When Cubs shortstop Javy Baez was named the National League’s Gold Glove winner at shortstop it rectified years of snubs at both second and short, leaving at least three big related questions to answer — other than what MLB genius thought Election Night made sense for the awards show?
First, what took so long?
This guy has been one of the elite middle infielders in baseball since at least 2015 — a guy so spectacular for so long that when the writers at TheBigs.us tagged him with the nickname "El Mago" it quickly went viral.
Second, can the Cubs afford to sign the best shortstop in the league to an extension beyond 2021 — or, more to the point, can they afford not to?
With all due respect to 2020 first-round pick Ed Howard, he doesn’t figure to be in the majors for maybe three years, and it’s hard to imagine the Cubs can realistically project a player in their system bringing the same skills package to the big leagues to backfill Báez’s quality anytime soon.
And third, will Báez add a tattooed image of the award on his body to go with the MLB logo on his neck, World Series trophy on his arm and countless other images?
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I will somewhere,” he said during Tuesday night’s awards show. “I don’t have much space now.”
It was worth a laugh. But, really, what took so long to recognize the fielding genius he has displayed since he was arguably the Cubs’ best fielder at three — if not all four — infield positions during a 2016 championship season of team-wide web gems (playing at least 25 games at three spots and six at first base)?
“This guy is one of the best defenders in the game,” general manager Jed Hoyer said in 2017. “It’s made harder because he moves around the diamond so much, but in my mind that shouldn’t take away the recognition. This guy’s a Gold Glove player; he should have a Gold Glove.”
Maybe it took that impossible 155-foot throw from left field for an out this year to finally win.
“He’s probably my favorite player to watch,” teammate Jon Lester said.
Maybe that’s part of what took so long: removing the eye test that inexplicably seemed to fail Báez in the process until Tuesday when he became the third Cubs shortstop to win the award and first since Don Kessinger in 1970.
For the first time in the history of the Gold Glove awards, this year’s awards were determined entirely by statistical metrics: the SABR Defensive Index (SDI) that took into account such things as defensive runs saved and range analytics.
In fact, human error might have cost Báez a shot at the award in 2017 when 36-year-old Ben Zobrist — who made only 65 starts at second base strangely (even to Cubs insiders) — suddenly was a first-time Gold Glove finalist at second after a career as a versatile, solid defender.
Zobrist was the first one to tell anyone who asked how much better at second Báez was. But Báez, who made 56 starts at second that year because he was needed for 73 at short for the injured Addison Russell, got no mention in the Gold Glove nominee process — leading some to suggest voters might have cast votes for the Cubs player listed at the position without looking closely enough to know that it wasn’t Báez.
In January a new metric declared he was the best defensive infielder in either league. And yet he still had not so much as made a finalist list for an NL Gold Glove until this strange, short season.
But by the time Báez got to spring training this year, his answer to the annual question about his annual Gold Glove goal had dimmed significantly.
“It’s whatever now,” he said. “I’m just going to try my best, and if I’m one of the top three, fine. What can I do? I’m over it.”
That was a far cry from his vow each spring before that to try to win one — but just as far a cry from the excitement he showed Tuesday in winning the award this year that his decorated World Baseball Classic teammates from Puerto Rico, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa, did not.
“Obviously, I’m trying to get better every day, trying to keep working, trying to get the ball hit to me every time the ball is hit,” said Báez, who added that he hopes the voting (by coaches and managers) element of the process is back next year.
Either way, Tuesday night was just the latest reminder of why the Cubs engaged in extension talks with the 2018 MVP runner-up last winter — just one more reminder that he’s the most difficult player on a talented roster to replace.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for his pure baseball intelligence,” team president Theo Epstein said during that near-MVP season. “He sees the game so well. His innate sense of timing and anticipation is really unrivaled. He’s someone you don’t take your eyes off on the field, which makes him unique. Those guys don’t come around very often,”
And Báez doesn’t turn 28 until next month — with who knows how many more diving stops, lightning, blind tags and 155-foot throws yet to come.
Never mind how many more Gold Gloves might be yet to come — or how much body canvas he needs to reserve for the occasions.
“I hope so, man,” he said with a smile.