We are 14 games into the Chicago Cubs season and while it is early, almost far too early to be making assumptions like this, the Cubs are favoring Javier Baez as the everyday second baseman – not veteran Ben Zobrist.
On paper, the preference of Baez in the infield over Zobrist make sense. Baez is the far superior fielder and Zobrist, while 35-years-old, seems to fit the utility role more so than Baez at this point in each of their careers. Baez is also a budding star, showcasing the type of superstar potential people thought he could produce throughout the 2016 World Series run. Getting him more at bats and playing time is the most logical move, and Zobrist seems like he is fine with taking a backseat to Baez to start the season.
There is no one else on the Cubs who could make this play.
Javier Baez’s double play pic.twitter.com/EDqYFV29I8
— ますたー (@baez12m) April 13, 2017
However, the biggest deciding factor between the two will be their bats. Baez, while flashing seer raw power with his emphatic swing, is prone to striking out and seems almost hellbent on never adopting a two-strike approach. According to Fangraphs, Baez is swinging at pitches outside of the zone 46.5% of the time, while only making contact with those pitches 45.5% of the time. For comparison, Zobrist has only swung at pitches outside the strike zone 23.2% in 2017, while making contact with 68.6% of the time – and that’s actually considered low for the career 74.3% contact hitter on pitches outside the strike zone.
I actually talked about this exact situation with BP Wrigleyville’s Editor-in-Chief Jared Wyllys on the 312 podcast last week, you can listen to the interview below.
Without Baez showing more discipline at the plate, he becomes a tough bat to consistently throw into the lineup. Zobrist is sporting a classic Zobrist-esc .333 on-base percentage, compared to Javy’s below-average .289. Zobrist’s patience at the plate, already walking nine times this season, makes him a more valuable player to put in the lineup everyday.
With all this being said, I still think the Cubs should be giving Baez the nod at 2nd base for the majority of the games this season. While Baez was deemed the “super utility” player, people don’t realize that the versatile 24-year-old managed to play in 142 games last season, starting 97 of those games. The guy can play all over the infield, and will continue to do so this season, but his defense is too valuable right now – and that’s what the Cubs are putting a premium on.
Zobrist, while versatile, is not the asset he once was in Tampa Bay. Last season, Zobrist cost the Cubs three runs according to Fangraphs Defensive Runs Saved metric, and has already cost the Cubs a run this season while playing in the outfield. And of course, Baez saved the Cubs a collective 16 runs from three different positions and has already saved two runs for the Cubs at 2nd.
The time has come for the Cubs to figure out what exactly they have in Javier Baez, if he can find consistency at the plate and produce the type of offensive numbers he flashed in the playoffs or just a solid player and nothing more. The Cubs already know what they have in Zobrist, but can Baez become a superstar? It’s time for Baez to either prove he is an elite player and not just an elite talent, and the only way to do that is make Zobrist take a backseat to the budding youngster.