Chicago Cubs: Defensive consistency a key for Javier Baez in 2018

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

During the first weekend of Cactus League action, Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez appeared to be in midseason form, flashing the leather.

For the last few years, Javier Baez has won the hearts of Chicago Cubs fans everywhere. With his high-energy, all-out style of play, the young Puerto Rican infielder is quickly becoming one of the rising middle infield stars in the game.

Last season, with Addison Russell sidelined and Ben Zobrist struggling, Baez stepped up in a big way, handling action at both shortstop and second on a regular basis. He also managed to hit north of .270 for the second consecutive year, finishing with a career-high .796 OPS.

2018 has the makings of a big year for Baez, who is looking to cement himself at second base for Chicago. Zobrist has openly acknowledged that he’ll likely embrace a different (bench) role this season – leaving the door open for Baez and Addison Russell to become the guys moving forward.

And, if this past weekend was any indication, the former is certainly up for the challenge.

Ranging to his left deep behind the first base bag, Baez ran down a ball to make an outstanding play on Saturday. We’ve become accustomed to seeing such acrobatic and athletic plays, sure. But to see him pull that out of his bag of tricks in his first spring game? That’s a very positive sign.

"“I just think everything is refreshed, a refreshed approach,” Maddon said. “We’re in a good place mentally, we’re playing with that enthusiasm necessary. We’re capable of that defense. On any given day, if we come out with the right kind of attitude and we’re physically refreshed and mentally refreshed, we can do that."

Baez needs consistency in his game

Offensively, Javier Baez has all the potential in the world. We’ve seen that. He also has the tendency to fall into those stretches that make you scratch your head when he goes 1-for-10 with a home run and seven strikeouts. While everyone is focused on what impact Chili Davis will have on Jason Heyward, he may also push Baez to be more selective at the dish.

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Let’s be honest. An El Mago who learns to lay off sliders in the left-handed batter’s box would be a beautiful thing. But, defensively, his chances to earn his first big league hardware depends on two things: consistency and reps.

Last season, Baez played 73 games at shortstop and 80 at second base. He also saw brief stints at first base, third base and in the outfield. On a near-nightly basis, he was either dropping down lightning-quick tags or getting to balls in the hole you’d have thought impossible to get to.

Metrics less kind to Javy than the eye test

Looking at defensive metrics such as UZR don’t seem to do Baez many favors. He graded out quite well in 2016, ranking as an ‘above-average’ second baseman (5.3 UZR). But last year, that fell to a disappointing 0.6 UZR – placing him as an ‘average’ defender at the position.

Essentially, what UZR and other metrics show is Baez took a step in the wrong direction last year – despite his highlight reel plays. Two years ago, he ranked among the league leaders in defensive WAR, Total Zone Runs (2B) and Total Zone Runs (3B). Last year, he placed among the league leaders in just one category – errors by a shortstop (fourth).

Much the same as it is with his offensive game, Javier Baez desperately needs to find more consistency moving forward. As encapsulating as some of his web gems are, the wild throws or not knowing when it’s better to eat a ball than make a throw can prove costly for the Cubs.

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Sometimes, it’s not about whether or not you think you can make the play – but whether or not the risk outweighs the potential reward. Let’s hope Baez takes that to heart – at least to a degree – in 2018.