In the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Javier Baez pointed to catcher Yadier Molina and celebrated getting an out before he even made the no-look tag at second base. Poor base-runner Nelson Cruz — about to be caught stealing — never had a chance.
Seven months later, Baez went viral again — this time when he waved his finger in the face of then-Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who was foolish enough to test his speed against Baez’s cat-like reflexes in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
To put it simply, the Cubs’ fun-loving and flashy infielder is a walking highlight reel. Those are just two of the countless examples of how slick Baez is at stopping thieves. He’s easily the best tagger in baseball, maybe the greatest of all time.
Regardless of where the catcher’s throw goes, Baez almost always manages to snatch it and make the play.
Many have tried to slide past Baez, most have failed.
So baserunners be warned: They don’t call him “El Mago” for nothing.
Teammates Jon Lester and Willson Contreras haven’t seen anything quite like Baez at second base.
“I’ve gotten to play with some really good infielders like Dustin Pedroia and [Adrian] Beltre,” Lester said. “But as far as what [Baez is] able to do, I don’t think there’s anybody that I’ve ever seen or I’ve played with in the game right now that can do what he’s able to do.”
Said Contreras: “Honestly, he’s the first player I’ve ever seen to be able to make tags like that. It’s something that you can’t teach.”
Baez emerged onto the major-league scene in 2016. Along with his swag, Baez’s athletic yet effortless tags made him unique. He came in clutch several times for the Cubs in the postseason, which made him a quick fan-favorite. His fielding was also so impressive that a World Series TV crew produced a montage of his tagging for its broadcast in 2016.
As a pitcher, Lester said it’s invaluable to have a trustworthy infielder like Baez behind him.
“It’s one of those deals where you don’t realize how important it is until you have somebody like him and you see it and you see how it changes a game or a play within a game,” Lester said.
So how did Baez do it?
It all started at birth — seriously.
Baez is part of the 10 percent of the world population that’s naturally left-handed.
Why is this important?
Because he’s learned to be ambidextrous and has a stronger sense of awareness on his left side than most infielders.
“He can trust his left hand,” Lester explained. “He writes left handed, he said that he played baseball left-handed when he was a kid, so that’s kind of his one-up on everybody, is he’s naturally that hand, so he can trust that and there’s no thinking behind it. He just does it. I think that’s what makes it so effortless.”
Tagging is partly skill but mostly instinct, Baez said. He’s been working on his technique since he was 11.
“I was playing shortstop and one of my coaches told me when a guy tries to steal a base that I should get to the bag early and act like the ball wasn’t coming and then at the last second grab the ball and just go with the tag straight down,” Baez said.
“I got really into it, practiced it a lot and I got really good at it.”
Though it might seem like a mundane task, the Cubs are more than appreciative of Baez, especially Contreras.
“It’s honestly a blessing to have anybody to have the caliber of Javy Baez to be either playing second base or shortstop,” Contreras said through a translator. “It makes me feel a lot more relaxed in my job because my job even if I get the ball just close to the bag, I know he’s going to get it and make a great tag.”
Said Lester: “The biggest thing is when we do have errors on throws, he’s able to keep them right there. His hands are so good, he trusts them so much that a ball that a guy would normally have to come off the bag and block, he can just pick it and make it look like the ball got there in the air.”
And though it seems like Baez has perfected the art of the tag, he’s continued to hone his craft.
“I like to make the adjustment to all the stuff that I do wrong,” he said. “I learn from [my mistakes].”