Chicago Cubs: Javier Baez is once again quietly contending for NL MVP

(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /

For some reason, no one is talking about Chicago Cubs superstar Javier Baez this season, despite his playing better than he did in a breakout 2018 season.

I’m sorry, but there’s no way Cody Bellinger keeps up the torrid pace he’s opened the season on. The Los Angeles Dodgers slugger has put every other player in the game to shame over the season’s first month-plus, leading baseball in virtually every offensive category. But that doesn’t mean anything for Chicago Cubs do-all standout Javier Baez.

Baez is one of just five players in the National League entering play Sunday with an OPS of 1.000 or greater. Of course, Bellinger leads that pack at an otherworldly 1.337, but Baez is holding his own at 1.012. In Saturday’s come-from-behind win, he belted the game-winning home run, an opposite-field shot that had the Wrigley Field faithful chanting, “Javy, Javy,” leading to a curtain call in front of the home dugout.

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Last season, Baez finally put the word ‘potential’ to rest, breaking out in an MVP-caliber campaign. He set a career-high with 34 long balls and led the league with 111 RBI, all while doing what he’s known for defensively – playing all over the diamond at a very high level. A late surge by Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers eventually took MVP honors from Baez and the Central Division crown from Chicago, but that shouldn’t discount what the Puerto Rican standout did in 2018.

Prior to last fall’s MVP announcement, Baez spoke with about the adjustments that led to his breakout performance:

"“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.”"

Those adjustments have gone a step further this season, as Baez is driving the ball with authority all over the field. Of his 11 home runs this season, all but three were to either dead center or the opposite field. His ability to hit to all fields with power makes him much harder to defend, rendering defensive shifts pretty much useless.

Baez trails only Bellinger and Yelich amongst NL players in terms of slugging percentage and has abolutely torched left-handed pitching in 2019. Entering play Sunday, he carries a 1.773 OPS against southpaws to go along with a .455 average. But that’s not what has made him so important to the Chicago Cubs. It’s been his ability to drive the ball when he’s behind in the count.

In 0-1 counts, Baez has a .545 on-base percentage this season. When the count falls to 0-2, that number drops to .400 – but he’s slugging north of .900. And, when there are no strikes in a count and a pitcher thinks he’s going to get a ‘gimme’ pitch past him? The former All-Star and Silver Slugger recipient is ambushing hurlers to the tune of a .400/.429/.900 with five of his 11 home runs.

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What does this all mean? Last year may have been the coming out party for Javier Baez. But he has room to improve and we’re already seeing what that could look like early this season.