Off the field, standing in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse, Javier Baez looks young. Younger than 25, which is his actual age. Younger than someone should look when he’s about to begin his fourth consecutive October of postseason baseball.
On the field, Baez plays young, too, with the enthusiasm and swagger of a kid who could just as easily be a 15-year-old showing off for his friends on the schoolyard. But he plays with the smarts and instincts of a 15-year major league veteran.
He hits and runs and plays defense at the highest level, at any position Cubs manager Joe Maddon chooses for him, and he does it all in a way you can’t help but watch.
He really is 25 and really has played in more than 500 major league games, plus another 33 in three postseasons that have seen his Cubs go to the NLCS three straight years and win a historic World Series in one of them.
Baez was important then, and he’s more important now. Without a doubt he’s one of the most valuable players in the game. He might even be the National League‘s Most Valuable Player—that award was voted on this week but will not be announced until November—but his value to the Cubs and to the game as a whole transcends any award.
Quite simply, at a time when baseball worries about appealing to the next generation, Baez is the perfect guy to do it.
Mike Trout probably is the best player in the game. And Christian Yelich may well be the National League MVP, ahead of Baez. But as one National League scout said, Baez may be “the best baseball athlete in the game.” He’s in constant motion, is consistently exciting and is the guy who demands your complete attention.
Not surprisingly, he’s also the player the kids love.
“If you want to talk about energy, every kid’s got energy,” Baez said. “They like to be running around. That’s the way I look at it. I like to run around and have fun out there, obviously to play hard, but at the same time to have fun.”
Yes, fun, because as much as people may want to tell you that baseball in 2018 can be boring, with nothing but home runs and strikeouts and everyone standing around, the game can still be as enjoyable as ever when it’s played the way Baez plays it.
As his teammate and friend Albert Almora Jr. said, “He’s a good reminder that this is a fun game.”
Baez is the living symbol of baseball’s modern era, with his bat flips, his pointing and his willingness to show emotion. He’s also a throwback, given his great feel for the game and how hard he plays it. “He could play baseball in any era,” Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. “He’s a baseball player.”
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But he’s one particularly suited to GIFs and blogs and highlights you can watch on your phone and share with your friends.
Did you see Javy circle the bases to score that game-winning run against the San Diego Padres? Did you see him call himself safe after sliding in at home against the Milwaukee Brewers? Did you him snag a line drive against the Los Angeles Dodgers and dive into second base to complete a double play? Did you see him playfully taunt Francisco Lindor after the Cleveland Indians shortstop couldn’t stop him from getting an infield hit?
This Cubs team is full of stars, but players, coaches and others around the club say Baez is the one guy they get asked about the most.
“He’s on the modern edge of pushing the game into a more exciting, personalized feeling and connection with the fans,” said teammate Ben Zobrist. “He’s not a robot out there. The game used to be, let’s all fit inside the box and play the game the right way, as if there’s just one way to do it. He’s just playing it the way he knows how to do it.”
Sometimes, Zobrist says, when players are talking to fans, they are asked to bring over a teammate. “More than anybody else, they’ll be saying, ‘Can you get Javy to do this or that?'” Zobrist said. “More than anybody else.”
He’s the guy they all want to see.
Increasingly, he’s the guy baseball fans everywhere want to see. In numbers released by Major League Baseball at the end of this season, Baez ranked third in jersey sales, behind only Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees and Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros. MLB also said that in year-over-year comparisons, Baez was up 29 percent in Instagram following, 37 percent in Twitter following and 109 percent in internet traffic to his player page on MLB.com in 2018. His All-Star vote total also rose by 30 percent.
It’s all because of what he does, how he plays.
“I just be me,” he said. “It’s me out there.”
It would be easy to make this about young vs. old, new school vs. old school, the bat flippers vs. the fuddy-duddies who can’t deal with a generation that is willing to show off a little bit.
That would be wrong, at least in the case of Baez. It’s easy to find plenty of veteran baseball men who will vouch for him, inside the Cubs clubhouse and around the major leagues.
