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The price of fame and how Javy Báez is adjusting to the spotlight

3 years agoTony Andracki

MESA, Ariz. — In the couple years following the Cubs’ World Series run in 2016, Javy Báez admitted he got caught up in the celebrity spotlight and wasn’t as focused on his craft as he would have liked.

“I didn’t get away from it, but I wasn’t into baseball,” Báez said. “I wasn’t trying to get better every day.”

So if the 2017-19 version of Báez wasn’t focused on getting better each day, what kind of potential does a locked-in “El Mago” have?

For those three seasons, he averaged 29 homers, 90 RBI and an .845 OPS while making a pair of All-Star games, finishing second in NL MVP voting in 2018 and winning a Silver Slugger that same year.

Báez had already flashed his immense potential entering the 2016 playoff run, but that fall represented his coming out party on a national stage. He was named co-NLCS MVP and wound up starting every playoff game after making just 97 starts in the regular season.

When he spoke to the media early in camp this spring, he admitted he got away from the game mentally after the World Series. He elaborated on that Monday, explaining how he felt more like a celebrity than a baseball player.

Fame came swiftly for Báez, from appearing in Daddy Yankee’s videos on social media to a turn in the 2017 ESPN Body Issue. He starred for Puerto Rico in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and had a street named after him in Humboldt Park in Chicago in April 2017.

“It was overwhelming for sure,” he said. “I was just distracted. I talked about this with Jed [Hoyer]. After we won, after the World Baseball Classic, after the Body Issue, I just thought that people and fans, they started looking at me differently, not just as a baseball player. That kinda got me away from everything. It kinda got me away from my family, from baseball, from just being a normal person.

“…I wasn’t really into baseball. It was something that hurts me because I know I can prove a lot of things out there. But if you don’t work on it, you won’t get better.”

As the 2018 season wore on and the MVP talk really started to swirl around Báez, he tried to block out all that noise. His performance on the field never suffered as he led the NL in RBI in 2018 and was on his way to another MVP-caliber campaign in 2019 before a broken thumb cost him the final month of the season.

Entering 2020, he felt like he had found his way again and was completely focused on baseball. But then the pandemic hit and the pressure of the shortened season weighed on him heavily.

He felt like he was trying too hard last year as he posted a .203 batting average and .599 OPS while striking out 31.9% of the time.

“I wasn’t lost, but the way that the game changed, I didn’t make that last [adjustment],” Báez said. “That’s why I feel like I was struggling. Obviously I want to hit the fastball, but if [opposing pitchers] don’t throw it, I gotta make them throw it. I wasn’t making them throw it. I was just swinging at sliders outside the zone like when I came up in 2014.

“I was struggling, but I was trying too much instead of slowing the game down and letting it come back. I feel like I was in a rush to make adjustments.”

Báez believes he’s in a much better place mentally this spring, even with contract negotiations ongoing. He is set to be a free agent after the 2021 season and said he is curious to see how the next two weeks play out in talks with the Cubs front office.

By the time April 1 comes, Báez would prefer to focus only on baseball. In Cactus League games this spring, he’s working on maintaining his approach throughout the entire at-bat and tracking the ball from right-handers in particular.

But mostly, Báez is working to stay loose.

“Play relaxed and let the game come to me,” he said. “Slow the game down a little bit. Right now, I’m just focused on my timing and my offense. Trying to get better there and once I prove that, they’re going to see a difference.”

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