I wouldn’t pretend to not have a personal connection to Javier Báez, who is signing with the Detroit Tigers at some point today for six years, $140 million. He’s always been the most interesting player to watch first on the Cubs, back when I cared a lot, and in baseball overall. And it was both good and bad, which is what made it so goddamn interesting.
Báez started the invasion of prospects for what now seems a cursed Cubs era (even though they did, y’know, win their first World Series since the invention of the Model T, which the Ricketts family is determined to make everyone forget). Anthony Rizzo was already up for a couple years, but at the end of 2014 Báez, Kyle Hendricks, and Jorge Soler would make their first appearances in the Majors. Kris Bryant would follow the next season.
Báez preceded the Theo Epstein era, being Jim Hendry’s last first-round pick. And before some of the truly lost and confused started watching minor league highlights for full games full-time (and they’re back to it now around here, seemingly not learning how that got them grifted by the team), we’d heard everything about Báez. The home runs that landed in Samoa. The defense. And the strikeouts. He sounded like the ultimate highwire act before we’d even laid eyes on him. He proved to be even more than that.
It was generally thought he would be traded by Epstein, because he hardly fit the mold of how the Cubs were going to be run. He didn’t walk, he didn’t even really bother to take pitches. He was the Joker’s anarchy to Epstein’s need for certainty and measurables. But even Theo, born out of analytics and on-base percentage couldn’t ignore the outsized gifts. Báez simply overpowered the rational way of looking at the game and building a team.
HIs first game saw him strikeout four times, before lacing an opposite field homer in the 12th that might never have gotten more than 15 feet off the ground to win the game. That was essentially Javy in a nutshell. The sublime, the ridiculous, not much in between, but such a violent shift between the two as to give every fan whiplash.
Báez has always gotten the shine of having the best instincts in the game, which allows him to do things you never thought of. And that very well may be true, or it may be that Báez is just willing to live in a space no one else is. He’s that kid in your group of friends who is willing to get more over the cliff to look down than the rest of you. He’s the first to cut a class in high school. He’s the dude writing his final paper the morning it’s due without ever going inside the library and getting a B+ anyway. Maybe it’s just he’s more willing to try things no one else would and more often that he’s just more comfortable doing the things everyone else thinks is dangerous and stupid. It’s natural to him from repetition and quite simply, balls. Most coaching in sport focuses on what you can’t do. Don’t swing at that, don’t take that base, don’t make that pass, keep a safe gap, etc. Báez only worries about what can be done. And because he’s always lived there, most of the time he can do it.
You live out on the highwire long enough, and you start to fall more and more. Báez can swing at everything because his bat-speed was so ridiculous that the power he would generate on contact made up for what he couldn’t get to. But what happens when he loses that bat-speed?
That was the fear already the past couple years in Chicago. Báez’s strikeout crept over a third of his plate-appearances. His swinging-strike percentage is now over 21 percent. It was highest in the league by some 3 percentage points. Baseball is a game of fractional changes, not inches. It only takes a little more break on a slider to go from a journeyman pitcher to a prized free agent. Changing where you make contact on the bat by a fraction of an inch, or the angle, goes from liners to home runs. While Báez existed where no one else did, it only takes a small change for all of that to be erased.
Discouragingly, Báez’s whiff-rate on fastballs has slowly crept up of late, but his whiff-rate on breaking pitches shot up considerably more. That usually suggests a hitter trying to start early or guess on fastballs and be completely helpless on change-ups. What the Tigers are hoping, they must be, is that in September Báez was able to cut his whiff-rate on offspeed pitches by two-thirds is a harbinger of what’s to come. But that’s one month. And it came at the expense of the power he would get on fastballs. Báez has always had massive power to the opposite field and should have been waiting on fastballs more often, but is one month enough to suggest he’s going to do it full-time?
In the field, Báez’s doomsday gun of an arm will keep him at short longer than most of his contemporaries. And his instincts will get him to more balls as he gets into his 30s. It would hardly be a shock if he finishes this six-year deal at short, which maybe Corey Seager or Carlos Correa won’t be able to say. The Tigers should have no worries there.
Of all the players the Cubs so callously jettisoned last season, perhaps judging Báez by simple numbers and charts is the most unfair. Because I don’t want to be this guy:
To watch Javy at his best is to watch someone just willing to live out somewhere everyone else was afraid of, had been told was wrong, or didn’t even think existed. It was the personification of “Why not?” in a baseball player, proving that all the old adages we’d been taught as kids didn’t really hold up if you dug at them enough, and of course just have a massive amount of talent. Only Báez could really set up shop there.
Maybe Báez can distill his game differently now, be slightly more prudent and come to terms with what his skills are now at this point in his career. But is that really the point of Javy Báez? Do we want to trade the massive explosions for more surgical strikes? It would make him the more productive player going forward as he ages, but probably not nearly as fun. Even if he’s not mine anymore, and represents the total abolition of a team that meant so much to me for most of my life that I’ll never get back, I still want to know Javy is out there existing in a space only he can see. That Báez never stops thinking about what could be instead of what couldn’t.
Also White Sox fans are absolutely going to loathe him facing him 18 times a year, which makes me smile.