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Cubs’ Javy Baez and Nico Hoerner becoming good as Gold up the middle

Baez took home his first Gold Glove Award last season, and many think Hoerner will have one of his own sooner rather than later. 

The Cubs’ Nico Hoerner, left, and Javy Baez have displayed solid defense in the middle of the infield.
The Cubs’ Nico Hoerner, left, and Javy Baez have displayed solid defense in the middle of the infield.
David Banks/AP

PITTSBURGH — Cubs shortstop Javy Baez and second baseman Nico Hoerner haven’t been playing together for long, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by watching them. The Cubs’ double-play combination has developed a natural chemistry in their short time together that is showing up nightly.

Teams build their rosters to be strong defensively up the middle, and the Cubs are no different. And Baez and Hoerner are playing like one of the best defensive tandems in the game.

‘‘Having potentially two Gold Gloves up the middle is extremely strong and important and makes you feel confident that when a ball is hit toward those guys, a play is gonna be made,’’ manager David Ross said. ‘‘That’s a special group out there.’’

What stands out about Baez and Hoerner are the baseball instincts and athleticism that allow them to make plays, no matter the degree of difficulty.

There’s no doubt Baez is a human highlight reel and one of the most electric players in the majors. But he also has been one of the majors’ premier defenders at short since taking over the position full-time in 2018. He ranks fourth among active players at 34 outs above average since 2016, even though he is a minus-2 this season.

‘‘Javy’s played through a lot physically this season, and he’s done a lot of amazing things at the same time,’’ Cubs bench and infield coach Andy Green told the Sun-Times. ‘‘We know what kind of shortstop he has proven to be year after year.’’

Hoerner, too, is starting to make a name for himself. During the Cubs’ series last week against the Nationals, he showed off his range by making a number of sliding stops while deep in the shift. He then was able to get the out or at least prevent runners from advancing.

Hoerner was a finalist for the National League Gold Glove Award at second base last season and appears to be well on his way to being back in the running this season. Despite not starting the season with the Cubs, he already ranks third in the majors among second basemen with five outs above average.

‘‘I think he’s already one of the best in the game,’’ Green said. ‘‘He doesn’t need a confidence boost. He had that confidence in him last year, and you saw it from the first day he showed up. He’s already really, really good there, and he wants to be extraordinary.’’

‘‘It’s been really good communication between us,’’ Baez said. ‘‘The way that he wants to get better, he wants to come and work and learn something every day. It’s been great.’’

The Cubs were one of the best defensive teams in baseball in 2020 and won the team Gold Glove last season. Various metrics have not graded them as highly this season, with some of that being because of some hits against the shift.

When it comes to defensive positioning, Baez prefers to go off feel. Hoerner, meanwhile, usually goes off Green’s defensive alignment and makes adjustments throughout a game or series.

‘‘There’s so much luck involved in the shifting stuff,’’ Hoerner said recently. ‘‘You’ve kind of just got to trust yourself and trust the data [we have], at the end of the day.’’

While positioning and range play a role in the Cubs’ metrics, what ultimately matters is turning balls in play into outs. And with Baez and Hoerner up the middle, the Cubs are confident they will help keep a lot of runs off the board.

‘‘Those metrics will look good by the end of the year,’’ Green said. ‘‘We’ve had a lot of balls beat shifts and roll through holes to start the season that don’t normally go where they’ve gone. So there’s no reason to really be overly concerned about that because we’ve got really good defenders out there and our process is good. It’s gonna take care of itself.’’