Then again, it’s also not hard to find some whose respect for him seems more grudging.
“I’m old school,” one longtime National League scout said. “So I don’t like his antics. He likes himself. But I’ve got to admit, he wants to be up in big situations.”
Even the criticisms of Baez always seem to end that way, with a few words of strong praise.
There was a game back in April against the Pittsburgh Pirates. After starting the season slowly, Baez homered twice in a Tuesday afternoon Cubs loss and twice again in a Wednesday night win.
He came up again in the seventh inning that night, in a game the Cubs already led 8-4. When he popped up to shortstop, he took a step toward first base and in frustration flipped his bat in the air.
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On the game broadcasts, the flip got only a passing mention, noting that Baez was just upset at missing a pitch he could have hit. The next day, though, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Baez’s “respect for the game.”
It was a one-day story, as Baez admitted he was wrong but defended the way he plays. Hurdle never backed down from his comments, but when asked about the episode a few months later, he also inadvertently praised Baez.
“I was watching one of the most talented players in the game,” Hurdle said, remembering the two-day home run barrage by Baez that preceded the at-bat in question. So when Baez popped up and flipped his bat, Hurdle said, “I was just like, ‘Wow.’ For me, I wasn’t just not going to say anything.”
Hurdle can say what he wants, but the truth is most other managers offer only praise and not criticism when they’re asked about Baez.
“He plays hard,” said Ron Gardenhire of the Detroit Tigers. “And he’s an intelligent player, too.”
“I love how he plays the game,” said Dave Martinez, who worked with Baez as a Cubs coach before leaving after last season to become manager of the Washington Nationals.
Baez has always played hard. It’s one of the things scouts loved about him when they started watching him at Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Florida. Baez had moved there from his native Puerto Rico when he was 13, and by the time he was a high school senior, major league scouts had a good book on him.
“He’s a pit bull,” said one National League scout who has seen Baez all the way back to his teenage years. “He’s always been a pit bull. You don’t change a pit bull.”
That scout tells a story of a game Baez played for Arlington Country Day on a trip to Puerto Rico. It was a big deal for Baez to be back home, and he was already something of a big deal. A pitcher for the Puerto Rican team greeted him with a pitch up and in.
“He just pointed to the other team’s dugout and said, ‘You’re going to pay,'” the scout said. “The next pitch, he swings so hard he drops down to a knee. But he hits the ball so hard it was like a missile off the scoreboard.”
Tim Wilken wasn’t at that game, but he saw Baez quite a bit in high school. Wilken works as a special assistant for the Arizona Diamondbacks now, but he was the Cubs’ director of amateur and professional scouting then. In 2011, when Baez was a high school senior, the Cubs held the ninth pick in the June draft. It was a great year for available talent. The 30 first-rounders included 27 players who have since made it to the big leagues, including such stars as Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor and George Springer. Lindor and Baez were often linked that spring as Puerto Rican natives who were in high school in Florida.
Wilken and his scouting staff watched both of them carefully, even after hearing rumors both could be off the board before it was the Cubs’ turn to pick. They debated which infielder they would take if both were still there.
Cole and Bauer went early, with the first and third picks, respectively. The Cleveland Indians ended up taking Lindor with the eighth pick, just ahead of the Cubs. The Cubs’ decision was made for them, but Wilken was thrilled.
“I was going to take Baez over Lindor,” he said.
Baez became a Cub, and just over three years later he made his major league debut. But something else happened before that.
“He became a better runner between Double-A [in 2013] and Triple-A [in 2014],” Wilken said. “He made a concerted effort. His form got better, and he went from being maybe 4.2 [seconds to first base] to 4.05-4.15. Somewhere between Knoxville [Double-A] and Iowa [Triple-A] you started to see a change in him.”
Baez still isn’t one of the very fastest players in baseball. MLB.com’s Statcast says his sprint speed of 28.8 feet per second ranks just 65th in the majors. But he runs the bases so well that he had 21 stolen bases (12th in the National League) and nine triples (tied for fourth in the majors).
