CHICAGO -- Javier Baez was at it again on Saturday.
Game 1 of the NLCS, as big a stage as he has ever been on, and there he was in the third inning diving into second base for a pop-fly double, driving in a run. Going to third on a wild pitch. Then stealing home, the Chicago Cubs’ first playoff steal of home in 109 years. The Wrigley Field fans erupted in their latest favorite chant: “Javy! Javy! Javy!”
With Baez, the throttle is always on full. Whether he’s adding another clip to his highlight reel of defensive impossibilities, or diving into first base, or hitting a ball onto Waveland Avenue, you can’t take your eyes off him. Anything can happen at any time. The Cubs’ breakout star might just be the most exciting player in baseball.
That’s no surprise to those who have watched Baez all season, but now that he has entrenched himself as Joe Maddon’s playoff second baseman, the nation has taken notice. Baez has been the most-discussed player on the Cubs over the past week -- as well as the best.
That’s saying something for a player with media-magnet teammates such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta. Baez has arrived as the man of the moment, and not just any moment. October 2016 is shaping up as the most historic in the history of this 141-year-old franchise.
Welcome to the party, folks. Because Javier Baez has been doing this all season. On the field, he’s a delicate balance of grace and violence, of daring and persistence.
“I’ve got a job to do,” Baez said. “But really, I’m not surprised. I know what I can do. I know what this team can do. I’m just having fun right now.”
To call him baseball’s most exciting player is, of course, all kinds of subjective. It’s a declarative statement about something unquantifiable. And it depends entirely on what floats your boat. Like massive home runs? Giancarlo Stanton is your guy. Like fearless base thieves? You’ve got Billy Hamilton. Like 'em short? Then you’re all about Jose Altuve.
The thing about Baez is that his all-out style manifests itself in so many ways. Not all of them good, either.
Burning up the basepaths
Baez takes so many chances that if we kept a leaderboard of baserunning oddities, he would almost certainly rank near the top. Does anyone dive into first more frequently? Or third? Or home? Since Baez is always trying to take the extra base, he’s always diving into something.
“Javy is such a great baseball guy that sometimes you just want to explain that maybe 110 percent isn't good in this situation,” veteran catcher David Ross said. “We're down three, I don't need you to try to take the extra base right now. Little things like that is just teaching the game, and that's what I try to explain -- these things -- without being the old grumpy guy who always complains to these guys.”
Baez does listen, but sometimes he just can’t help himself. He was thrown out on the bases nine times during the season, according to baseball-reference.com, ranking 16th in baseball despite his quasi-regular status. He also gained 16 extra bases on those forays.
It’s not a great tradeoff, to be honest, but it’s always fun to watch. Still, Baez scored just 28 percent of the time he got on base this season, a couple of ticks below the big league average.
“With him, he's had a couple really good [mistakes] this year, and we have talked about them,” Maddon said. “But the beautiful part about him is he is very accountable and he listens. And it may not happen the next time out, or he still might make the same mistake. But he's definitely open. And I love that about him.”
Danger at the dish
Baez has always been an explosive hitter capable of hitting any mistake well into the bleachers. But he’s also prone to waving aggressively at pitches he couldn’t have reached with a broomstick. This season, he struck out 108 times and walked just 15, numbers that former free-swinging Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston would have nodded at approvingly.
He’s getting better, though, having cut down on the use of a leg kick that used to get him out of whack. He’s also becoming more stubborn about maintaining his approach. That paid off in Game 1 of the NLDS. After a quality early-game at-bat against Giants starter Johnny Cueto, Baez touched him up for a solo homer in the eighth for what turned out to be the only run of the contest.
“I’ve been going to the plate with a plan, with an approach,” Baez said. “For me, slowing the game down is going there with a plan and staying with it the whole AB. Sometimes I get a little big after a pitch and lose my plan, and that’s when I get into trouble.”
When Baez gets long-ball crazy, he can go into deep offensive funks. But he’s always a threat, always capable of laying into one with the power of a middle-of-the-order hitter. Maddon says that if and when Baez becomes an everyday player, he’ll reach 20 homers. And when you find out which player Baez idolized growing up, you might have a better understanding of why he might be enamored of the home run ball.
“Manny Ramirez,” a smiling Baez said. “I think was he one of the greatest hitters in baseball. When I met him and talked to him, I was a bigger fan than anybody.”
And of course, there’s the defense
Watching a highlight reel of Baez playing defense is like watching a player who is being paid simply to provide fodder for SportsCenter video editors. He does it all, and he does it at multiple positions.
At third base, he might charge on a swinging bunt and barehand the ball before throwing a missile to first.
At shortstop, he might go back on a Texas Leaguer dropping near the third-base line and snatch it over his shoulder like he’s Odell Beckham.
“I think a lot when I’m playing defense,” Baez said. “I really like it. I read the ball really good off the bat. Before the ball is hit, I think about different plays that may come to me. I’m ready for it."
At second, he’s a virtuoso, sometimes with the glove toss, sometimes with hands so quick that he may be the first player ever to gain fame for his ability to tag people out. He has even raced over to cover first when Anthony Rizzo goes too far off the bag to field a ball in the hole.
“He’s just exceptional, man,” Ben Zobrist said. “He’s got such a knack for the ball and the timing of the runner. Everything is so quick and athletic at the same time. There are few guys in the league who are as athletic and quick and dazzling as he really is in the field.”
It’s not all just the sweet stuff, either. Baez’s versatility and ability to produce at so many positions is part of what made the Cubs the most positionally pliable team in the major leagues. His 16 defensive runs saved ranked 16th in the majors this season.
There’s some downside here
There are a lot of reasons why everyone is so taken with Baez. He plays hard. He smiles a lot, and not just on the field. He has a touching backstory, having overcome the death of his father in an accident 12 years ago and his sister more recently to spina bifida. He has a knack for the dramatic. And let’s face it: Unfettered aggression is fun to watch.
It can also be problematic. All that diving comes with a price, and Baez can often be seen shaking off a knick after a close play at home, or even at first base, where you’re not supposed to dive in the first place. He stands close to the plate when batting, and as a result he was hit by 11 pitches during the season, with a tendency to take pitches off his hands. As his career progresses, the rambunctiousness could exact a physical toll.
There’s one more odd consequence to Baez’s style: He creates so many bang-bang plays both in the field and on the basepaths that he has become the Babe Ruth of instant replay -- a kind of human filibuster. And he knows it.
“Yes, yes, I’ve said it!” Baez said. “I think I’m the one in the most replays this season. I’ve just been in so many close plays this season, it’s incredible. Every time now I’m on the replay, I feel embarrassed.”
It’s hard to parse from replay data, such as that at baseballsavant.com, but Baez clearly ranks high on the replay list. In terms of all players mentioned in the database, Baez ranks seventh with 28 mentions. And again, that’s despite not being a full-time player.
But you know what? That’s not such a bad thing. All those replays only give us a chance to watch maybe the most exciting player in baseball that much more often.
“Just give him another couple, three years, and the potential of this guy is really through the roof,” Maddon said. “In every component of the game.”