7 min read

Opinion: Baseball Needs More of 'El Mago'

Javy Baez is playing a game while everyone else is playing a business.
Opinion: Baseball Needs More of 'El Mago'

No one likes to be the butt of a joke and no one likes to have their boneheaded decision broadcast on television and now, with the internet, no one likes to see their brain farts go viral and be shared over and over and over to millions and possibly billions who may not have otherwise ever known who you were. That's why, as a Cubs fan and as a fellow 'Craig,' I can't help that I feel a little bad for Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman, Will Craig.

While Javy Baez received all the love (and he deserves as much love as you want to give him) and had every baseball fan talking, in truth, every baseball fan was also laughing at Will Craig.

No doubt, it was a boneheaded play and a play that the Pirates clubhouse won't let Will Craig live down any time soon.

Such is the life of a ballplayer.

But, as any baseball fan who's watched more than one game let alone anyone who's played more than one game of baseball knows, boneheaded brain fart plays happen all the time. It's a simple consequence of a game like baseball that has significant breaks between action.

Or, at least, that's the idea I used to try to sell my old high school coach after some of mine.

El Mago[1]

Still, though much or all of the fault indeed lies in the momentary error in Will Craig's head, I also can't help but feel that there is no other player in baseball, no one not named Javy Baez, who could have drawn him into such a mistake.

Who, other than Javy Baez, would have not only stopped running on the way to first base upon seeing his relatively routine ground out thrown off target just enough to drag the first basemen off the bag and down the line but then acted like this was just a normal, typical, happens-all-the-time run-down situation? Who, other than Javy Baez, would have done the little stutter step shimmy shake and the glance to the third base runner to give them just enough to realize what was happening and take off for home and who, other than Javy Baez, could have pulled just enough time seemingly out of thin air to give the play a chance, just a chance, for an error or mistake to occur? Who? Other than Javy Baez?

I can't name them.

I think Cubs manager David Ross would agree and he said after the game, "It really is a magic act. He just creates havoc."[2]

It's true. Javy Baez creates opportunities. Pulls them, miraculously, out of the æther.

Did everything I said above go through Javy Baez's head in the moment? Did he even know he was doing it? I doubt it. Is his baseball IQ so much higher than everyone that only he could have pulled off a play like this? I doubt it, but the fact that we've never seen it before hints at a possibility.

Is it a situation he'd ever thought about, prior? Did he do it as young kid playing in a park and it just kindasorta came back to him in the present day? Maybe. Perhaps. I don't know.

I'm not going to pretend I know anything other than just how damn fun it is to watch Javy Baez play baseball.

I suppose there's a reason they say he's your favorite player's favorite player. There's a reason he has nicknames like "the Fastest Tag in the West." And I suppose they don't call him "El Mago" for nothin'.

Where is the Magic?

Now, I love the game. Always have. At this point, I suspect I always will. But I am not everyone and, after watching the play a dozen or so times, all that thinking about the play led me to another thought.

I respect the game and the elder statesmen as much as anyone, and I understand and can even appreciate the old man, baseball writer tropes and cliches that all effectively boil down to the game should be "played the right way." Which, of course, in all cases and, admittedly, in my own case is ultimately and entirely subjective.

But if I were to name one criticism of baseball in recent years, I'd have to agree that it's become a little...stuffy.

Where has the creativity gone? Where is all the action? Where is all the drama? Where are all the other Javy Baez type of plays?

(Baezian? Baez-esque? Baesque?)

Sure, a Game 7 playoff showdown between pitcher and batter will always be exciting but where's the excitement for the casual kid in the mid-May doubleheader when his choice is baseball or the video game? Sure, the home run has always reigned supreme but strikeouts are skyrocketing and the bat flip is still frowned upon in these establishments? The rewarded hitters seem to be only those who can turn on a four-seamer and lift it over the defensive shift and the fence so why should a youngster learn to drive the ball to the opposite field when he could just hit the gym and work on his uppercut swing? Due to advancements in pitching management and training health and technique, starting pitchers are throwing harder and harder and bullpens are chewing more and more innings and hitters are being metaphorically mowed down by a seemingly endless barrage of eternally rested throwing arms whose only historical individual player parallel may be that hitters have to face the equivalent of Nolan Ryan every game?