He also had more RBI (111) than anyone else in the National League. According to Statcast, his 481-foot home run Aug. 23 at Wrigley Field off Anthony DeSclafani of the Cincinnati Reds was tied for the third-longest in the major leagues in 2018.
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Some will downgrade Baez for his lack of walks (29) or his relatively low on-base percentage (.326, which would be the lowest for an MVP since 1965—Zoilo Versalles at .319 with the Minnesota Twins).
But Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis isn’t trying to get Baez to walk more.
“He’s an aggressive hitter, and to be honest, I like aggressive hitters,” Davis said.
Baez is actually swinging at a higher percentage of pitches than he did a year ago, according to FanGraphs (57.9 percent of pitches, as opposed to 56.2 percent). He’s swinging more often at pitches out of the zone and more often at pitches in the zone.
But Davis insists that’s neither a reason for concern nor a sign that what Baez is doing isn’t sustainable. What Davis sees is a hitter who is getting better and better at recognizing spin and understanding which pitches he can drive.
As Davis told Baez: “If you make contact, you’re dangerous. See what you’re firing at.”
Sure enough, Baez has found breaking balls worth firing at. That 481-foot home run off DeSclafani? That was on a slider. So were three of the next six home runs Baez hit (and another was on a changeup).
Baez has improved, but even the old version of him was very, very good. He shared MVP honors with teammate Jon Lester in the 2016 NLCS, in part because of his great defense and lightning-quick tags at second base.
Baez is such a good defender at second that two NL scouts independently compared him to Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar. But he’s so versatile that when the Cubs traded for second baseman Daniel Murphy, they could easily move Baez to shortstop, where he is also one of the best in the game.
“He sees the entire field,” Murphy said. “He’s able to position guys. He sees things before they happen.”
Patrick Mooney @PJ_Mooney
Joe Maddon runs down why Javier Baez is an MVP contender and ends with this: “It’s hard to evaluate baseball intellect and acumen, but he got a 1600 on his baseball SATs.”
Baez has appeared in major league games at every defensive position except catcher and center field, and truth be told, he could play either of those if needed.
“Going into his senior year in high school, he caught in the fall,” Wilken said. “He might have been one of the best amateur catchers I’ve ever seen. Him and Alex Bregman [of the Astros], because he caught in high school, too.”
If all Baez did was put up those good numbers, play great defense and hit those long home runs, he’d still be a good and popular player. But he wouldn’t be what he is, which is a guy who might help change the way some people think about baseball.
And by some people, think young people.
It’s not just kids who like Baez. Wilken said Baez became his wife’s favorite player and that she quickly identified him as “fearless.” Cubs third base coach Brian Butterfield said his two sons, both in their late 30s, always ask him about Baez.
“They want to know what I think of him,” Butterfield said. “And what I think is always positive.”
But it’s the kids, the younger kids, who most seem to appreciate the flair and the swagger Baez shows on the field.
Every year, the players in the Little League World Series are asked their favorite major league player. This summer, according to MLB.com, 18 of the kids listed Baez. Mike Trout (12) and Mookie Betts (11) were second and third, respectively.
“He’s young and he has that youthful look,” said Ron Coomer, the ex-major league player who works with Pat Hughes on Cubs radio. “He has a youthful way about his game. You can see why kids like to watch him play. And you should hear the screams when he comes to the plate at Wrigley.”
People worry that the game moves too slow for modern tastes, but Baez definitely doesn’t do slow. They worry about a lack of action. He’s always on the move.
“He plays the game the way we all want to play the game,” Murphy said. “You’re supposed to play this game like you’re a kid. And that’s the way he plays.”
Yes, the kids love him.
“I think kids gravitate toward Javy because he’s a big kid, and they can relate to that,” Davis said. “He has fun playing, and the kids see that. He’s good for the game.”
He is good for the game—there’s no doubt about that. He’s the guy baseball can promote, the guy it should want everyone watching this month.
It just needs him to keep doing what he does. Which is good, because that’s all he wants to do.
“I’m just going to keep being me,” Baez said.
And that’s good enough.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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