Most fans are thrilled that this year’s World Series will end one of the two longest championship droughts in MLB history. An interesting side story, though, is how each team will be showcasing one of the best Puerto Rican stars in the game.
Javier Báez is lighting up the postseason. With the talent surrounding him, it is especially difficult to stand out, but he might very well be the the face of the Cubs success this postseason. So far this postseason, he has hit .342/.366/.526 and added a pair of stolen bases on top of that. He even drew a couple of walks! His solo home run in Game 1 of the NLDS was the game’s only run, and in Game 1 of the NLCS, he even stole home!
Of course, Báez is lighting up the highlight reel with his tremendous defense at second base. He came up as a shortstop in the Cubs’ system and was projected to be able to stay there. However, with the team’s acquisition of Addison Russell, Báez had to switch positions. I perused the archives of scouting reports at Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN’s Keith Law, but I didn’t find anybody who thought he would be this good at second base. Scouts lauded Báez’s arm, but that is not especially useful at second.
Báez had a total of 16 DRS this season, 11 of which came at second base in only 383 innings. His quick hands at the plate seems to translate to his elite tagging abilities, a skill that scouts don’t tend to evaluate heavily. August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs wrote a great piece on his lightning-quick tagging skills. Combined with his above-average baserunning skills and ability to stay out of double plays, Báez’s defense helped him get to 3.4 WAR this season, despite having a mediocre .314 OBP.
Speaking of his OBP, his offense is still a problem. Though his 94 wRC+ was fine for an excellent defensive second baseman, his floor is still quite low. His legendary bat speed gives him a ceiling to dream upon, but he still has poor plate discipline and lots of swing-and-miss in his game. He deserves a lot of credit for lowering his strikeout rate to 24 percent in 2016, down from 38.5 percent in 2014 and 2015 combined. Unfortunately, he is still hacking and rarely walking. In the history of baseball, you would be hard-pressed to find a hitter who raked and also walked as seldom as Báez does. He is going to have to take some lessons from Anthony Rizzo if he is going to reach his full potential at the plate. The good news for Cubs fans is that even as is, his defense makes him a solid, everyday player at second base.
As much as I have enjoyed Báez’s success this postseason, which includes a well-earned NLCS co-MVP, I am surprised at the amount of success he has had at the plate. I say that because there is no reason to throw him strikes, and I don’t understand why any pitchers on the Giants or Dodgers were doing so. Terry Francona is an excellent manager, and Cleveland has a great analytics department led by Baseball Prospectus alumnus Keith Woolner. I expect Cleveland pitchers to pitch around Báez and let him get himself out.
On the other side of the World Series match-up we have Francisco Lindor — and Francisco Lindor’s smile. Seriously, look at him:
In a recent episode of In Play, Pod(cast), I raved about Lindor. For his career, he has hit .306/.356/.454 for a 118 wRC+. Carlos Correa has been slightly better offensively, but Lindor is an outstanding defender at shortstop. He accumulated 27 DRS and 31.3 UZR in a little over a season and a half of play. He is easily a 70 defender, and I would not be surprised if some scouts graded his defense as an 80. His ability in the field is going to make him a perennial Gold Glove candidate. Thanks to that phenomenal glove, he was worth approximately 6 WAR this season, and he isn’t even 23 years old yet.
This postseason, Lindor’s bat has been as good as his glove, with a slash line of .323/.344/.581. Yes, that comes with a .421 BABIP and 28.6 percent HR/FB ratio, as crazy things tend to happen in measly sample sizes of 32 PA. That being said, the production still counts, and baseball fans who were not as familiar with him before are certainly familiar with him now.
His team did not even make the playoffs, but I would be remiss to not mention Correa. Last season’s Rookie of the Year had a great follow-up season. He hit .274/.361/.451, which was good for a 122 wRC+. His power regressed some, but he made up for it some by walking more. All this, and he — like Lindor — is only 22 years old.
Correa and Lindor have played almost the exact same number of games and have roughly identical bWARs. Lindor is the better defender, but Correa is a bit better with a bat and on the basepaths. FanGraphs version of WAR sees a bigger separation in their defense, and I agree with that assessment. Given Correa’s size, I was concerned about how his glove would play at shortstop. I was pleasantly surprised in 2015, but this past season has grown those concerns. With Alex Bregman on the roster now, I believe it would be best to play him at shortstop and move Correa over to third.
The exciting thing about Lindor and Correa is that we might be watching the best ever Puerto Rican shortstop and, if he moves there soon, third baseman ever, respectively. Puerto Rico has produced some truly great players at other positions. Just to name a few:
- Catcher - Iván Rodríguez, Yadier Molina
- Second Base - Roberto Alomar
- First Base - Carlos Delgado, Orlando Cepeda
- Center Field - Carlos Beltrán
- Right Field - Roberto Clemente
There have been good Puerto Rican players at the positions omitted, such as 3B Mike Lowell, LF Juan González, and SS José Valentín, but none of them rise to the level of the players listed above. Lindor and Correa could be those players.
The reason I bring this up is because Puerto Rico had been going through a bit of a drought in producing major league talent. There are reasons for this, such as Puerto Rican players being subject to the draft. It’s hard to compete with that when prospects from any other country, mostly the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, can basically sign as free agents whenever they want, and for way more money. Hopefully, Lindor, Correa, and Báez can help Puerto Rican kids feel more inspired to pursue baseball. The island has always had a deep love for the game, and kids can play all year around thanks to the weather.
Of course, the three players featured here are not the only boricuas in baseball. Carlos Beltrán and Yadier Molina are still productive and have had great careers. Giancarlo Stanton is half Puerto Rican, and Jake Arrieta is one-quarter Puerto Rican. Christian Vázquez and José Berríos have had rough starts to their careers but can still be good players. In the minors, Isan Díaz is exciting scouts, and Delvin Pérez is off to a good start in Rookie ball. Hopefully, these players will inspire more to come. Things are really looking up for growing Puerto Rican talent in baseball.
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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.