One of the primary objectives of baseball analytics is to measure the complete value of each player as accurately as possible. For position players, this encompasses hitting, fielding, and baserunning. Each of those three components can be broken down into several subcategories, such as walk rate and slugging percentage.
We’ll never achieve complete understanding, of course. Baseball is far too nuanced with so many minute events occurring simultaneously on every pitch. Many of them are too small and insignificant to measure, such as how quickly an infielder transfers the ball from his glove to his throwing hand. Yet this transfer speed undoubtedly marks the difference between safe and out several times over the course of a season.
Other times, we measure an event correctly, but attribute it wrongly. Let’s say a runner on first is taking a lead. The first baseman creeps back as if to field his position. Instead, the pitchers wheels and fires toward the bag, the first baseman runs back to meet the pitcher’s throw, and the runner is picked off. The pitcher gets full credit for the pickoff, but it wouldn’t have happened without the first baseman’s bluff.
The point is that there’s a lot about baseball that’s usually too insignificant for statheads to get correct (or at least we haven’t figured it out yet). However, there are certain players that are SOOOO good at a unique skill that it makes a noticeable difference. In that light, please observe Javy Báez tagging some runners.
Báez is the greatest tagger in baseball history. Maybe. We don’t know! No one really measures this kind of thing. Most of the time, it’s not worth measuring.
By UZR, Báez is a fairly average middle infielder. In 2018, he was worth 1.7 UZR/150 at second base and -1.3 as a shortstop. He also spent some time at third base, but second base was his primary position (as was pointed out on this recent episode of Effectively Wild, which you really ought to give a listen).
Neither UZR, DRS, nor any other defensive metric includes tagging value. If a runner is thrown out stealing, the credit goes to the catcher and the pitcher, not the middle infielder. The infielder, though, has an incredibly important role in the play.
The highlight reel above showed eleven rapid fire tags from Báez. Let’s break them down to see how much he contributed to wiping out each baserunner.
This was the famous no-look tag from the World Baseball Classic. Playing for Team Puerto Rico, Báez celebrates Yadier Molina’s throw before, during, and after he makes the tag! He gets all the flair credit in the world, but with such a precise throw, the tag doesn’t contribute much to the out. It’s lots of fun and incredibly difficult, but a replacement level tagger still would’ve gotten the runner. Furthermore, this wouldn’t count toward defensive stats anyway because it was an exhibition game.
This one shows some true acrobatics. Given how far he is from the ball and runner, and how close they are to each other, Báez has no business catching the throw at all, let alone making the tag.
A no-look swipe tag while his body momentum carries him away from the play? Yes, please.
Báez is a ninja. The runner is moving roughly 25 feet per second, covering maybe a three foot distance from the first picture to the second. That’s about 12/100 of a second. In that same time span, Báez moves his glove about seven feet!
This tag is similar to the previous one, except maybe even better. He moves his glove six feet in the time the runner covers two! How fast do you think the average human can swing their arms? Not as fast as Báez!
This having been said, the runner looks like he was safe. Maybe the umpire blew the call in part because of this spectacular tag. If catchers have framing runs, Báez should get tagging framing runs. In lieu of that, we’ll just give him a perfect 10/10.
Once again, Báez spares his catcher some embarrassment on a bad throw. He deftly uses his momentum to catch the ball and carry his glove into the runner’s body in one motion.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with this tag, but Báez contributed minimally to the out. Look where the throw was. Now look at the little blur on the left of the image. That’s the runner’s hand just emerging onto the scene. This is an easy out by the time the ball gets to our protagonist.
Lightning hands again! This blurry victim is probably Yasiel Puig getting tagged in the head; make of that what you will.
Ehhhh, it’s a nice tag, but look at that slide! The runner does everything he can to curl into Báez’ glove. At the same time he contracts his leg to prevent it from reaching the base. With a half decent slide, he would be safe.
The blurs tell you how fast everything moves. Most of Báez is relatively stationary, as is the umpire. The runner is a little blurry, as he’s mid-slide. Now check out the glove. You can’t even see it!
Puig is back for seconds, this time trying to stretch a single. He’s out by five feet. There’s really nothing special about the tag. However...
The Dikembe Mutombo finger wag in Puig’s face? Oh yeah, we’ll take that all day long! Now that we’re a few months removed, Puig probably appreciates it too.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983