The Problem with Sabermetrics

Before you jump on me, this is not a clarion call that something needs to be done(!) and done right now or we'll lose generations of potential baseball talent and (gasp) maybe even baseball once and for all. I understand baseball has heard these types of criticisms before and baseball has survived.

And don't get me wrong, I understand the argument that can be made that all of the above development actually is the creative backlash, that it is actually part of the adaptations from previous decades where hitters dominated. And I understand that there will be another inevitable pendulum swing the other way. That argument is also not wrong.

But the challenge remains. When something does begin to go too far in one direction, how does it get fixed?

What is truly behind the stifling of Major League offenses? Is it really a simple matter of pitcher training and innovations in managing and coaching? Maybe.

My guess?

After Billy "Moneyball" Beane and the acolytes that followed him started using quantitative analysis of the sabermetrics and the calculators replaced the gut, I can't help but feel the ruthless quest for the perfect algorithms to build baseball teams has effected the game more than we realized until now and I can't help but feel that some of the art has been lost in the name of the science. I can't help but feel that, in the hyperfocus on detailed statistical evaluation and the league wide front office's chasing of the greater and greater narrowing of the numbers to find the tiniest of little statistical hints for where to not only place their money but on the who, what, when, why, and how to win, we, as fans, and the game has lost some of the magic.

It's not anyone's fault, really, they were right to explore it all. It opened a whole new world for statistical analysis and planning to help teams build rosters and turn the slog of 162 day-to-day-to-day games into easier decision making and answering local barflies and the press for must-win situations. It allowed fanatics to dive even deeper into their living room and front porch debates over greatness and/or historical impacts of certain players or rule changes or even just the effects of weather.

I'm not mad about it. I don't blame anyone in particular.

There are extraordinary sums of money at stake, after all. A winning ballclub means more than merely a ring, it means butts in the seats. It means beer sales. Concessions bottom-lines. Souvenirs. Winning ballclubs impact neighborhoods. Local bars and restaurants. Hell, it impacts the overall quality of life in a city, in general. The locals, the people around the team every day, are in a better mood and live all-around happier days.

I don't dislike sabermetrics. Statistical analysis has always been inherent in the game and it's a vital element of what makes it great. Perhaps more than any other sport, detailed statistical analysis in baseball has directly contributed to building the bridges between generations and eras that has made the game so enduring.

But how much has the recent approaches improved the game for everyone?

I can't help but wonder if ultra-fine tuned sabermetrics is the fundamental root cause of baseball's current woes.

What stat could ever account for what Javy Baez did above? None. Would any statician worth their salt argue it's not worth accounting for such an outlier event? Probably.

Still, that Magic puts butts in the seats and no one had to consult Arthur Anderson to figure it out.

No matter how detailed and fine-tuned the statistics, it'll never understand the unexplainable forces that change the trajectory of a pitch to land a centimeter higher or lower on the sweet spot of a bat that turn men into legends or goats. No matter how obscure the historical metric for wins above replacement, it'll never understand why a player f---- up. No matter how quantitative the analysis, it'll never understand why a kid picks his favorite player.

I'm not asking for and don't need every baseball player to be a carbon copy of Javy Baez, but baseball needs more of what Javy Baez does on the baseball field.

Sure, baseball will always have its characters, but the game as a whole needs to encourage and needs to find more of the type of creativity that Javy Baez brings to the game on a mid-May day while he's running a routine ground out. Baseball needs to figure out why Javy Baez is playing a game while everyone else is playing a business.

Baseball is missing more Javy Baez. Baseball needs more of "The Magic."

Because, "Baseball's a game. Games are supposed to be fun."

Notes & References

  1. I know his nickname technically means, "The Magician," but, for this commentary, I'm going to shorten it and refer to it just as, "The Magic." ↩︎

  2. Rogers, Jesse. “Javier Baez Helped Chicago Cubs Score on a Play You've Never Seen Before.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, May 27, 2021. https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/31523030/javier-baez-helped-chicago-cubs-score-play-never-seen-before. ↩︎