Thus far in the 2016 MLB season, Javier Baez has seen time on the field for the Chicago Cubs at five different positions. As of 7/18, Baez has played 46 games at third base, 20 games at second base, 11 games at shortstop, four games at first base and two games in left field.
He saw action at four different defensive positions in 2015 in just 28 games played. This year, he is seeing the field more, and apparently expanding his repertoire.
Part of the reason for the increase in playing time has had to do with Baez’s effectiveness at the plate. His strikeout rate is down from last season while his isolated power numbers are up. And while much of his batting average was attributed to great batted-ball luck last year, his batting average on balls in play has come way down this season, meaning his production is truer to form. Simply put, he is becoming a better hitter.
Of course, Baez still struggles with pitches out of the zone and plate discipline. His strikeout rate is down from where it once stood, but he still strikes out too much. That being said, his power at the plate and his versatility in the field make it hard for Chicago to keep him on the bench. But where are the Cubs best served using him?
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The strictest answer is sure as a utility man, though that’s a bit of a cop-out. He is most valuable to the club because of his penchant for moving all around the diamond, playing both the infield and the outfield, while also having the capacity to come off the bench as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement during games.
The stats back up his usefulness in both circumstances. He has seen action in 75 games this year, though just 46 of those saw him play the field, just 25 were starts and just 22 were games he played from start to finish. He absolutely crushes left-handed pitching and, as stated, has rather stellar numbers as a bat off the bench. All these facets just add to his usefulness.
But in a broader sense, where is Baez best served to play? He has hit mostly near the bottom of the order this season regardless of what position he’d been playing. However, his numbers are outstanding at the plate when he is set at second base in the field.
Most likely the sample size is too small to make any overarching judgment off that piece of data. He has seen fewer than 70 plate appearances as a second baseman. Yet, it is the position he is second-most familiar with, trailing only third base.
Going back one more season, the numbers are reversed. Baez fared far better at the plate while playing third base in the field as opposed to second base. But again, the sample sizes make these figures almost irrelevant. The same goes for his defensive metrics at each position.
Defensive analytics are behind the rest of the stats in baseball anyway, but it’s hard to find a consensus on Baez in the field for the Cubs. The one thing we are sure of is he is a plus-defender at both of those infield spots, perhaps better even than the entrenched options the Cubs usually turn to at second and third respectively. At least Kris Bryant thinks so.
We took the circuitous route to get there, but the best thing for Javier Baez is to be playing at either second base or third base. Either decision slides an All-Star into the outfield, so it will be harder for the club to find him those at-bats once Dexter Fowler returns from the disabled list.
At that point, Baez will go back to playing anywhere he is needed. One of those good problems to have though, no?