Position(s): SS, 2B, 3B
2018 Stats: 645 PA, .290/.326/.554, 25.9 K%, 4.5 BB%, .264 ISO, .307 TAv, 2.8 FRAA, 6.0 WARP
Year in Review: It seems like everything we ever suspected about what Javy Báez could be came to fruition in 2018. He flashed every bit of his skill set, giving us something new to rave about seemingly on a daily basis. His glove was beyond reproach, making spectacular plays at each position at which he appeared. The power came through in a way that we hadn’t seen before. And while the strikeout-to-walk ratio continued to be suspect (as it always will be), his contact rate was up a touch from the previous season.
Javy posted career marks in average (.290), on-base percentage (.326), homers (34), ISO (.264), and TAv (.307), while maintaining the highest hard contact rate of his career (sitting at just about 35 percent). The idea of him flashing career numbers across the board alone is indicative of the type of season that he had. But as has been the case with Báez in each season he’s been in the bigs, he always gives us something new to watch.
This year, one of those factors was his increasing ability to take the ball to the opposite field. This was something I touched on back at the end of June. While he obviously still struck out a high rate, Báez was able to compensate for pitchers’ tendencies to pitch to him low and away by driving the ball to the opposite field with more regularity. This resulted in a Oppo% over 26 percent, easily the highest of his career. As indicated by his spray chart below, a number of his extra base hits, including eight of his homers, were the result of strong oppo contact:
Fielding metrics aren’t perfect, and I’ve lost some of my bullishness on how reliable they are even against the eye test, but they especially didn’t paint Báez in a positive light. His UZR at shortstop (smaller sample, given significant time at second and third) came in on the negative side, but he did post a DRS of 3. Which is a positive sign, at least. Regardless, we know what Báez is capable of with the leather. He regularly turns in routine plays, with range and an arm tha teach grade out as easily among of the league’s best.
His baserunning was another skill that came to the forefront this year. FanGraphs gave him the best baserunning mark of his career, at 3.9, while his 21 stolen bases were tops on the team. At one point, we thought he’d get to 30/30, but the Cubs aren’t a team particularly adept at stealing to begin with, given that Ian Happ’s eight swipes were second-most. At the end of the day, we’ve known for a while that Javier Báez possesses virtually every tool, and does so at a high level, and 2018 was the year we saw it all play out in the realest way possible. That second-place finish in the National League MVP race not only validates it, but will likely motivate a guy like Báez, who has demonstrated an obscene work ethic, to finish one place higher in the future.
Looking Ahead: There is zero question about the fact that Javier Báez should be this team’s starting shortstop moving into the future. Addison Russell’s off-the-field issues and subsequent suspension should leave that without any sort of doubt. At least that’s the hope. Even in skill set, Báez is clearly the better player. One hopes that Cubs brass will recognize these things and move forward with Báez starting at the six, and with Russell either looking for work or sitting firmly on a new club’s bench. With a competent backup, you can still move him around a little bit if necessary, given that we know he has the versatility to play all over the infield, and do so effectively.
But what the question of many will be whether or not Báez can continue to be the impact performer that he was in 2018, to such an extreme level. It’s interesting, to say the least, that the outside perception of Báez is that of a “showy” type, which would appear to call his work ethic into question. This is a player, though, that we’ve seen commit to improving various elements of his skill set every single offseason. And the following season he demonstrates improvement in those aspects. His work ethic is beyond reproach. The fact that he oozes swagger shouldn’t take away from that. For me, there isn’t any question that he’s very much a centerpiece of this team, if not the centerpiece of this team, and he can absolutely repeat such output well into the future. There isn’t anything glaring, like an obscene BABIP or something, that might indicate otherwise.
So unless something weird happens, we should see exactly what we hope for: an MVP candidate at the shortstop position, who plays the game with as much passion and swagger as we’ve seen. With natural hands that rival some of the game’s best on the middle infield, throughout all of baseball history. That has finally received some validation on a national stage. As disappointing and frustrating as 2018 was with this Cubs team, Javy was anything but, and gives us every reason to be excited to watch in 2019.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports