Javier Baez emerging on defense for Cubs

Javier Baez has looked comfortable no matter where the Cubs have put him since his recall. Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- By now you’ve seen Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez make plays at three different positions while looking like a whole new hitter from the one we saw a year ago or even in spring training. It’s almost as if the front office acquired a new player on Sept. 1 and now they’re reaping the benefits.

It’s not quite that dramatic, but Baez is turning into a defensive stalwart at a time when pitching and fielding are paramount.

“When I play defense, I just relax and think about how the game is going,” Baez said this week. “I relax a lot on defense.”

He looks the part, making effortless plays at second, third and shortstop. His performance in Pittsburgh had his teammates and manager talking. In one stretch at third base, he made six consecutive outs on balls in play, then the next night he moved over to shortstop and was in the middle of all the action there as well. Even a bad day at the plate isn’t keeping Baez from contributing.

“That’s one thing I learned growing up, you can’t take your at-bats to defense or your defense to your at-bats,” Baez said.

But Baez isn’t having many bad days at the plate. He looks like a completely changed hitter, closing up his stance and taking balls to right field. The result so far is a .298 batting average with an impressive .340 on-base percentage. But it’s Baez’s mindset more than the stat line that has been stellar.

“I’m just trying to keep going with my new approach,” Baez said.

His big swings still are fun to watch, but seeing him roam around the infield is becoming even more interesting. He plays third base like he’s been there a decade though shortstop is still his first love. His decision to throw home in Wednesday night’s game in the eighth inning against the Pirates was a big-time move in a pennant race for a guy who was playing minor league baseball most of this season.

“It was a tough decision,” Baez said. “I knew I had a chance and I went for it.”

The execution was as smooth as every other play he’s made since being recalled as Pedro Florimon was out at home easier than he should have been on the slow chopper. Moments earlier, Baez had dropped a line drive that was moving away from him, potentially setting up the Pirates for a big inning. The quasi-miscue didn’t faze Baez.

“I was really mad,” he said. “It was a hard line drive and it came right to me.”

And here’s another defensive nugget about Baez: He likes playing the outfield, especially center.

“When I was growing up, I learned how to read the ball off the bat and I got really good at it and kept working on it,” Baez said. “I learned in the outfield, center field.”

It just so happens the Cubs’ current center fielder is a free agent and unlikely to return. If the infield is full next season, maybe Baez can find yet another new home.

“There’s no doubt he could do it, but he’s so good in the infield,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s rare to find someone that fields the baseball as well as he does.

“Game in progress I think he can do it. You really want to start him on the dirt if you get the chance though.”

And that’s what Maddon has done at the most important time of the season. Think about Baez’s experience even compared to Kris Bryant and Addison Russell -- yet he’s being trusted as much as they are. And he’s loving the view from here instead of Iowa.

“It’s so much different,” Baez said. “I love to be here. Hopefully we keep playing like this.”