CHICAGO — Cubs rising star Javier Baez has made it clear that he isn’t changing his style. From the big swings to the flair he shows in the field and on the basepath, it’s simply how he goes about his business.
He doesn’t care how it’s perceived.
“People that talk about me can save it,” Baez said last week in response to criticism.
You can add his teammates to that sentiment. What some — such as Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle — think is over the top, others find entertaining. Baseball is a sport, but like all sports, it’s also an entertainment vehicle. Right now, Baez is a one-man show.
“It’s just fun to watch him play baseball,” teammate Kyle Schwarber said. “He always has so much fun out there. It doesn’t matter if he’s 0-for-20 or 20-for-20 or has four homers in two games or whatever. … I get wowed by him all the time. It’s great to have him on our side because he plays with joy.”
That joy usually comes from Baez doing something spectacular, such as scoring from first on a ball that squeaked through the infield or making an acrobatic play at second base or even a simple tag play. Then there are the big swings — or rather, BIG swings. Contact or not, they draw oohs and ahhs from the crowd, as well as those in the dugouts.
“He’s not going to get cheated,” Kris Bryant said. “Some people might think that makes you easier to pitch to, but you saw the other day, he took a bad swing at a curveball in the dirt, then gets another curveball, and he puts it over the fence. That doesn’t happen with a normal baseball player. It makes a pitcher think. He’s super-talented and only getting better.”
In the span of two days last week against the Pirates, Baez displayed his incredible instincts and flair for the game — and wreaked havoc in the process. There were the four home runs, a few pats of his own back, a bat flip on a popup and at least one time when he pointed at a fly pop on defense — just for the fun of it — as he settled underneath it.
“The other day he’s pointing at a popup,” Schwarber said. “I’m on the bench just dying laughing.”
Baez’s bat flip on an out was less of a laughing matter, and it led to Hurdle’s criticism and a talk from teammate Pedro Strop. OK, once in a while Baez will go over the line. So what? Isn’t it worth the laughs and entertainment?
“He laughs at himself all the time,” Bryant said. “He has a tremendous amount of joy playing the game. He gets it. It’s so nice to see.”
With Hurdle upset by the errant bat flip, you wonder if he noticed what else Baez and other Cubs were doing at times after they reached base or hit a home run: patting themselves on the back. It’s their latest thing.
“During that snow-out [on Opening Day], the hitters were talking and [hitting coach] Chili [Davis] brought it up,” Bryant said. “When you do something good, you should enjoy it for a little bit.”
Telling Baez to enjoy himself after he does something well is like opening the door to the henhouse for the fox. There Baez was — on four occasions — patting himself on the back after he hit two home runs in consecutive games.
“We beat ourselves up so much in this game. Go ahead and recognize when you executed your plan,” Ben Zobrist said. “For that moment, and then move on.”
If the 37-year-old Zobrist is OK with a pat on the back, then everyone should be. Then again, Zobrist has played for Joe Maddon for many years. Allowing players the freedom to express themselves — within limits, of course — is a Maddon staple. The oldest manager in the game has never had a problem with the way Baez plays, right down to his big swings.
“He plays the game with joy,” Maddon said during spring training. “Sometimes he needs to cut down on those swings, but what makes him susceptible to the strikeout also makes him dangerous.”
In fact, teammates believe that Baez has more of a plan than he lets on. Perhaps this is the year it’ll work more than it fails.
“He has an approach up there and knows what he wants to do,” Bryant said. “Sometimes you take a stupid swing or hack that you know is ridiculous to bait the pitcher into throwing something. I don’t know if that’s what he’s doing, but it sure seems like that.”
OK, maybe not everything Baez does at the plate is planned out. He is hitting only .191, but for such a free swinger he has hit no less than .273 the previous three seasons. He has been a solid 3 WAR player the past two seasons, and most don’t think he has reached his peak.
But that isn’t what his teammates care about. They love Baez’s passion as much as his production.
“Certain guys play the game a certain way, and that’s how he plays the game,” Bryant said. “He goes all-out in the field and at the plate. I love it.”
Said Schwarber: “When he falls over and stuff on a swing? It’s Javy being Javy. We love him for it and wouldn’t want him to change — ever.”