Javier Baez was never a bad baseball player. But for much of his career, he's been less a baseball player than a collection of incredible baseball-related feats.
Baez is the human version of fun facts—snackable bits of ephemeral greatness, the stuff that earned him the "El Mago" (The Magician) nickname, are perfectly GIFable and shareable, the fleeting moments that are baseball's equivalent of a massive dunk.
As a prospect, he was lauded for his bat speed, which some scouts rated as the fastest they've ever seen. Baseball's ability to count and measure everything revealed Baez to be the fastest tagger in the game, using the kind of hand-eye coordination usually associated with Spidey-sense to slap tags onto the legs and arms of the opposition with blinding speed.
Known for his infectious energy and an effortless amount of style, the second baseman for the Chicago Cubs plays with an enviable joie de vivre that attracts fans from other fan bases and makes him a legend among Cubs diehards, the only team he's known since being selected in the first round of the 2011 draft.
Born in Puerto Rico but drafted out of a Florida high school, Baez spent the first few years of his big league career wowing fans with his GIF-ready bag of tricks.
Sliding safely to score the game-winning run? El Mago makes it count.
Stealing home but caught red-handed? Baez finds a way.
Playing for his home nation during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Baez executed a move of almost incalculable sauce:
There isn’t a single thing Baez does that doesn't look cool. His style, his weird collection of capital-A Awesome skills, his smile and his swagger, all combine to make him a legend.
But as exciting as Baez has always been, there were major parts of his game that were lacking. Large holes in his swing and a maniacal approach at the plate made him a league-average hitter prone to deep slumps, though he's never been a one-trick pony or some kind of circus sideshow. A former top prospect and World Series champion, Baez was a valued contributor on good teams. But the success of his Cubs, and the laissez-faire managerial style of his skipper, Joe Maddon, provided Baez the license to freestyle a bit.
Some (rival fans, mostly) described him as the best worst player in baseball, one whose production never quite lined up with notoriety. Turn the page to 2018 and now he's become the perfect baseball player for our time, one with numbers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his stylish play.
The ability to produce on the field (already knocking 19 home runs by the All-Star break) in addition to his ability to perform on the field is crucial for players like Baez to be taken seriously. Baseball's whitewashed and soulless corporate culture demands sacrifice, so big-time numbers, like his 3.4 WAR, ranking him in the top 10 among National League position players, are the price to pay for the begrudging acceptance of baseball's stodgy gatekeepers.
In a way, Baez is the perfect antidote to Mike Trout, the greatest player in the game who is also its easiest to ignore. Fans can count on Trout's box score dominance every night, as he fouls off tough pitches and grinds out at bats and accumulates value like few in the game's history. Trout is low-key by nature and seems to abhor the spotlight, which only prompts more questions into how to better market his greatness to the world.
Baez is a player you can't miss. His exploits are far more likely to populate your social feeds and retain the attention of sports casuals. Baseball hardcores beat the drum for more folks to acknowledge Trout's perpetual God-mode, but Baez does that legwork all on his own. He's not the same caliber of player as Mike Trout (nobody is) but he's entertainment just up and walking around.
The Cubs' second baseman brought his million-dollar smile and lightning quick bat to the Home Run Derby this week, though his fashion sense made more of an impact at the ostensible highlight of Major League Baseball's All-Star weekend than his bat, losing in the first round of the revamped dinger contest.
As Baez recently told The Athletic, he's just doing his thing. "I feel like a lot of people want to follow me and play the way I play," he said. "It's being you, to be honest. I go out there to have fun, to do the best for my teammates and play hard. Obviously, like I say all the time, I'm not trying to show anybody up. But I'm trying to do the best for my team, too." To his credit, his manager doesn't want to stand in his star player's way, as Joe Maddon states in the same Athletic Chicago piece: "I do not want to restrict him."
The players on the other side of the field see the appeal but, naturally, lean on their competitive instincts. A recent poll of players across the league revealed some consider Baez among the most overrated players in the league, with one providing an illuminating, if anonymous, quote: "When you play against him, you fucking hate watching him. But as a fan, I would want to watch him every single day. I get it."
Baseball is a regional game and its fans tribal by nature, so it's fair to say Baez's legend has room for growth. Despite a key role on a World Series winner, there are so many people outside of Cubs fans, Puerto Rican baseball fanatics, and otherwise hopeless baseball nerds, yet to be introduced to El Mago's magic. His selection to the All-Star team and continuing to play at a high level could be an ideal launching pad for the perfect baseball creation in today's sports ecosystem. There is no player like him in today's game, or perhaps ever. He consistently does stuff that gets fans out of their seats.
If stats were all it took to make a baseball demigod, we'd all pray before a Trout idol every morning. Two walks a night tend not to stick to the ribs of the fans, especially young ones unmoved by baseball's lore. Baez could well be the key to unlock entirely new audiences for baseball, a viral fever dream conceived by a desperate marketer but brought to vivid life in the great petri dish of the Wrigley Field bleachers.