With the regular season at hand, it’s time to see who brings more value to the Chicago Cubs; Ben Zobrist or Javier Baez
After setting the world ablaze in the NLCS last year, Chicago Cubs utility man Javier Baez is looking for more playing time in 2017. Yes, Baez appeared in 142 games for the Cubs in 2016, but he only received 421 at-bats. Compare that to second baseman Ben Zobrist who played in 147 games, but received 523 at-bats and it becomes clear that there is more playing time for Baez to earn.
There is just one problem with the prospect of Baez earning more playing time; Zobrist is in his way. This has sparked some debate as to whether Baez will oust Zobrist from his primary position and make him play somewhere in the outfield, or if Baez will cause a decrease in Zobrist’s playing time.
Baez and Zobrist had similar seasons in 2016 despite Baez’s disadvantages in the at-bats department. There are some factors, however, that could cause one to lean toward Baez when deciding between the two.
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With that in mind, let’s dive in.
Let’s start with the most important thing, defense. Both Zobrist and Baez played multiple positions in 2016, but Baez was the better defender. Between shortstop, second base, and third base, Baez saved a total of 16 runs. At second base alone, Baez saved 11 runs defensively in 221 chances. Zobrist, on the other hand, cost the Cubs three runs defensively at second base in 434 total chances.
Even though Zobrist had almost double the chances at second base, a difference of 14 runs saved between the two is not something to dismiss.
In 2016, Zobrist played at four positions other than second base. At two of those positions (left field and right field), he logged sufficient innings. At both of those positions in 2016, Zobrist failed to save the Cubs a single run defensively despite logging over 250 innings in the outfield.
Baez also played four positions other than second base in 2016. In 194 innings at shortstop, Baez saved the Cubs four runs defensively as well as one run defensively at third base (370.2 total innings).
This shows that even though Zobrist is an average defender when he is not playing second base, Baez can be a slightly above average defender away from second base.
Now for the part that most people care about, offense. It’s not hard to determine that Zobrist has an advantage over Javier Baez in this category. Zobrist has a career .358 OBP and recorded a .386 mark in 2016. Baez, on the other hand, owns a career .289 OBP and recorded a .314 mark last season. The advantage that Zobrist has on Baez is experience. Zobrist is an 11-year veteran that has recorded two seasons with an eight-plus WAR. Baez has all of 710 at-bats under his belt, with 2016 being the first time he played in more than 52 games in a season.
Another advantage that Zobrist has on Baez is the fact that Zobrist is a switch-hitter. In 2016, as a right-handed batter, Zobrist slashed .301/.401/.455. Of course, Javier Baez is not a switch-hitter and has only logged at-bats from the right side. Baez put up a solid year in 2016 as he slashed .273/.314/.423. Even better than those numbers, were the numbers Baez put up against left-handed pitching. In 122 at-bats against southpaws, Baez hit .311 with a .375 OBP and .475 slugging percentage.
In 21 fewer at-bats against left-handed pitchers in 2016, Baez had 10 more RBI’s and the same amount of home runs as Zobrist.
Against right-handed pitchers is where Zobrist stands out from Baez. Zobrist slashed .261/.380/.442 in 380 at-bats against righties. Compare that to Baez’s .258/.288/.401 slash in 299 at-bats against right-handers and you can see that Zobrist had the better season.
Overall, Zobrist still has the upper hand in the offensive category. Baez is not far behind, and if he can keep working on getting his strikeout rate down (25.6% in 2016), the 24-year-old could eclipse the veteran.
Age and Contract Status:
Baez just turned 24 years old in December while Zobrist will turn 36 in May. At the age of 36, the idea of retirement starts to creep into the minds of players. Zobrist does not seem to be going anywhere after having a bounce back year in 2016, following a 2015 season that saw him play in just 126 games and post a 1.9 WAR. Combine that with the fact that Zobrist is under contract through the 2019 season, and it seems that he will be a Chicago Cub for at least three more seasons.
Baez is entering his last season of pre-arbitration eligibility and will be under team control for the foreseeable future.
For now, the idea that Javier Baez could take the starting second base job away from Ben Zobrist is crazy. Manager Joe Maddon (who has been Zobrist’s manager for much of his career), will go with the switch-hitting veteran over the strikeout prone spark plug.
Even though Baez will not be able to wrangle the starting job from Zobrist in 2017, Baez will see a good portion of action at second base this season. That is due to the fact that Zobrist may need to play in the outfield more since Dexter Fowler departed for St. Louis. While Fowler departing was a blow to the Cubs, the idea that Zobrist and Baez could be in the line-up at the same time is an interesting thought.
Zobrist’s job is safe, for now. Baez will play some second base this year, but Zobrist will be in the line-up at the same time, not on the bench.
As Zobrist gets older and Baez gains experience, don’t be surprised if Baez takes some playing time from Zobrist. That will more than likely not happen in 2017 as both players look to build off solid seasons.