While Baez has a high-risk, high-reward thing going on at the plate, Maddon recently found himself deflecting attention from Baez at the dish to defending his defensive skills.
“I come from the land of run prevention too.”
Nine words that could be easily glossed over, but shouldn’t be.
History supports Maddon’s words in valuing defense from middle infielders.
Qualifying second basemen for the Rays ranked in the top half of baseball in defensive WAR in six of the last seven seasons. As a collective unit, Rays second basemen had a 34.2 ultimate zone rating, which ranks sixth in baseball during that stretch. You can read more about UZR here.
Ben Zobrist headlines the list of defensive stalwarts, finishing among the top 11 among second basemen in four of those seasons, including a top finish in 2011 (3.2 dWAR in 1,058.1 innings) and second best (2.5 dWAR in 714.2 innings) in 2009.
The 2010 Rays won the AL East with a 96-66 record. Their regular second baseman wasn’t Ben Zobrist. Instead, it was Sean Rodriguez, who posted a 95 OPS+, 25.6 percent strikeout rate, 5.5 percent walk rate and slashed .251/.308/.397/.705 in 378 plate appearances.
While Rodriguez’s offense left much to be desired, he logged 678.1 innings at second base and put up a 2.2 dWAR, the best among players who played at least 55 percent of their games as a second baseman.
The Cubs are no strangers to light-hitting second basemen who are defensive wizards.
Darwin Barney posted a 6.3 dWAR at second base over the last three years, which was the best in baseball in that span. And he did it mostly for the Cubs — all while posting a .233/.286/.332/.618 slash line and a .273 wOBA, which ranked 29th among 29 qualifying second basemen spanning those years.
It isn’t easy to asking Baez to turn in a top-10 defensive campaign in his first full year at second base in his age 22 season. But if he can put together a quality defensive year, his offensive upside could provide an adequate replacement from what Barney did. It’s admittedly a low bar, but after a rookie season which featured a 41.5 percent strikeout rate, simply clearing the low bar would be a step in the right direction.
Maddon himself isn’t solely concerned with Baez’s offensive output. Nor should he be. He recently said: “If you break him down in other components, he’s one of the best young players I’ve seen. He’s only being judged from the outside by his swings. Think about the rest of his game.”
Having a player who can hit it as well as he can pick it would certainly help an offense whose second basemen have slashed .238/.282/.343/.625 with a MLB-low .278 weighted on-base average since 2011. But Baez is not turning turn into Zobrist overnight. Not with that swing. Not with that strikeout rate.
But it doesn’t mean he can’t be valuable immediately.