With the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at second in a 4-3 game, playoff hero Javier Baez stood at the plate for the Chicago Cubs in the bottom of the 8th inning against the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday. Swinging and missing at back-to-back sliders that didn’t even start in the zone before swinging through a 95 mph fastball over the plate, he looked more like the no-approach Baez that had some worried about his boom-or-bust nature.
He’s looked like that all season, coming off a postseason where his beautiful defense seemed to change the entire outlook of Baez as an overall player.
Which is why Baez’s slow start isn’t a bad thing for him — or the Cubs.
The glove-work of an entire postseason and the offensive performance of about five games turned Baez from a super-utility player in every meaning of the position to someone who just had to play every day. How could they keep his glove out of the everyday infield?
Well, so far we’re seeing how.
The sample size is small, but his strikeout percentage is 30.2 and his approach shows it’s no accident. It can’t be brushed off as SSS or a bad stretch when it looks so similar to the concerning at-bats he had early in his career, when the scouting report simply said “don’t throw a strike.”
As said here before, his playoff performance was a little skewed by a few standout games. If you take away the NLDS against the Giants and Game 1 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, Baez hit 10-for-52 with 17 strikeouts, 3 extra-base hits and 1 walk. That’s a .192 batting average. That’s 13 strikeouts in the World Series. That’s not good.
Baez’s numbers on April 19 aren’t worth panicking over, just like the Cubs’ 8-7 record isn’t either. The Cubs don’t have to make any panic moves with Baez, but there are simple adjustments that can help him and the team at the same time.
It starts with starting Albert Almora on a regular basis. With the way Baez is approaching at-bats, the Cubs are at their best with Almora in center field, Jason Heyward in right field and Ben Zobrist at second base. Zobrist is off to a slow start, too, but he has a proven track record of success that Baez doesn’t have, so it’s easier to believe this is a slow start and not a fundamental problem.
Almora’s had more limited appearances this season, but his glove is about as good as anyone’s in the outfield and his approach is much more sound at the plate. Baez doesn’t need to have a Zobrist- or Almora-like approach at the plate, but it has to be better, and so do the results. Both look good for Almora right now.
That doesn’t mean Baez needs to be benched and relegated to hidden batting cage work. He should move back to what made him successful last season, which was playing often around the diamond, spelling the ‘starters’ and playing in more favorable matchups.
Being grounded after October’s high and getting back on his development track isn’t a bad thing for Baez. He’s still only 24 and his potential is still as high. It’s better for him that it happens in April, and a lesser role now could mean better results later — for both Baez and the Cubs.