Cubs see self-awareness as key to Javier Baez's development


Cubs see self-awareness as key to Javier Baez's development

MESA, Ariz. — Javier Baez is on a different developmental curve than his fellow former-top-prospect teammates, as the Cubs look at their 2011 first-round pick as a regular backup. The upshot of that utility role not only is getting inconsistent at-bats, but also playing different positions. 

Those day-to-day positional changes were on display Monday and Tuesday this week, when Baez started in center field and at shortstop on back-to-back days. He made a fine play ranging to his right Tuesday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, quickly setting his feet and firing a strike to retire Yasiel Puig. But he also committed a throwing error trying to turn a double play too quickly, a mistake manager Joe Maddon said was largely mental. 

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Baez is still young, both in terms of age (he’s 23 years old) and experience (he’s played in 80 major league games). The mistakes will happen, but unlike Addison Russell, Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber, there may not be an opportunity for Baez to work through them in the next day’s game. 

“Of course you would like to put a young man like that in a position where he can play and make mistakes,” Maddon said, “and a lot of times that would be with a team that’s probably going to be relegated to the second division.”

This is a Cubs team that, on paper, doesn’t have many holes. Russell and Bryant are locked in at shortstop and third base, while $56 million offseason signing Ben Zobrist will settle in at second base. An outfield consisting of Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber looks difficult to crack. 

Still, Baez will have an opportunity to carve out at-bats and innings for himself. That’s what Zobrist did under Maddon with the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, playing every position but pitcher and catcher and slugging 12 home runs with a .844 OPS in just 62 games. 

Where Maddon wants to see Baez improve is in his ability to understand himself and why he’s either succeeding or failing on a play-to-play, at-bat-to-at-bat, game-to-game basis. 

“Not playing every day is going to lead into that also, where you really have to be more self-aware,” Maddon said. “If you’re playing every day, you can have more at-bats, you can make your adjustments. When you’re not playing as consistently, I think self-awareness is being a big part of being able to do well in that role.”

Baez, to his credit, was up front about the mistakes he made Tuesday against the Dodgers. He admitted he was “just trying to crush the ball” when he struck out in his first at-bat against Clayton Kershaw, and said he should’ve set his feet on the errant throw he made in the fifth inning. In the bottom half of the fifth, Baez hit a ground ball down the third base line he thought was foul — it was ruled fair — and didn’t run to first base. 

“There’s no excuses to not run out the ground ball,” Baez said. 

[MORE: Cubs hoping Jason Hammel can find his groove in 2016]

That’s the kind of self-awareness Maddon expects Baez to have as he enters a 2016 season staring down sporadic playing time. There will be opportunities for him to make an impact on a team that’s dreaming big, provided he takes the right mental approach. 

“When I do the good things, you want people to know when you did it,” Baez said. “But when you’re wrong, you gotta assess what you did wrong and just fix it.”

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?


2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.