According to Javy Baez, Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

According to Javy Baez, Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over and over again, it’s always been framed in relatively vague terms. Perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager who is still well-liked within the clubhouse, specifics were always avoided. It was just a change that was needed.

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why such a talented team has fallen short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” Baez said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Related: What to love, and hate, about the Cubs heading into 2020

The star shortstop's comments certainly track. Joe Maddon is widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that's clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality... until it isn't. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact, but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players eased off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” Baez said. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first four innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch. 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also promised that this year would be far more organized and rigid. The Cubs will stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that may have slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only saying that negotiations were “up and down.” He’d like to play his whole career here and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is on recapturing some of that 2016 drive and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself.

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In wake of Astros cheating scandal, Cubs proud they've won the right way

In wake of Astros cheating scandal, Cubs proud they've won the right way

The Cubs and Astros often are compared as franchises that rebuilt from the ground up before winning historic World Series titles. The Cubs snapped their 108-year championship drought in 2016, whereas the Astros won their first ever title a year later.

Both clubs reached baseball’s mountaintop behind young, talented position players — Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo; George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa — and acquired an ace, veteran starting pitcher — Jon Lester; Justin Verlander — to help cook up the right recipe for winning.

Only now, Houston’s success has been tainted by their cheating scandal; the Astros used a camera located in center field at home games during the 2017 season to steal opposing teams’ signs. 

The scandal resulted in the Astros firing general manager Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch — who both received year-long suspensions from MLB beforehand. The Red Sox and manager Alex Cora — Houston’s bench coach in 2017 — have parted ways, as have the Mets and manager Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017. 

While other clubs are in a whirlwind, the Cubs have made one thing 100 percent clear: they play the game the right way.

“We’re really clear about what the rules are. They’re posted for everybody. We talk every spring training about playing with integrity and expecting our players to play fair,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday at Cubs Convention. “And they’ve done a great job of that. I was proud of Anthony Rizzo when he said yesterday that he can say with 100 percent certainty that we play within the rules. And I echo those thoughts, I know that.” 

New layers in the Astros scandal unearth seemingly by the day. Thursday, videos and images surfaced on Twitter possibly showing Houston players wearing wired buzzers under their jerseys. MLB said they found no such evidence in their investigation, however.

Sign-stealing in baseball is as old as the game itself but using technology to do so is problematic, as it goes from looking for a competitive advantage to downright cheating. Houston not only stole signs, but they did so in a way where their hitters knew the exact pitch coming their way.

“It’s unfortunate. It’s definitely surprising too,” Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber said Friday. “For me personally, this is the only organization I’ve been in and the way we go about our business is pretty straightforward, cut through. We go with the rules, we go out there and play baseball.

“To hear this is definitely upsetting. I can’t imagine how some of the teams feel that played them in that playoff series, knowing that this is a real thing and knowing that it was an advantage. For that to happen, it’s a shame.”

For the Cubs, their hubris is so strong they don’t feel the need to steal signs, according to right fielder Jason Heyward.

“Even when [former hitting coach] Chili Davis got to our team, he kind of mentioned to us about how teams in Boston,” Heyward said, “how they got together — and this is no pun intended on what just happened with the manager — but he would just say ‘Hey guys, just pay attention. If you’re on second base, look in and see if we can find a way to get a little bit of an edge late in the game.’

“We were all kind of like to ourselves ‘Well, we don’t really do that here. We never really needed it.’ That’s not being cocky or anything, but we never really needed it.”

“I got nothing against any team or any players, but I think we should play the game right and let your talent the competition decide who’s the best,” shortstop Javier Báez said. 

The Cubs maintain they’ve been playing the game the right way, and they’re extremely proud of that. This current era of Cubs baseball has netted four postseason appearances in five seasons, three trips to the NLCS and that one famous championship.

“Definitely feels good, the ways we did it, especially stepping on top in ’16,” Schwarber said. “I think it’s a better satisfying taste too, now that you can look back on it. I think it’s a little thing that you can say you’re proud of. 

“You hear people back in the steroid era say that they’re proud they didn’t take part in that. I think we can say the same thing too.”

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Javy Baez is the top defensive infielder in the game

Javy Baez is the top defensive infielder in the game

By one metric, Javy Baez is the top defensive infielder in Major League Baseball.

Yet somehow, he wasn't even a Top 3 finalist for the National League Gold Glove Award at shortstop.

Infield Outs Above Average is a new metric by Statcast released Wednesday to measure the overall impact of an infielder. If the OAA stat seems familiar, it's because it has been around as a way to evaluate MLB outfielders over the last couple seasons.

By this new stat, Baez is the top defensive infielder in the game, coming in with a +19 OAA. That makes him a bit better than Nolan Arenado. The entire Top 10 list is as follows:

Baez: +19
Arenado: +17
Andrelton Simmons: +16
Nick Ahmed: +16
Trevor Story: +15
Matt Chapman: +14
Paul DeJong: +13
Matt Olson: +12
Jose Iglesias: +12
Freddy Galvis: +12

Ahmed won the NL Gold Glove for shortstop, with DeJong and Story coming in behind him. All three players find themselves on this list, so they were all worthy candidates, but Baez was robbed of inclusion as a Gold Glove finalist.

For more on infield OAA, read Mike Petriello's fantastic write-up at MLB.com, but essentially it boils down to how many batted balls Baez turned into outs — including on plays he should not have made. That means either by virtue of his exceptional range, arm strength or break on the ball. The metric also takes into account the baserunner's speed on a given play or where the defender was located in the field, so it factors in all the outs Baez has converted from the outfield grass, either on the left or right side of the infield while serving as the rover on shifts for the Cubs.

At the end of the day, this is just a fancy number to confirm what Cubs fans saw with their eyes all 2019: Baez is an elite defensive shortstop and one of the most exciting players in the game even when he's not in the batter's box or on the basepaths. 

As for the rest of the Cubs infielders, here's how the list looks in OAA:

Addison Russell: +5
David Bote: +3
Kris Bryant: +2
Anthony Rizzo: -3
Daniel Descalso: -4

As a whole, the Cubs had the fifth-best infield OAA in baseball (+20), but that was obviously buoyed by Baez's contributions. The St. Louis Cardinals ranked first in baseball (+42 OAA), with the Rockies, Astros and Angels also ahead of the Cubs.

Entering 2020, the Cubs look to expand upon that number. They won't have Russell, but currently have every other player on the list and it's unknown how much Descalso will even play given Nico Hoerner's eventual addition to the infield on a regular basis. Baez may also improve upon his overall defensive metrics, too, if he can avoid injury (remember, he missed all of September) and in his second full season at shortstop.