Mets-Cubs Rewind: Javy Baez’s Unorthodox Positioning at Short Against Jacob deGrom

Much of Jacob deGrom’s no-decision against the Cubs in Tuesday’s suspended game has already been well-dissected. The Mets righthander threw his first-ever 100 mph pitch, striking out Javier Baez in the first inning. He dazzled again with nearly no run support. And he remains an NL Cy Young front-runner with just eight wins.

But lost in what was ultimately a 2-1 Cubs victory was deGrom’s hitting. Or more precisely, the Cubs’ positioning of Baez at short against deGrom that nearly cost the team a win. In this edition of Cubs Rewind, let’s review those unusual choices and their impact.

For background, deGrom does display some athleticism as a hitter. He has one career homer and just a 27 percent career K rate. But he also came into Tuesday’s game hitting only .111. And although deGrom throws righty, he hits lefty, which gave Cole Hamels an extra advantage.

DeGrom first came to plate in the third inning of the scoreless game. In my opinion, the Cubs made an unusual defensive choice positioning Baez to play deGrom as a slightly up-the-middle hitter. That’s a lot of respect to give the opposing pitcher.

It wasn’t a big shift to be sure, but playing Baez closer to second base gave up the hole on the left side to a late-swinging hitter. The clarity of the below image isn’t great, but you can see that positioning and how the Cubs moved David Bote off third base to narrow the hole:Chicago Cubs

It was clear deGrom was in total contact mode He even choked up on a bat borrowed from second baseman Jeff McNeil. He swung late at a couple early offerings from Hamels and then did so again on a third pitch that he lined softly to Bote in foul territory

In the fifth, deGrom came up again with no one on. The game was still scoreless and Baez again played him slightly up the middle. Again he swung late on Hamels’ early offerings, until solidly striking a 92 mph fastball just a half step to Baez’s glove side.

A tough hop nearly handcuffed Baez, but he made a good grab before taking his time with the throw, allowing deGrom to leg out an infield single. It was a mental error by Baez, one of those aspects that separates his defensive play at short from Addison Russell’s. Even Cubs color man Jim Deshaies noted this pattern in his typically informative-but-not-critical tone.

“It happened the other day. It was actually Hamels’ complete game [against the Reds]. Jose Peraza hit Javy a ground ball, and [Baez] waited back on it. Peraza can really scoot,“ Deshaies said. “Here, it is a little more understandable with the pitcher going down the line. [Baez] probably felt he had more time, but indeed he did not.”

On the Mets’ TV broadcast, color man Ron Darling was not as kind.

“Baez knew he had made a really good play, and then he kind of tried to style it,” Darling said. “Once he tried to style it, deGrom embarrassed him.”

Ouch, but did Baez really “style it”? Well, yeah, he did. It wasn’t a complete showboat routine, but it was enough to let deGrom beat the throw when he shouldn’t have been able to. So credit deGrom for some great hustle and being more aware of the importance of every at-bat in a scoreless pitchers’ duel. Chicago Cubs

DeGrom ultimately did not score, but the misplay added 12 pitches to Hamels’ count and effectively ended his night. Tommy La Stella pinch hit for Hamels in the bottom of the inning, leaving the starter with 93 pitches over five innings for the night. It must also be noted that Daniel Murphy’s inability to turn a double play in the third added another 10 pitches.

But reviewing deGrom’s infield hit purely from a positioning perspective, the fact that he essentially hit the ball right at Baez might seem to validate Baez’s positioning. Still, I’m curious what data the Cubs were going off of. With just eight career hits in 68 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, he hardly has a deep track record to go off. Further, based on deGrom’s spray chart against lefties a solid case can be made against the Cubs approach.

My instinct would have been for Baez to play deGrom to swing late (as he otherwise did with every other pitch he made contact that night). Thus I’d have shaded Baez closer to the shortstop hole and moved Bote closer to the line to cut off a random late-swinging double.

Of course, by shading Baez more toward the 5½ hole, he would not have been able to glove deGrom’s infield hit. Then again, shading deGrom up the middle didn’t exactly prevent this hit either.

Whether you agree with this positioning or not, the Cubs’ positioning for deGrom’s third at-bat was downright unorthodox. This came in the 6th, when the game was still a scoreless tie with two outs and runners on second and third with Jorge de la Rosa in relief. Bote played even with third base and a little closer to the line, if only to hold the runner on third a tad closer.

Where was Baez? On the TV broadcasts, Cubs play-by-play man Len Kasper noticed it first.

“Baez the shortstop – how about this – is playing in the grass in the outfield,” he said. “You don’t see a guy play that deep at that position often.”

Here’s what Kasper saw:Chicago Cubs

Talk about respecting deGrom’s powerful batsmanship. Baez was even more up the middle and well into the outfield. Given that deGrom had beat out the previous grounder and had been late on every other pitch – including against de la Rosa – this positioning is just head-scratching.

True enough, deGrom swung late on a 91 mph fastball and hit a routine grounder toward the shortstop hole. It was out of Bote’s reach and Baez tracked it down in short left field as the runner on third scored easily. Had Baez been shading deGrom toward the hole, would he have made the play to end the inning? Most probably. Instead, deGrom ended up 2-for-3 on two infield hits and with the Mets only RBI.

One can’t knock Baez for his defensive positioning since we must assume it came at the direction of the dugout based on a pre-game strategic assessment. And if Baez was improvising, it’s again on the dugout to correct his positioning.

This shows just how thin the margin for error can be in a duel of elite pitchers when they’re both on. Fortunately, the Cubs weren’t playing only deGrom, but an entire Mets team that is far from the equal of their standout ace. Against a better lineup, the Cubs might have found themselves down yet another run or two with no chance to tie before the rains came.

It’s the sort of small detail you hope the team’s defensive strategists review more closely moving forward. Maybe their alignment of Baez was dead-on and  based on other factors. But maybe next time, you don’t position your shortstop against the opposing pitcher the same as you would against Daniel Murphy.

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