Nick Knacks

Nick Knacks: ¡Viva El Mago!

Arturo Pardavilla IIISo far this season, Baez carries a batting average of .299 with 23 hits in 77 at bats. He also has seven home runs, 24 RBIs, one stolen base and an on-base percentage of .341.

In 2014, the Cubs called up a flashy young shortstop named Javier Baez to replace the recently-traded Darwin Barney. Baez was the Cubs’ top prospect in the minor leagues at the time, and he hit .282 in the minors that season.

I’ll never forget being so proud of myself for predicting his call-up. I even wrote about it in a little-used sports blog I started because I didn’t have anything else better to do. What else does a sports-obsessed high school sophomore do besides start a blog?

But I digress, after some ups and downs during his career, Baez is still just as flashy as he was when he was called up in 2014. Now, he’s turned into a complete freak of nature.

It started taking shape during the 2016 playoffs when the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908 (sorry Henry). Baez shared the NL championship series Most Valuable Player award with Jon Lester after hitting .318 during the six-game series, including the game-winning home run during game one off Clayton Kershaw — the best pitcher in baseball. Baez was officially on the map, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

His defense is insane. Now a second baseman, Baez is known for making insanely quick tags such as the one he made during the World Baseball Classic last year. He also doesn’t make many mistakes; he only committed 15 errors last year, 11 of which were at shortstop after Addison Russell went down with an injury. He’s so great with a glove he’s earned the nickname “El Mago” — Spanish for “The Magician.”

On offense, though, Baez has been tearing the cover off the ball this season. His seven home runs ranks second in the MLB and he’s tied for the MLB lead with 24 RBI. He’s been the most exciting player to watch in baseball so far this year.

In the past week, Baez had a .480 batting average, seven extra-base hits — including three home runs —and nine RBI over six games. Despite those numbers, he was passed up for Player of the Week. Instead, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Patrick Corbin won the award. In two starts, Corbin went 2-0 in 15 innings, giving up two earned runs, two walks and striking out 19 batters.

Maybe I’m biased — OK, I’m definitely biased — but Baez looks like he had the better week. The numbers speak for themselves; he’s probably not worried about that award, anyway.

Player of the Week or not, Baez is a spark the offense needs. Putting him in the No. 2 spot in the batting order allows Joe Maddon to bat Kris Bryant third and Anthony Rizzo fourth. So long as Maddon keeps Albert Almora in the leadoff spot where he belongs  the top of that lineup is lethal for opposing pitchers.

Every time he does something special, I’m sure to immediately tweet “¡Viva El Mago!” Guess those four years of high school Spanish were good for something, right?

What makes Baez so fun to watch is how much he cares about the game. After he was called up, he got the MLB logo tattooed on the back of his neck. He lives and breathes baseball, and that’s evident when he plays. He plays with so much intensity and firepower, which is great for the game.

People don’t tune in to watch players such as Ryan Braun, who doesn’t seem to have any fun when he plays. They tune in to watch players like Baez who show they have fun playing a game “meant for kids,” as the great Bob Lemon once put it.

It’s been fun to watch Baez grow from a minor-league prospect into one of the best second basemen in the game. The crazy part is he hasn’t even hit his prime yet. He’s only 25, so he’s going to be around for a while.

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