Everything is cool about Javy Baez, but the coolest things are those being recognized when people talk about him: his fielding and baserunning.
Now, you could no more hide Baez’s flair and excellence in those areas than you could hide a bonfire. But in a sport in which hitting is glorified (and financially rewarded), the Cubs second baseman has grabbed everyone by the collar and said, ‘‘Look.’’
And we can’t take our eyes off him.
Think about this: He has us gushing about the way he tags out runners. A tag! Who else can make that happen? Our jaws drop when he takes a throw from catcher Willson Contreras and drops a no-look tag on a would-be base-stealer, who, before he knows it, is a won’t-be base-stealer. A what-could-you-possibly-have-been-thinking base-stealer.
He runs the bases with a spirit about him that brings to mind Roberto Clemente or, as Cubs manager Joe Maddon has said, Willie Mays. In a sports world overrun with hyperbole, these comparisons are met with a nod: Yes, that’s exactly whom the kid looks like when he’s tearing around the bases, legs pumping, helmet bouncing around, dust flying.
I don’t want to demean Baez’s hitting. It’s good, and the ball takes a beating when he connects. But it almost has gotten to the point where the hitting is the opening act for the baserunning. You wouldn’t turn down any of his 17 home runs this season, but how in the heck is he supposed to steal home when the base is already given to him for free?
That’s right: It really is all about us.
Baseball people have spent a lot of time insisting that defense is just as important as offense, but, judging by ESPN’s ‘‘SportsCenter,’’ we’re still a nation that digs the long ball. Home-run numbers have skyrocketed in the last few years, and teams have preached the gospel of launch angles and exit velocity. When clubs hand out big contracts, it’s almost always because of hitting prowess. The Nationals’ Bryce Harper might be a five-tool player, but when he signs what is expected to be a massive contract after this season, it won’t be because of his work in right field.
Conversely, when Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward was horrible at the plate in 2016, his excellent defense could not repel the tidal wave of criticism that came his way.
That’s what makes the Javy phenomenon so beautiful. When Baez signs his next contract, it will reward those parts of the game too many of us take for granted. Or, worse, rank far below hitting.
If Baez were turning the batter’s box into a contaminated work site, the way Heyward did in the Cubs’ World Series season, perhaps we wouldn’t be quite so excited about his work as a fielder and baserunner. But he’s hitting .294 with 63 RBI, tied for the third-most in the majors, after going 4-for-5 with two RBI on Saturday.
He has come a long way from his rookie season in 2014, when he struck out 95 times in 219 at-bats. He would swing so hard that there was real concern he would break an ankle on a particularly exuberant pass at the ball. There are still times when his swing looks more like a boxer’s roundhouse punch, and bless him for that. It wouldn’t be him if he didn’t do that once in a while. There’s a lust for life in that swing, just as there is in a diving stop to his right or a joyride of a stolen-base attempt at home.
To use a terrible phrase that somehow fits Baez perfectly, he is what he is. He’s not a billionaire trying to pawn himself off as a man of humble beginnings. He’s right there in front of us, sprinting, throwing off his knees and flipping his flippin’ bat. You got a problem with that?
Fielding and baserunning on the marquee — what a wonderful thing that is. Baez has taken those underappreciated elements of baseball and made people take notice. He has done it with a smile on his face. His game is fun personified.
ESPN’s ‘‘Web Gems’’ recognizes top defensive plays. Baez could have his own show. No, really.
He’s making a huge push to be a National League All-Star. It’s possible that fans are comparing his offensive stats to those of other second basemen and casting their vote for that reason. It’s also possible — OK, 100 percent probable — that Cubs fans are stuffing the ballot box.
But it’s more than that. Everything about Baez is cool, though especially his fielding and baserunning. There’s no escaping it. Who would want to, other than the Cubs’ opponents?
Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.