You Paint From Nature, Not the Statue
In The Who’s “Too Much of Anything,” dropped from 1971’s Who’s Next, Roger Daltrey sings, “I’ve overloaded on my way… Think your ears hear a whole lot of music, and like me they’ve caught a bit too much.” He seems to be describing the act of listening to postseason broadcasters fawn on Cubs infielder Javier Baez. His reaction is appropriate: “Bye-bye, bye, bye, you better keep in touch.”
Back-to-back shutouts by the Dodgers, in which Baez has gone 1-for-7 (albeit with one very loud out against Clayton Kershaw that, hit a little to the left or right, could have changed the outcome of a 1-0 game), might have taken a little of the luster off the A Star is Born narrative that TBS or the Global Baseball Conspiracy or (possibly!) Baez’s 6-for-16 in the NLDS round, accompanied throughout by fine fielding, base-running, and a contagious enthusiasm has prompted. We can concede that even in this cynical world not everything is manufactured, but in Baez’s case, the adulation is probably misguided and, for a team now emerging from years of darkness, a little bit dangerous.
Whenever we see anyone who’s good in select appearances, we reflexively clamor for more. This is madness; it leads to those 1978 KISS solo albums. In the 1970s, an actor named McLean Stevenson was part of the original cast of the hit comedy M*A*S*H. Stevenson wasn’t the star, but a member of the ensemble, funny in his role, which on average probably took up about five minutes a show. Between 1976 and 1980 he got three shots at headlining a sitcom of his own—The McLean Stevenson Show, In the Beginning, and Hello, Larry—and they all bombed. Flash forward a couple of decades and you had the same problem with Seinfeld alumni: Maybe just a few minutes a week of Jason Alexander and Michael Richards is all anyone needed.
Clearly, Baez is a defensive standout. It’s equally clear that he’s the rare player who progresses from a dire start. An over-aggressive mess at the plate two years ago when he came up following a .282/.341/.578 season with 37 home runs spent between High- and Double-A, he has cut his strikeout percentage from 42 percent then to 24 percent this year. He’s still very young at 23 and he might yet find greater consistency at the plate, though he has a long, long way to go before he has anything you might call “discipline.”
Until then, he’s still offensively limited: Against his fellow right-handers this year, he hit just .258/.288/.401, walking just four times against 83 strikeouts. If Baez can maintain both his excellent defense and strong production against southpaws (.311/.375/.475) that’s a player worth playing. It’s also a player worth holding back sometimes, as Joe Maddon wisely did, giving the kid 96 starts out of 142 appearances.
Right now, Baez resembles no player so much as a Cub predecessor of the 1990s, Jose Hernandez. Hernandez, who first came up with the Texas Rangers in 1991, played 15 years in the majors, hitting .252/.312/.418. On a 162-game basis he was good for 17 home runs, 35 unintentional walks, and 142 strikeouts. He was a valuable role player, and he even made an All-Star team as a member of the Brewers, but he wasn’t someone you clamored to see starting. A right-handed hitter like Baez, he had the same kind of platoon issues, hitting .264/.323/.485 against left-handers and a depressing .247/.307/.388 against same-side pitching. If that is the sort of thing you like, said Abraham Lincoln, then you will like this sort of thing.
Now, Hernandez didn’t have Baez’s kind of speed, his flash, his panache. Every player is different, and resemblance isn’t destiny, it’s just resemblance. Hell, you can look like George Clooney and still spend your life in the sewer. (I wouldn’t know; I’ve only heard.) What’s more, Hernandez seems like the low upside for Baez. The high upside might be Alfonso Soriano but with excellent defense. That would be a star, and it’s worth chasing, at least for a while.
Still, the irony is that fans (or broadcasters) who would see the Cubs continue to prosper in coming seasons are pushing in the wrong direction when they exalt Baez. The Cubs are one of only 16 teams to win 100 or more games this century and the first team in franchise history to get there since the 1935 edition completed a mad dash through September that included winning 21 consecutive games.
The reasons the 2016 Cubs did this are many, but not least of them was the team’s incredible depth. Maddon and the team’s braintrust understand as well as anyone in baseball that the secret to consistency is staying above the replacement level at each position by any means possible. They were able to achieve this despite injuries because of depth: If Kyle Schwarber went down, than they had Jorge Soler, and if Soler was hurt they could turn to Willson Contreras, who was also a solution at catcher when Miguel Montero didn’t perform, and so on. The positional flexibility of Ben Zobrist and Baez was also key to never or rarely having to play some Triple-A journeyman or non-prospect who was only in the majors out of desperation.
Whether the Cubs win or lose the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers, you hear things will be different next year. Schwarber will be back and he’ll play if he can still get around left field after his knee injury. Soler may also get another chance to prove he’s a regular. Dexter Fowler might depart (a mutual option would have to be triggered from him to forego free agency), making room for prospect Albert Almora. Alternatively, Fowler’s departure might mean more Zobrist in the outfield corners and Jason Heyward shifted to center field, which would clear second base to be manned by Baez on a daily basis.
Hey, these guys know what they’re doing. Whatever they decide, there’s a good chance it will work. The Cubs also have more prospects coming, and the best of them, Ian Happ, is being tested both in the outfield and at second base. The switch-hitter will fit right into Maddon’s schemes when he arrives, perhaps towards the end of next season. This is a team with a wonderful number of dangerous choices ahead of it.
Things have to change; complacency is the death of a team, no matter how good. The balance the Cubs must strike in the coming season is to maneuver between graduating part-timers to regular status as older players disappoint or age out and subtracting from the versatility and talent of their bench. It will be easier for those on the outside looking in to understand those decisions if they look at Baez as what he is, a work in progress with some notable cracks in his foundation, rather than the latest marble man to be raised up based on a small sample and a flashy October highlight reel.