Javier Baez and the Search for the Last Unicorn

Javier Baez was a prodigy, and one of the most vaunted prospects in baseball. And then, in a hail of strikeouts, he wasn't. Now it's time to see what's next.
April 18, 2016, 2:30pm
Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Javy Baez was barnstorming in Tennessee when Jason McLeod saw him for the first time. The day was hot and sunny, and the best player on the field was 18 years old, skinny, live-wired, and brilliant. The Apaches played a double-header under the May sun, and Baez homered twice. After the game, he stuck around and put on a wood-bat BP show for the assembled scouts. More home runs. That's when McLeod, then with the Padres and now a senior executive with the Cubs, noticed something strange: Javier Baez, a right-handed hitter, was hitting home runs left-handed.

"The ball just sounded different off his bat," said Jaron Madison, another Padres alum who saw Baez that year and who, like McLeod, is now part of Theo Epstein's brain trust in Chicago. It was his initial report, in fact, that compelled his boss to come to see the kid play in Tennessee. That report: explosive bat speed, an ultra-aggressive swing, and extraordinary competitive fire. "What really clicked for me was his confidence," McLeod recalled last week. "He wanted to show people how good he was." And yes, he was that good, said Madison. "Just one of those special athletes that looked like he could play all over the field." Five years later, that special athlete is still stuck somewhere between disaster and a big-league dream, waiting to erupt.

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Other organizations had noticed Baez. The Padres picked tenth that year, and McLeod and Madison were denied the chance to draft Baez when the Cubs, in the final year of Jim Hendry's tenure as general manager, snagged the young Puerto Rican with the ninth overall pick of the 2011 draft. Soon, Baez was opening eyes across the game. Jason Parks, then with Baseball Prospectus and now a pro scout for the Cubs, famously called Baez a "unicorn" in naming him the best prospect in Chicago's system. What he meant was that players who could be this good probably don't exist.

There were concerns about holes in his game. They'd always been there. The violent swing that did such unspeakable things to baseballs when it connected also limited Baez's ability to make contact in the first place. Against high school pitching, that didn't matter much. Against professional pitching, it might. And the insane confidence the Padres execs saw in Tennessee—the confidence that led the young man to tattoo the MLB logo onto the back of his neck before he'd ever taken a single big league at-bat—meant that Baez felt he could hit anything the other guy threw at him. As he climbed the ranks, this became increasingly untrue.

Something is about to happen. Photo by Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Still, the results kept coming, because, remember, Baez was a unicorn, insanely talented even among his insanely talented peers in professional baseball. He hit .333/.383/.596 at Single-A in 2012 at age 19, when the median age for that league was 22, and then .294/.346/.638 at Double-A at age 20, where the median age was 25. The warning signs that had dogged him since high school—those big strikeout rates and low contact ability—kept coming up, and yet somehow continued not to matter. The Cubs called him up in early August 2014. In his debut with the big club, against the Rockies at Coors Field, Baez hit a 12th-inning, game-winning home run. That's some unicorn shit.

It would also prove to be the high point of his season. Big-league pitchers quickly learned to exploit his extraordinary aggressiveness, and started throwing the ball where Baez just couldn't hit it, much as he tried. And he tried, over and over again. By the end of the year, Baez was hitting just .169, with a scant nine home runs and an astonishing 95 strikeouts in 229 plate appearances. Among players with as many trips to the dish, his 41.5 percent whiff rate in 2014 was the worst in big-league history.

But these things happen, even to unicorns. 2015 should have been a redemption year—the year when Baez learned how to get his head caught up to where his physical tools had always been, and figured out when not to swing. It was not to be: Baez was sent back to the minors to start the year, and had barely gotten started there when his sister, severely disabled by spinal bifidia since birth and by all accounts a center of his world, passed away in April of 2015, sending Baez to the bereavement list and upending his universe. When he returned, a broken finger shut him down again. As 2015 closed, he never really felt like he settled in, and never felt like he had a chance to redeem himself fully from that horrific 2014.

When the people recognize your unicorn essence. Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

"I think the last two years humbled him a bit," Madison said, "and made him realize just how fortunate he is to be in the place that he is." Those struggles helped him adjust his mental game a bit, too, and be smarter about when he swings and how he approaches the game. The consensus is that Baez is indeed different now, and more mature. The Cubs are confident he'll be able to handle the role they envision for him this year, which is as a sort of everyday utility player, and so far he's taking to it well. "The old Javy would have had serious issues with the idea that he was not the everyday shortstop," says Madison. "He wouldn't have embraced the idea of moving all around the field and playing different positions." Now he does.

McLeod sees the change, too. "I need to remind myself sometimes how young he still is," he told VICE Sports last week. "He cares about being good, and he wants to be great." Baez still has a chance, too—he is still so young, and still so gifted. The Cubs activated him from the DL on Friday. His challenge, now, is a more human one: after spending all of his young life being so supernaturally talented at what he does, he now needs to learn to approach a very difficult game from something other than the commanding heights.

Javy Baez has spent his whole life hitting baseballs farther than most humans ever will, and he's only in the past two years found that the world has a way of hitting back. The kid Jason McLeod saw that May day five years ago is still in there, waiting to astonish the world that created him. It won't be easy, as he now knows well, but 2016 may yet be the year the unicorn finally emerges.