Mark Lemke was the artificial pumpkin-spice flavoring of the 1990s, a harbinger of the transition from summer to fall as reliable as seeing the leaves change or opening the front door to a gust of cold air that sends you diving to the back of the closet for a sweater. Lemke, a second baseman for the Braves from 1988 to 1997, was the ultimate dirty uniform guy, constantly covered in a patina of pine tar and other grimy substances of unknown provenance, almost visibly sticky, like a raw chicken breast rolled in egg and panko crumbs. A literally gritty player.
Lemke was also a switch hitter, but his career OPS+ of 71 makes me wonder why he bothered. He stuck on those Braves teams because of his defense, and because with three Hall of Famers in the starting rotation, the Braves didn’t need to score that many runs.
But Lemke’s introduction to the national spotlight came in the 1991 World Series, in which he had One of Those Weeks. Starting six of seven games, Lemke hit .417/.462/.708 with three triples and figured in back-to-back walkoffs, driving in the winning run in Game 3 and scoring the winning run in Game 4. Lemke, a below-average player with exceptional timing, had the best week of his life with every baseball fan in America watching, and in doing so, cemented his reputation as a clutch player.
Javier Báez is the millennial Mark Lemke, a utility infielder on a great team who was largely unknown to casual fans before he showed up in the NLDS and erased all words from the English dictionary except the ones needed to say, “Oh my God, how did he do that?” He needs to be that spectacular, because while old people are easily amused, our generation needs more than a dirty uniform.
Báez is currently in the lineup for his glove, but when he was coming up he was supposed to be an impact hitter. He was drafted ninth overall (one spot behind Francisco Lindor) in 2011 (one of the strongest amateur draft classes ever), and was a consensus top-10 prospect when he got called up in 2014. Báez is listed at 6-foot, 190 pounds, which, though bigger than Hank Aaron, is small for a power hitter in today’s game. Báez gets around that by coming out of his shoes every time he swings, an approach that resulted in a 41.5 percent strikeout rate as a rookie. Báez has modulated his approach somewhat, but if you look at his game-winning home run in Game 1 of the NLDS …
… you can see he still gets his money’s worth. Though Báez cut his strikeout rate by more than a third, he was still a hacker with a 94 wRC+ this year. That level of offensive production, paired with elite defense at second and third, make him a good player, but not a superstar.
Báez has been this postseason’s breakout star not because he’s been especially good (though he has, and we’ll get to that in a second), but because he plays baseball the way a drunk theater kid sings along at a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When people say an athlete “goes all-out” it conjures up images of floor-slappy point guards who specialize in taking charges and kicking people in the knees when the ref’s back is turned. Báez goes all-out, but in a way that celebrates baseball as an entertainment venture instead of confusing it for war.
Look at Báez’s steal of home in Game 1 of the NLCS. I say “steal of home” because that’s technically what it was, though if you showed Jackie Robinson this video and told him Báez stole home, he’d smack you right in the face.
Báez got picked off third base — which only happens to maniacally aggressive base runners anyway — and was so far off the bag he figured he might as well come home. But Báez is fast enough, and mentally quick enough, that he beat the return throw.
Even with highlight homers and baserunning antics this postseason, Báez’s defense has been what’s so perfectly fit into a world where GIFs and Vines are a significant mode of visual communication. In part because he’s naturally left-handed (which is becoming the easiest box to fill on the Cubs Postseason TV Broadcast Bingo Card), Báez is conspicuously good at applying tags, which feels ridiculous to say until you watch the highlights. Despite his penchant for highlight-reel plays up the middle, this is another aspect of the game in which Báez has found success by dialing things back — prioritizing, in the words of manager Joe Maddon, “making the routine play routinely.”
But Báez can also make the spectacular play routinely, thanks to his quickness, high baseball IQ, and fantastic hands.
It remains to be seen whether Báez’s run as a clutch, two-way monster and fan favorite is a Lemkesian hot streak or the new normal. It’s been at least 15 years, maybe longer, since there were so many talented young infielders in the game at the same time. (For instance, if Puerto Rico fields a full-strength team for the World Baseball Classic next spring, Báez would have a hard time breaking into an infield featuring Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Nolan Arenado.) And, in the future, the Cubs might find Báez more useful as a trade chip than a long-term second baseman; it was very nearly Báez, and not Starlin Castro, who got shipped out last winter. That’s troubling, because Báez can’t become this generation’s Lemke if this generation’s Braves trade him.
But while that conversation is the logical outgrowth of watching Báez over the past few weeks, it feels inappropriate somehow. If you’re worried about the future while Báez is flinging himself around the diamond, you need to take a deep breath and enjoy the present a little bit more.