Javy of all trades: Baez's offensive versatility gives Cubs a new dimension

Tony Andracki
NBC Sports Chicago

Javy Baez can hit anywhere in the Cubs lineup.

Literally.

In Saturday's game against the White Sox, Baez found himself leading off against James Shields, giving him an at-bat in every slot in the batting order 1-through-9. (He hasn't drawn a start in the 5-hole or No. 9 spot, but has entered there as a pinch-hitter or part of a double switch.)

Baez immediately provided that "energy" Joe Maddon loves to see from him atop the order, lining the second pitch of the game into the right field corner and hustling in for a leadoff triple, never hestitating despite a clean pickup from White Sox right fielder Trayce Thompson.

Seven pitches later, Baez scored the game's first run on Anthony Rizzo's dinger as the Cubs unloaded on a White Sox starter in the first inning for the second straight day.

Baez led off the second inning, too, this time hitting a tapper to the right side of the infield and beating Shields to the bag with a headfirst dive.

"El Mago" later swiped second base on a delayed steal and swim move...

...and scored on Willson Contreras' groundball single, sliding past Sox catcher Welington Castillo with another acrobatic maneuver.

Just another way Baez can help the Cubs pickup wins on top of his gamechanging defense, mind-bending tags and ability to hit any pitch - even those outside of the strike zone - into the bleachers at any time.

"Eventually, he can almost hit anywhere," Maddon said. "I've had to use him at the bottom [of the lineup] because he swings and misses a lot, but he's cut down on that. A swing-and-miss guy like that with power, you don't want him in front of your better guys because he can clean stuff up.

"A lot of his RBIs, to me, are the residue of that. Although he's done some really good work in the 2-hole, also. But yeah, we're still figuring the whole thing out."

The reason Maddon opted to go with Baez as the leadoff hitter Saturday was he believed it was a good matchup against Shields, who actually is tougher on left-handed hitters than righties so far in 2018.

Baez has also, surprisingly, fared much better against righties this year, coming into the game with a .305 average and 1.011 OPS vs. RHP compared to a .211 AVG and .742 OPS vs. southpaws. 

From 2015-17, Baez sported a .257 AVG and .712 OPS vs. righties compared to a .321 AVG and .906 OPS vs. lefties.

That step forward in his development has been a big reason why Baez woke up Saturday morning leading the National League in RBI.

In Friday's series opener with the Sox, Baez had one of his patented wild, out-of-control swings where he actually dropped to one knee. But he came right back on the next pitch, shortened his stroke, stayed under control and lined a two-strike offering into center for a sacrifice fly to bring home a run. Before 2018, that at-bat almost assuredly would've ended in another strikeout for Baez's total and instead turned into an RBI.

Baez still doesn't walk much - his season 4.2 walk percentage is below his career mark (5 percent) and it's buoyed by 4 intentional walks - but his strikeouts are down to a career-low 20.4 percent.

It's been a calendar month since Baez last walked (April 11) and he has only drawn two unintentional free passes all year.

"It's just a matter of the on-base thing. Just accepting your walks," Maddon said. "That's the one item I'd like to see him get better at. He's never going to be the poster child for that. He's not going to be that, so I'm not anticipating that.

"But just continue to work the good at-bat, move the ball, stay in your strike zone. Because when he does make contact, something good normally happens.

"He's still ascending. He's still got things to learn. The power is there, you can see that. He's been really good with runners in scoring position, you can see that. ... The sky is the limit."

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