Javier Baez has a tattoo of the MLB logo on the back of his neck and walks with the confident swagger of a guy who fully intends to be there one day. For some, that swagger teeters on the edge of cockiness.
There's a fine line players have to cross between confidence and cockiness. Chipper Jones once called it "necessary arrogance". It's a way of saying that a ballplayer needs to believe wholeheartedly in his talents -- to be self-assured to the point where you know you can beat your opponent. It's the unnecessary stuff you'd rather do without.
On Saturday, I came out to the park 2 hours early to observe Baez, not just in the batting cages and to watch him take infield practice, but I wanted to see how he interacts with his teammates and coaches. His talent is undeniable. His tremendous bat speed brings to mind the former MLB superstar Gary Sheffield. I was eager to see that swing that so many have been raving about. I wanted to see how he handled the shortstop position. But I also wanted to learn as much as I could about Javier Baez, the person.
My impressions were that Baez appears to be popular with his teammates, seemingly joking around at one point and hanging out with them while waiting for his turn at batting practice.
In one BP session, Baez got into a rhythm and started cracking drives all over the field, some of them over the fence. The sound is distinct. You could almost close your eyes and know when Baez is the guy taking batting practice. Then, in the next session, Baez started swinging from his heels, fouling pitches off and popping them up. When the session was over, hitting coach Barbaro Garbey walked over to him.
We can guess as to what Garbey was probably saying. Baez sometimes falls into the habit of over-swinging. He doesn't have to swing that hard to put a charge into the ball. His natural bat speed alone can generate big time power. There's no need for him to dial it all the way up all the time. In some ways, it's symbolic. Learning to dial it down is something Baez is trying to learn in every phase of the game.
The kid didn't say anything. He just listened quietly.
Later, in his very first AB...pop! There was that sound again as Baez ripped a line drive single into LF. One inning later...boom! Baez launched one over the Pepsi sign in left-center field.
Apparently, lesson learned.
Then came the 9th inning. Peoria had a 15-2 lead. In this kind of situation, it's an unspoken rule in sports that it's a time to call off the dogs. But after finding himself ahead in the count 3-0, Baez swung for the fences. In fact, he swung right through a take sign. It didn't go unnoticed by the opposing Cougars. Manager Brian Buchanan walked to the mound and spoke with his pitcher.
The next pitch plunked Baez in the ribs.
Sunday was game two of the series and I was eager to see how Baez would react. I went to check the lineup boards, scanned up and down...nothing. Baez was being benched. Apparently, the Chiefs weren't as forgiving as I would have been. But after all, I'm a fan. I want to see the kid play. At any rate, I didn't think he was doing it to be cocky, the kid just loves to compete. He wanted to hit. That is what he knows how to do and he's good at it.
It was the right move, however.
Sportsmanship is part of the game too. You want Baez to be competitive and you want him to hit, but you also want him to know there are times where you have to rein that in.
So the game starts and where was Baez? Sulking in the dugout? Cursing the manager for taking him out of the lineup?
He was hanging out on the dugout railing with his teammates, supporting them and watching the game. He did it for nearly the entire time he was on the bench. At one point, he held a ball in his hands. Sitting in the 2nd row almost directly behind him, I yell out, "Javier!". He turns around, looks at me and lobs the ball right into my waiting hands. The person sitting next to me had gotten his autograph earlier. He had won that right in a contest the night before, but Baez also patiently signed autographs for other fans that had congregated in the area. That was nice to see, but I still wanted to see Baez play.
In the 6th, a bad hop grounder got third baseman Anthony Giansanti right in the middle of the chest. He walked in from the infield, somewhat wobbly, then collapsed. It was a scary moment, but after laying supine on the grass for several minutes, Giansanti got up and walked out under his own power. Baez got the call, picked up a glove and started warming up. It certainly wasn't the way you wanted to see Baez get into the game. But I have to admit that despite my concern for Giansanti, I was quite giddy inside.
Baez took the field. His actions and demeanor in the field are noticeably different than current Chicago Cubs SS Starlin Castro. Baez wears his energy on his sleeve, a contrast to Castro's cool exterior. Baez is not as smooth or fluid as Castro, but his aggressiveness and athleticism serve him well in the field. On Sunday, he made difficult plays ranging both left and right. His best play was when he dove, full extension to his right, bounced up and fired a strike to first from deep in the hole to beat the runner at first. I came away thinking that he has a chance to be a solid SS, but at 19 he may not be done growing. The bright side is that if he loses some range and has to move to 3rd, he's going to be one heck of a defender there. But that's a bridge the Cubs will cross later. Right now they're going to let him play SS and see how far he takes it.
Sparkling plays aside, it's at the plate where Baez will make his living in the MLB one day and where he made his first immediate impact upon entering this particular game. With the Chiefs down 5-3, and Taiwan Easterling reaching on a single, Baez launched another jaw-dropper. This one was even further than the bomb he hit the night before. This time he easily cleared the black batter's eye set up 400 feet away in dead CF to tie the game.
Baez walked back to the dugout, quietly, but self-assuredly, accepting congratulatory high fives and the occasional pats to the head and back. Perhaps another lesson learned. Just let your bat and glove do the talking. A little "necessary arrogance" is more than enough to get Baez where he wants to be.