On Javy Baez’s Chances at an MVP

Javier Báez is a legitimate candidate for the National League Most Valuable Player award. On a team with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras, each elite at their respective positions, it’s Báez who has garnered the most frequent discussion in the MVP talks. And while there’s still a good chunk of the season to go, the talk is warranted. However, given his drastically different skill set from past MVPs, as well as current candidates, it’s worth wondering just how much of a chance he has to take home such significant hardware at season’s end.

In regard to the skill set, yes, there are the drawbacks to Javy’s game. We see them on a near-nightly basis. The strikeouts are high, to the tune of 24 percent. He doesn’t walk, like, ever. But with punchouts such a prominent part of today’s game, including with many elite hitters (Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Judge, etc.), it shouldn’t nearly be as stigmatized as it has been in the past. He makes some outs on the bases, due to that aggressive nature, and he’s prone to erraticism in the field, on occasion. However, none of those are an true detriment worth changing, when you consider the skill set and value that he’s brought to this Cubs ballclub in 2018. One can probably make the argument that his skill set is above numbers. However, given how essential numbers are going to be in evaluating MVP candidates, does he even stand a chance?

By nearly every account, Baez has turned in a career year thus far, with almost two full months still to go in the season. His average (.302) is up almost 30 points higher than either of the two previous years. His on-base is easily a career high (.333). He’s bringing the power with more regularity than almost any hitter in baseball, with a .274 ISO. A .312 TAv is almost 30 points above his career average, while his wRC+ of 137 represents the first time in his career he’s been over 100.

Just for fun, the following represents where Javy Báez stands in relation to the last five NL position players to take home the Most Valuable Player award, bearing in mind that there’s still a long while to go in this 2018 season:

Buster Posey (2012) .336 .408 .213 .346 164 9.9
Andrew McCutchen (2014) .314 .410 .228 .350 168 6.6
Bryce Harper (2015) .330 .460 .319 .386 197 11.2
Kris Bryant (2016) .292 .385 .262 .350 148 9.1
Giancarlo Stanton (2017) .281 .376 .350 .349 156 8.6
Javier Báez (2018) .302 .335 .274 .312 137 3.8

And here he is again, against players that are, in all likelihood, going to be considered MVP candidates among National League position players (in no particular order):

Nolan Arenado .308 .392 .288 .320 146 4.7
Freddie Freeman .316 .399 .215 .342 147 4.8
Matt Carpenter .276 .388 .295 .338 155 4.6
Paul Goldschmidt .277 .384 .243 .328 144 3.7
Javier Báez .302 .335 .274 .312 137 3.8

As far as past MVPs are concerned, it’s an interesting situation. Because, again, Baez represents a different skill set than the other five. You have a pure power hitter like Stanton, big OBP and big power guys (like Bryant and Harper), and then all-around types like Posey and McCutchen, who were essential in playoff runs for their respective teams. Even at season’s end, his numbers might not be able to measure up. Obviously we’re hoping that voters don’t live and die by the stat sheet.

In comparison to some of the 2018 candidates, it’s a similar situation. Arenado and Freeman are perhaps the two frontrunners, with both posting huge OBP numbers and winning big in the park-adjusted, runs-created types of figures. But while he doesn’t necessarily match up well on the on-base side, he’s right there in regard to average and power production. Of course, it’s the other factors, largely unique to Báez, that will really allow him to be a horse in this MVP race.

As a baserunner, Báez has a large advantage. Aggressiveness be damned, Javy grades out as easily the best baserunner among the other candidates, with FanGraphs’ baserunning metric coming in at 5.5 for him. The closest to him is Goldschmidt, at 2.0. Báez’s 19 steals are tied for fourth-most in baseball, and have him very well on track to go for 30/30 this season. His instinctive nature is going far in generating runs for the Cubs, regardless of how he reaches base. As an offensive entity, he does so many things that make him the Cubs’ most valuable player this year.

The defensive element is more difficult to consider. It’s hard to measure him up against the other candidates of this year, given the difference in position. Furthermore, defensive metrics really do not like him, with neither BP (-1.1 FRAA) or FanGraphs (1.2 Def) painting an overly positive picture for him. It’s all about the eye test in that regard. He’s versatile. He’s range-y. He has as strong an arm as any infielder in baseball, with unreal hands and instincts. Voters are almost certain to recognize that element of his game. Will it be enough of a boost to get him to a legitimate part of the discussion?

It’s obviously quite difficult for me to be objective about Javy Báez. But even in the most neutral sense possible, it’s really hard to keep him out of the discussion. He brings a much different skill set, but has performed at a high level in nearly every regard, to the point where much of his output is very much hanging with more established candidates. With that said, it’s a total wild card as to whether or not he garners legitimate consideration. The other candidates are more established, reach base far more, and aren’t as polarizing (the fact that Báez is even a polarizing player is absurd in its own right). But a player who is so dangerous at the plate, creates mayhem on the basepaths, and brings elite upside with the glove, all of which have been displayed with astounding regularity this year, absolutely deserves to be there.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports

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