “He just knew the game better. He’s got a different clock in his head.”
Baez earned a promotion to the big-league team in August 2014, at the age of 21. He made an early impression. In his debut on August 5, he hit his first career home run; the game-winner in the 12th inning victory against the Colorado Rockies, becoming the first player since Miguel Cabrera in 2003 to hit an extra innings home run in their debut. In his third game, Báez hit two home runs, becoming the first player since Joe Cunningham in 1954 to hit three home runs in his first three MLB games. On August 18, 2014, Báez hit his fifth home run in 14 games, joining Jason Kipnis as the only other second baseman to do so in the last 100 years.
But Baez’s early success didn’t last. In September, after taking over at shortstop for injured Starlin Castro, Baez struggled mightily at the plate. In 52 games with the Cubs in 2014, Báez struck out 95 times while batting .169 with 5 stolen bases, 9 home runs, and 20 RBI.
Baez’s stock continued to plummet as a new crop of youngsters, including Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, began to overshadow him. After a rough Spring Training, mostly due to a high number of strikeouts, the Cubs optioned Báez to Triple-A on March 30, 2015.
It was not the worst thing to happen to Baez that year. The next month, his beloved sister, Noely, who had been born with spina bifida, died. He didn’t know if he would – or could – every play baseball again.
After taking some time away from baseball, Baez came back more committed than ever. He took the demotion as a challenge to tighten up his game and his high-powered swing. The hard work paid off. In September, as the Cubs were fighting for a playoff berth, Baez got the call back to the big league club. The highlight of his brief return came in Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals when he crushed a three-run home run in the second inning to help the Cubs to a 6-4 win as they advanced to the National League Championship Series.
Despite the postseason heroics, rumors swirled that Baez could be on the trading blocks, mainly because of lingering worries about his high strike-out rate on a team that demanded plate discipline. Also, where would he fit in a crowded infield? His natural position – shortstop – had been taken over by the rookie Russell. The reigning Rookie of the Year Bryant looked to be cemented at third. And then the Cubs signed veteran All-Star second baseman Ben Zobrist as free agent in the offseason.
The Cubs, of course, held on to Baez – perhaps the best move they never made. Their wily manager, Joe Maddon, figured out how to utilize the raw talent of his Puerto Rican infielder, moving him around like a human chess piece, from one position to the next.
Baez rewarded the organization’s faith in him with a breakout season in 2016, at the plate (.274 batting average, 14 home runs, 59 RBI) but especially in the field, where he dazzled. He improved his WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to a solid 3.4 (compared to -1 in 2014 and 0.5 in 2015).
“Of anybody who played even one inning at second base in the big leagues in 2016, Baez was responsible for 11 Defensive Runs Saved, tied for third and just one run behind Boston’s Dustin Pedroia and Detroit’s Ian Kinsler,” wrote CSNChicago’s Tony Andracki. “Here’s the thing, though: Baez only played 383 innings at second in the regular season. Pedroia and Kinsler both played more than 1,292 innings. If you extrapolate out Baez’s Defensive Runs Saved to 1,292 innings, he would’ve been at more than 37 DRS. That’s insane.”
With the show that he put on in the NLDS, Baez looks to be the next big star on a team filled with stars. If there was an MVP awarded for the NLDS, Baez would have been the unanimous choice. Not bad for a player who looked like he didn’t fit in at all going into the season.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation