The Cubs will live with the boom-and-bust cycles for Javier Baez, because he can still be a game-changing presence with his swim moves and freakish sense for tagging, whether or not he looks out of control at home plate.
“Not so much,” manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday when asked if Baez is at that point in his career where he has to earn his at-bats. “I’m just trying to balance everything out right now, honestly. I even told him: ‘Go and strike out as often as you need to. Go ahead, I don’t care. I really don’t care.’
“I just want to see him play with that focus and passion. That’s all I want. I totally expect him to strike out. I totally expect him to swing at balls in the dirt and over his head, absolutely.
“I do eventually believe it’s going to go away. But the only way it’s going to go away is if he keeps getting a chance to do that.”
Baez boosted his batting average 66 points (up from .203) during the first two games of this week's series with the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field, drilling his second and third home runs this season and almost hitting for the cycle on Tuesday night.
Baez oozes style, but Maddon also loves the substance to his game. When hitting at the bottom of the lineup, Baez has made first-inning flip drills with assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske part of his routine. Baez also seems to be getting the message from the coaching staff and trying to reduce his leg kick.
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Baez is no longer the all-or-nothing hitter who blasted nine homers and struck out 95 times during his 52-game audition with the Cubs in 2014. But this is also a player who has drawn comparisons to Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton.
In terms of an offensive ceiling, Maddon said, “I don’t think it’s going to be revealed to us for another couple years.
“I think it’s very high, absolutely. You’re still going to see him go through these kinds of moments, up and down. The difference with him is that even during the down moments offensively he can still help you win with his defense and his baserunning.
“So I fully anticipate seeing those offensive swings in a sense — up and down — but the reward’s going to be great. When he really figures it out, the reward is going to show up and it’s going to be outstanding to watch.”
Starting Baez at second base over World Series MVP Ben Zobrist for all 17 playoff games last season is a clear indication of what Maddon is thinking. So is sticking with Baez through a slow start (.601 April OPS) and the Cubs listing him as their second baseman on the All-Star ballot.
“I think everybody knows how good I am,” Baez said. “I don’t have to show anybody anything. I control the things that I can control.
“I’m always going to play with passion and try to do my best out there, whether it’s on defense or on offense.”
The transition from part-time player and age-24 learning curve for Baez is emblematic of a team where leadoff guy Kyle Schwarber, catcher Willson Contreras and center fielder Albert Almora Jr. all own World Series rings but still haven’t completed a full season in The Show yet.
“It just happens everywhere,” Maddon said. “These guys are young and they’re learning on the fly on the major-league level with a lot of scrutiny going on, so just wait a couple years. This guy is going to really show you how good he is.”