Is Javier “Javy” Baez, nicknamed el Mago (Spanish for “the Magician), saving his best trick for last?
No one is surprised anymore by the Cubs All-Star’s on-field magic. With his swim slides and no-look tags, Baez is not only a threat to steal home but to steal the show every time he takes the field.
In only his fifth year in the majors, the 25-year-old Puerto Rican infielder has quickly become a fan favorite on a team loaded with stars. As ESPN’s Jesse Rogers recently wrote, “Arguably, he has overtaken Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo as the most popular Cub.” Why? Because he always entertains. And he always seems to be able to be able to pull a new trick out of his Cubs hat.
The confidence seems to be growing with each passing game. He’s a human highlight reel, a potential candidate to make ESPN’s Play of the Day every time he steps foot on the field. Each time you ask, “How’s he going to top that?” it seems like it’s followed by, “How’d he do that?”
While the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout is generally regarded as the best all-around player in baseball today, Baez is starting to be recognized as the game’s most exciting.
There’s no doubt that Baez enjoys the big-league stage and playing for the crowd. But success hasn’t come easily for him. The modern-day Roy Hobbes didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. 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 dugout 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).
Then came his coming-out party on a national stage, the 2016 National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants, where the budding superstar almost single-handedly lifted the Cubs to the league championship series. 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 made 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.”
The party was just starting. Baez followed that performance by hitting .318 with five RBI, four doubles, and two stolen bases in the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, earning him NLCS co-MVP honors along with pitcher Jon Lester.
It is hard to imagine the Cubs even making it to that 2016 World Series without Baez’s NLDS and NLCS heroics. The Cubs of course went on to win the World Series that year, their first championship in 108 years.
Baez followed the 2016 title season with a solid 2017 in which he hit .273 average with 23 home runs, 24 doubles, 75 RBIs, 75 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases.
Baez’s continued growth and maturity as a player have all come together in 2018. With Bryant fighting injuries and Rizzo struggling out of the gate, Baez took the reins and earned his first All-Star selection as the NL’s starting second baseman.
How good has he been? Baez became only the second player in MLB history to have at least 18 home runs, 18 doubles, 18 stolen bases, and 5 triples by the All-Star break; Willie Mays was the first.
Now the growing “Javy! Javy!” chants in the stands have begun to evolve into “MVP! MVP!”
Entering play today, Baez leads the NL with 88 RBI and 245 total bases. He is sixth in home runs (25) and ninth in batting average (.300).
Baez may not yet be the front-runner for NL MVP but he’s in the conversation. As of July 19, BetOnline had Baez at +2000 odds for the league’s MVP honor, putting him in sixth behind the Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman (+150), Colorado’s Nelson Arenado (+300), Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (+450), Washington’s Bryce Harper (+600), and Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies (+1000).
The stats bolster the case for Baez. Of the NL’s position players, he sits in third in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at 4.9, just above Freeman’s 4.7 and Arenado’s 4.6. Milwaukee’s Lorenzo Cain is at the top at 5.4 with St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter second at 5.1.
As CubbiesCrib’s Jake Misener wrote earlier this week, Baez has earned the MVP chants. “This is a kid who wants to be the best player – period,” Misener wrote. “Not just on the Cubs. Not even in the National League. But he wants to bring his fiery passion to the front of all of baseball. And, if he can keep this up through the ‘dog days’ of summer, he may be rewarded with the game’s top honors.”
Cubs’ Manager Joe Maddon is beating the drum for Javy as loud as he can. “He’s the most exciting player in the game right now,” Maddon said recently. “And he’s only getting better. He has that rock-star feel with his teammates. For people that come to enjoy baseball, he’s the guy you come watch.”
So can the kid who was demoted to the minors in 2015 rise to be the league’s MVP in 2018? It would sure be a great trick, and if anyone could pull it off, it’s el Mago.
Randy Richardson is the co-author, along with fellow Wrigleyville Nation contributor Becky Sarwate, of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team and Their Stories of Pain, Loyalty, Hope and (Finally) Joy.