If there’s one thing that should unite all Chicago Cubs fans, it’s an unabashed adoration for Javier Báez (well, an unabashed adoration for Javier Báez and Pedro Strop’s hat). In every possible way, Báez is the superstar with flare that Cubs fans have never truly seen. This is a franchise that has had its share of stars, and its share of flamboyant players. However, with Báez the Cubs have that rare player who is both fantastic—and only getting better—and tune-in television every moment of every game. I’m not sure if Cubs fans, or Major League Baseball for that matter, truly understand the sort of superstar they have in Báez. A lot of that comes down to one simple thing: the greatness of Báez is almost impossible to quantify.
If I were to tell you that the Bayamón native had a TAv of .308, a FRAA of 2.8, a BRR of 3.2, a WARP of 6.0, and a slash line of .290/.326/.554 in 2018 you’d tell me he had a great year. Those numbers are great, because everything about Báez in the field, on the basepaths, and at the plate was great in 2018. On a team with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jon Lester, and Pedro Strop, somehow Báez became a leader and someone people identify as one of the faces of the franchise. He was able to do this because of the numbers he put up, but also because of the things he did that can’t be reflected in the numbers.
Now, I know that those of us who are more analytically inclined can sometimes struggle with the idea of the intangible. I know I scoff whenever I hear an announcer drone on about grit and a pitcher’s stuff. My issue isn’t in the existence of those qualities, it’s that they are never explained. Don’t just tell me a guy has grit, tell me what he’s done that makes him gritty. If you want to refer to Joe Kelly’s great stuff, tell me why it’s so great and explain how his stuff keeps getting him chances with teams despite his lack of consistent control. That’s where I fall when it comes to intangibles, and that’s why when I talk about the second baseman for the Puerto Rico national team having intangibles that push him from great to one of the best in the game, I plan on explaining those intangibles.
Let’s start with Javy’s positional flexibility, which is a big deal that really can’t be put into any sort of measurement. He plays elite defense at shortstop, second base, and third base. He’s the team’s emergency catcher and can play in the outfield if the need arises. Positional flexibility is a hallmark of this current Cubs era, and a trend that has become the norm in MLB as a whole. There’s no true way to measure how much value Báez brings by playing so many positions at such a high level. He finds himself snubbed every year when it comes to fielding awards. When he was in the discussion for National League Most Valuable Player this past year no one really knew what to do with the fact that Báez plays everywhere on the diamond. It became an intangible easily ignored, because with no way to quantify the inherent value in Báez playing everywhere people are less likely to factor it into how it’s something that pushes Javy into another level as a player.
I may not have any stat to show the value of Javy’s positional flexibility, but I can easily say it helps the team immensely. It allows for Báez to be shifted around the field, continuing to play every day while bench players get their reps as well and spell other players. Late in games, defensive substitutions become much easier when Joe Maddon knows that Báez can simply slide from shortstop to second base if need be. The Cubs are a better team because they have a player who can play elite defense at multiple positions, and do it regularly.
Someday soon Statcast will release data that will be able to quantify Javy’s ability to lay tags down faster than anyone else I’ve ever seen in baseball. Then that skill will be quantified. It still won’t tell the whole story, but at least another piece of the puzzle of why Javy is so great will be added to the board. It really is intriguing to watch Javy do something that no other player in baseball can do. His tags are lightning quick, and he is able to get the Cubs extra outs on defense that would otherwise not happen. In doing so he helps to save the arms of the pitchers, decrease the number of stressful innings the pitchers throw and decrease the likelihood that teams will continue to run on the Cubs.
What possibly won’t ever be able to be quantified is the hand-to-eye coordination that Javy possesses to make his fast tags possible. To say that something is inhuman is a misnomer because by being as coordinated as he is to make his tags, Javy is showing that a human can have his level of hand-to-eye coordination. But, if one looks across MLB there aren’t many others, if any at all, who display the hand-to-eye coordination skills of Javy. Just look at World Series Game 1 from the other day. Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox stole second base in the first inning. He did so because Manny Machado, a player with excellent hand-to-eye coordination, was not able to keep himself coordinated enough to catch the ball as it dropped and in one motion apply the tag. That he wasn’t able to complete play is not a knock on Machado. Rather, the fact that someone as skilled as Machado could not complete the play while Báez regularly completes that play is a testament to the tagging ability that helps to make Báez almost otherworldly.
Another skill that as of yet cannot be measured is the swim move to avoid tags that became very popular in 2018. This is a skill that I never witnessed prior to Báez pulling it off against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2017. More and more players are attempting the swim move, and it has added a new element to running the bases. It won’t always work, not even for Javy, but by employing the swim move players are making the other team have to contend with more than just a straight slide. Cubs fans have seen the effect this can have when Javy is on the basepath. The fielder may take his eye off of a throw because he’s worried about a swim move. Or, maybe he waits too long to apply a tag and a when a swim move never happens the runner finds themselves safe anyway. By pioneering the swim move Báez has increased his already incredibly valuable baserunning skills.
An area where Báez both helps and hurts the team is his energy. This is similar to the idea of grit, but in the case of Báez, it’s not really grit but rather the energy he gives to his teammates, and the crowd. Javy can bring the team to life and ignite the crowd with his reactions to his own heroics on the basepaths, a big play in the field, or a hard hit ball. You can’t really measure how much this helps the team, and it’s certainly not something that always works. But, there are times when Javy reacts loudly, the crowd gets loud, and his teammates respond loudly in return. Those are the moments when you can see the superstar in Báez shining at its brightest.
Conversely, because Báez so easily wears his emotions on his sleeves there are times when his negative reactions can add to the team’s maladies. When Javy is in a slump it sometimes shows in how he reacts on the field. He has a negative way of expressing himself that easily transfers to his teammates and the crowd. Báez has an infectious personality, and while usually a boost to him as a player and the team as a whole, there are instances when it greatly hurts the team. There’s no measurememt for this, but when Javy is going bad, the team is often going bad as well, and the crowd has a negative aura surrounding them. These are the moments when Báez’s star is at its most dull.
In the end, the positive intangibles of Javy greatly outweigh any negatives. They paint a picture of a young superstar who can’t be easily defined by the statistics he produces. Maybe people would be able to accept Báez as the amazing talent he is if he got on base more and had a higher OBP. That would be great no matter how you slice it, but that’s not really the type of ballplayer Javy is, has been, and more than likely ever will be. That’s why the intangibles are so important with Báez, and why people need to pay more attention to those skills when ascribing any value he brings to the Cubs. Without the intangible value of Báez, I’m not sure the team becomes the current incarnation of the Cubs. If that doesn’t allow you to recognize the unquantifiable value Báez brings to the team, I’m not sure we’re watching the same player.
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Hanisch—USA Today Sports