Baez's MVP case lies in extraordinary versatility

No one has repeated Cubs infielder's feat since 1975

September 5th, 2018

Depending on how you view these things, is going to find himself in something like an eight-way race for the National League Most Valuable Player Award at the end of the month. (Remember: ballots are due at the end of the regular season, even though the awards won't be announced until November.) Two of his competitors play in the outfield for the Brewers, who face the Cubs in Wednesday's MLB.TV Free Game of the Day at 8 p.m. ET. 
With the crowded race, Baez could win the award or he could finish something like seventh, and neither outcome would be all that surprising -- the competition is just that tight. So how is he going to set himself apart? It might have to be with the one thing that Baez offers in a way that no other candidate can: his versatility. 
Watch FREE on MLB.TV: Cubs vs. Brewers tonight, 8 p.m. ET
Baez, hitting .299/.330/.578 entering play on Tuesday, is having an objectively fantastic season. Despite an expansion of his famously free-swinging ways, he's become one of only three Cubs to have a season of 30 home runs and 20 stolen bases, along with Sammy Sosa (three times) and Ryne Sandberg (1990). Thanks to Baez's value added on the bases and in the field as well as with his bat, he'll end up with one of the dozen or so most valuable seasons by a Cubs hitter in the past 30 years.

No one disputes that Baez has been great this year, it's just that in the context of the NL MVP Award conversation, lots of guys have been great. If we check out the FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement leaderboards, we'll see that each of the top seven names have an argument to make. (Don't worry about differences in tenths of a point of WAR; they're not worth worrying about.) 
5.4 WAR -- Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
5.2 WAR -- , D-backs
5.1 WAR -- Baez, Cubs
5.0 WAR -- , Brewers
4.8 WAR -- , Brewers
4.7 WAR -- , Rockies
4.6 WAR -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
Now, it's very true that the Most Valuable Player Award is not simply a tally of "who has the most Wins Above Replacement," though there's generally a very strong correlation between the year's best player and the player with the most WAR. In this case, each name listed is on a team in the playoff hunt, which unfortunately seems to be a prerequisite for some voters, and the list doesn't even include pitchers like and , who may get some measure of support.
When you look at the list above, Baez is squarely in the mix, but he doesn't stand out. He'll probably be outhomered by Carpenter, Arenado and maybe Goldschmidt. Baez has 21 steals, but Cain has 25. He's a phenomenal defender, but so is Arenado. So is Cain. Baez is tied with for the most runs driven in, but voters don't care about RBIs as much as they used to. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, he is outslugging every NL player other than , which is great, but his .330 on-base percentage is tied for 89th. 
All of that may or may not be enough to push Baez over the top for voters, so instead, his supporters may want to focus on his nearly unprecedented versatility, at least at this level of offensive production. Remember, he started the year as Chicago's primary second baseman, filling in every now and then for at shortstop. When hit the disabled list, Baez began to see more time at third. When arrived to play second and Russell was injured, Baez played shortstop every day, returning to play third on Monday and second on Tuesday. 

Dating back to the beginning of baseball's history in the 19th century, here is a full and complete list of every player who had a qualified season with an OPS+ of at least 130 (100 is league average) while playing at least 15 games at second, shortstop and third, and doing it all with positive defensive value.
Rogers Hornsby, 1919
Billy Grabarkewitz, 1970
Toby Harrah, 1975
Javier Baez, 2018
That's it. The other three include an inner-circle Hall of Famer (Hornsby) and a pair of useful players with five All-Star appearances between them. If we keep it at 130 OPS+ but remove the requirement for "positive defensive value," then the only other name that shows up is , for the Astros last year. No one's done it playing first, second and third. No one's done it playing first, third and short.
This just doesn't happen that often, players hitting at a high level while fielding the three most valuable infield positions at a high level, and it's now been over 40 years since you saw a similar season. (It's true that Carpenter has also played multiple spots, but he's still primarily a corner infielder, and not one who offers a particularly strong amount of defensive value.) 

Is that enough to boost Baez in the minds of award voters, assuming that the season-ending stat lines all look relatively similar to what they do now? It's difficult to say. Harrah finished 15th in the 1975 American League MVP Award voting, but we also know that voters considered these things wildly different back then.
Baez already had a "soft factor" in his favor, considering his unofficial status as "baseball's most exciting player." (You can't ever quantify this. But he is.) He's not alone there, either; Carpenter has his salsa-fueled binge from a terrible start to getting his name in this conversation, and Goldschmidt has a similar story as well. 
Baez's versatility is a little more tangible than a turn-around season because on-field versatility has become more and more important in baseball, as his own teammate could tell you a lot about. It feels like the Cubs wouldn't be able to do nearly as much of what they do without Baez around. That's always been true, of course, but this year he's added the outstanding bat to what had previously been a powerful-but-flawed profile.
The ability to shift from position to position while playing at a high level, unlike any player we've seen in decades, could sway some voters in Baez's favor. But even if not, whether he finishes first or fourth of seventh, he has had the breakout season that Cubs fans have been waiting on for years. They're probably the NL's best team. Baez might just be their best player.