As part of his explosive breakout 2018 season, Javier Baez didn't just give the Cubs elite hitting numbers and indispensable versatility around the infield -- he also added an element of thrill to everything he did, whether in his free-swinging approach, aggressive baserunning or daring tags in the field.The career
As part of his explosive breakout 2018 season, Javier Baez didn't just give the Cubs elite hitting numbers and indispensable versatility around the infield -- he also added an element of thrill to everything he did, whether in his free-swinging approach, aggressive baserunning or daring tags in the field.
The career year from one of the most exciting players in baseball culminated in a runner-up finish in the National League Most Valuable Player Award voting on Thursday, as Baez finished second to Milwaukee's Christian Yelich, who ran away with his first MVP Award after winning the NL batting title and leading the Brewers to within one game of the World Series.
:: NL Most Valuable Player voting totals ::
Baez didn't garner a first-place vote, but he secured 19 of the 30 possible second-place votes and a handful of votes for third, fourth and fifth place, landing him comfortably ahead of the third-place finisher, the Rockies' Nolan Arenado. Teammate Anthony Rizzo also garnered votes, finishing in 17th place after getting one vote each for eighth, ninth and 10th places.
"He cares so much about winning and he cares about his teammates, doing little things to help engage them and get them better," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said about Baez prior to the announcement. "Those intangibles behind the scenes are part of what makes him more valuable."
Even without considering those intangibles, Baez's 5.3 WAR, per FanGraphs, gave him the 15th most valuable season by any Cubs player in the last 30 years, and the fourth best in the past decade, trailing only teammate Kristopher Bryant's 2016 MVP campaign, and his 2015 and '17 seasons.
Set to turn 26 in December, Baez paced the Senior Circuit in RBIs (111) while posting career-bests in homers (34), steals (21), average (.290), OPS (.881) and OPS+ (126). In fact, he became one of only three players in Cubs history with at least 30 homers and at least 20 steals in a season, joining Sammy Sosa and Ryne Sandberg.
He posted those numbers despite being more aggressive at the plate than ever, swinging on 57.8 percent of pitches (trailing only Corey Dickerson) and 48.7 percent of first pitches (trailing only Carlos Gomez). He explained to MLB Network prior to the announcement that his hitting success in 2018 stemmed from a more relaxed swing and an increased focus on hitting the ball to the opposite field.
"I had to relax the way my bat worked," Baez said. "I was just thinking and talking to myself and asking why I couldn't do a check swing. It was because my hands are way fast when I'm coming to swing. I couldn't stop it. So I told myself I was going to see the ball with both of my eyes, and I started trying to hit it to first base, and it got easier during [batting practice], and I got used to seeing the ball with both of my eyes."
And he did it all while moving around the infield to fit the Cubs' needs -- he began the season as Chicago's starting second baseman and ended it as the shortstop, logging 22 games at third base along the way. He was a plus defender at each position, too: According to FanGraphs, he was worth positive defensive runs saved at second, third and short in 2018.
There were some better hitters in the league, and there were some better fielders in the league, but put it all together, and Baez was the most valuable and exciting player on one of the best rosters in the NL, and though he didn't get to take home the hardware to show for it in 2018, the young star has only been getting better every year.
Do-Hyoung Park is a reporter for MLB.com based in the Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark.