Javier Baez is Quietly Coming Alive

The 2016 Chicago Cubs have thus far been amazing. Jake Arrieta remains historic in his consistency, the offense can’t stop scoring runs (Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Jason Heyward haven’t even started hitting yet) and their quality team effort has carried the Cubs to baseball’s first 20-win record of 2016.

In all of this, it’s easy to lose sight of former top prospect Javier Baez very quietly coming of age as the Cubs’ super-utility man.

For many Cubs fans, Javy Baez was expected to be the cornerstone prospect of the Cubs’ organizational renaissance. He got his first big-league opportunity in August 2014 and was, to put it kindly, terrible. In 229 plate appearances, Baez slashed .169/.227/.324 with nine home runs, striking out 95 times while drawing just 15 walks. The occasional moonshot home run couldn’t overcome his shortcomings.

Add to this the Cubs’ drafting of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and trading for Russell, all while failing to make the Opening Day roster in 2015, and Javy Baez quickly became an afterthought as the Cubs began a new era.

Lost in the Cubs’ magical 97-win campaign last season was Baez’s growth as a player. It’s very easy to forget that players develop differently, and seeing Bryant, Schwarber and Russell almost immediately become integral parts of the big-league squad while Baez toiled away in Iowa trying to improve his game could make him look like a bust, especially after his dreadful 2014 season.

That dreadful 2014 season was also just his age-21 season, leaving a large window for improvement wide open. And for an already-tortured fanbase that hadn’t been exposed to large-scale player development like Theo Epstein’s Cubs in decades, skepticism and concern isn’t entirely unwarranted.

During the 104 games he played for Triple-A Iowa in 2014, Baez slashed .260/.323/.510 with 23 home runs. Impressive power, but a .323 on-base percentage should be somewhat concerning in the majors, let alone Triple-A. Those concerns were aided by his dramatic 30 percent strikeout rate which, even if he scorched the big leagues upon his arrival, was likely going to increase.

It did increase, and Baez struck out in an appalling 42 percent of his major league plate appearances for the final two months of the season. His strikeout rate kept him off the 2015 Opening Day roster and in Des Moines for most of the regular season.

While the Cubs became a force in the National League, Baez adjusted his game accordingly, slashing .324/.385/.527 with 13 home runs for Triple-A Iowa in 70 games. Even more stunning was his drop in strikeout rate, punching out in only 24 percent of his plate appearances, a whopping six percent decrease from the previous year. He also spent more time away from his natural position of shortstop, becoming a utility player.

With these few — but very significant — changes to his game, Javy was welcomed back to the big league squad as a September call-up.

Baez’s 80 plate appearances in 2015 weren’t noteworthy, but he will best be remembered for his three-run blast off John Lackey in Game 4 of the NLDS, planting the final stake in the hearts of the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals. With that home run, Baez once again injected himself as an integral part of the Cubs’ “plan.”

Now 23, Javier Baez is getting his first shot at a full MLB season, and he’s made the best of it: his .341/.372/.488 slash in 43 plate appearances is a small sample size, but these numbers showcase a greater selectivity at the plate than any other big league sample to his name. His line drive percentage has also gone up from 14 percent in 2014 to 34 percent this year, evidence that he’s squaring up the ball well.

And that pesky strikeout rate? Down to 21 percent thus far in 2016, effectively slicing his 2014 rate in half. Baez still doesn’t walk a whole lot, but if he’s driving the ball and making things happen in his at bats, it doesn’t matter all that much.

Baez has earned the trust of Joe Maddon after his first month of 2016, and with injuries to Heyward, Schwarber, Matt Szczur and Miguel Montero, he’s getting more starts. In the Cubs’ latest road sweep of the Pirates, Baez started two of the three games, went 5-for-12 and drove in three. His defense at third base — not his natural position — was also lauded among fans and writers.

Despite the placement of Russell and Ben Zobrist up the middle, Baez is making the case for more playing time and more starts, which Maddon will likely give him now that he can play most infield positions and some outfield. Heyward, Szczur and Montero will all return from the disabled list soon, which will force Maddon to play lineup roulette until the next man goes down. For Joe, this is a good problem.

The thing about Javy Baez’s hot start is that we’ve effectively learned two things about him since 2014: his work ethic is incredible, and he’s opportunistic, both qualities that fit Theo Epstein’s Cubs marvelously.

And his numbers will even out; I have a hard time believing Baez can hit .341/.372/.488 for five months (considering his .419 BABIP), and he’ll undoubtedly add to that singular home run he currently has, especially as he sees more playing time. But the adjustments he’s made at the plate for the long-term not only serve to benefit the 2016 Cubs, but also to prove that he is in fact the ballplayer we thought he could be all along.

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