Without doubt, surprise is the defining attribute of Javy Baez’s game. Stealing home on a sleeping defense. Amazing critics by swinging at – and connecting on – pitches few others would offer at. Wowing onlookers with his superior bat speed, flash tags, and highlight-reel flair.
Baez produced the biggest surprise of his career yet by last year turning in a runner-up MVP season. And he did it by – surprise – changing absolutely nothing.
Consider all those years the Cubs spent encouraging him to work deeper counts and take more walks. There were endless recommendations to remove the prodigious swing-and-miss in his plate approach. For three seasons, Joe Maddon used playing time to incentivize more consistent defensive fundamentals.
After 2017, the Cubs even investigated trading Baez for young pitching but couldn’t get the right package back. So for 2018, they committed to him as their everyday second baseman. With a 27 percent leap in playing time, he achieved the highest OPS of his major league career (.881), and did so with his walk-rate actually dropping (4.5 percent) and his K-rate staying over 25 percent.
I’ll admit to being as amazed as anyone that Baez could make such a huge leap without any great adjustments. When pitchers put balls in his hitting zone, he just squared up more of them and hit them harder than ever before. This resulted in him finishing with a top 10 NL BABIP (.347, 8th) for the first time. His average exit velocity rose from the 35th percentile in the majors to the 67th, and more impressive than his first 30-homer season, he also jumped to 40 doubles and nine triples (from 24 and two).
With the cat now out of the bag, Javy’s big challenge for 2019 is no longer to surprise the league. It’s to repeat his 2018 now that everyone expects the unexpected from him. This might seem simple at surface level, but it’s no mean feat given how important the element of surprise is to Baez’s game and motivation.
For example, he proudly surprised the baseball world in the 2016 NL playoffs with his flashy, big-stage defense and an .891 OPS in the first two rounds. He even looked more controlled at the plate, posting a 19.5 percent K-rate en route to being named NLCS co-MVP. But come the World Series with everyone expecting a replay, he slid down to a .433 OPS with a 43 percent K-rate and two nearly critical errors in Game 7.
Then on defense, whether playing second base or shortstop, Baez’s success rate on very difficult plays has always been higher than league norm. On more routine plays, however, he’s more average or even below average. That’s because when a chance exists to wow a stadium with something unexpected, he really focuses and bears down.
And consider that throughout last season, national observers regularly minimized his MVP chances. They regularly showered more attention on Christian Yelich, Freddie Freeman, Nolan Arenado, Matt Carpenter, and even Jacob deGrom. In many pieces (like this one from ESPN last August), Baez would often received but a passing mention. By September, this changed as the field clearly narrowed to just Baez and Yelich. But with expectations high for a strong finish by both players, Yelich excelled and Baez faded.
This is not to say Baez choked at the end of last year, but he has admitted that he could have better managed the additional pressure. In many ways, his September provided a preview of what most of 2019 will be for him. Fans and media will still love the highlight-reel plays, but his chances to truly surprise the league will greatly diminish.
So what is the most surprising thing Baez can do in 2019? Duplicating his outstanding 2018 performance when everyone is expecting it.