2018 might not have turned out exactly the way the Cubs wanted it to, but it was still a pretty awesome year. The team won 95 games and made it’s fourth playoff appearance in a row. In the spirit of the holiday season I thought now would be a good time to take a look back at some of the moments that really stood out last season. At this point in my life it would appear that the Cubs are in fact my true love, so I took some inspiration for this series from the 12 days of Christmas, let’s jump right in with the first day.
On the first day of Cubsmas my true love gave to me: Javy Baez, MVP candidate
There is only one Javier Baez and 2018 was truly his breakout season. El Mago dazzled Cubs fans in every way imaginable. Every so often he found new ways to dazzle fans. Let’s take a look at the one, and only, Javy Baez.
At the plate
Javier Baez had a career high wRC+ of 131 in 2018. In other words he was 31 percent better at creating runs when he was at the plate than the league average hitter. That’s not just a career mark, it’s a career mark by a mile. His wRC+ in 2017 was 98, in 2016 it was 94, in 2015 it was 97. In other words, Baez went from an average offensive threat to one of the best bats in the National League in 2018. It’s worth taking a look at how he did it.
Early in the season I thought Javy might be making significant improvements in his walk rate or K rate, but frankly neither of those things is really true. His BB percent of 4.5 in 2018 was better than his rate in 2016 but worse than his rate in 2017. His K percent of 25.9 was better than his rate in 2017 but worse than his rate in 2016. Javy didn’t so much change who he was as a hitter as he changed how he approached at bats to take advantage of who he is as a hitter. This piece from Fangraphs sums it up nicely:
A year ago, Baez swung at about a third of all first pitches. This year, he’s up around half. His first-pitch swing rate is up roughly 17 percentage points, and that’s the second-biggest increase out of 327 players, behind only Jesus Sucre for some reason. (The really weird player here is Pablo Sandoval.) That’s one way of breaking down Baez’s data. How and where, exactly, has Baez become more aggressive? More aggressive when facing first pitches. More broadly, more aggressive when there are zero strikes in the count.
Javy is aggressive. He decided to channel that at the plate. It is working out nicely so far and it will be interesting to see if he can continue to do that in 2019.
You didn’t really think I’d let this section go by without some dingers though, right [VIDEO]?
Javy’s glove is special, it has always been special. While the good people who determine gold gloves can’t seem to bring it to themselves to recognize his glove (and seriously, D.J. LeMaWho?) he did win another Fielding Bible award as a multi-position specialist.
The multi-position part of this is really what sets Javy apart. Check out these web gems he made at second and third base in the same week.
And seriously, no field can really contain Javy [VIDEO]:
I suppose I could have included tags in the defense category, but honestly at this point Javy’s tagging ability is so legendary it deserves a category all it’s own. Javy is naturally left handed so his glove hand is his dominant hand. The combination of that with his preternatural baseball instincts has created video montages such as this [VIDEO]:
This skill set combined with his uncanny ability to slide inspired the outstanding Cubs social media team to create one of my favorite videos of the year “Can Javy tag Javy?” [VIDEO]:
Javier Baez was a chaos machine on the basepaths in 2018. I lost track of how many times he looked out, only to induce a wild throw and somehow be safe (often with an extra bag than he originally intended to take). It was magical to watch and inspired this piece in Fangraphs:
Well, it seems possible Baez has managed to somehow find value where none seemed clearly available — in this case, by causing fielders to self-combust while he runs the bases. It’s a skill that leads to errors and extra bases for Baez and his friends, and it was on display Wednesday night as Baez stood at first base with Anthony Rizzo up to bat. The Cubs’ first baseman hit a single to center field. Then... Baez scored on the throwing error and Rizzo advanced to second, eventually making it to third thanks to another throwing error.
But it wasn’t just his uncanny ability to induce errors that caught my attention. His ability to deke professional baseball players into allowing him to score is one of my favorite things I saw all year. Javy is a generous guy, so he let us see it twice.
You can look at my deep dive into this play here but here’s the quick version. The Cubs are playing the Mets and Steven Matz isn’t exactly the fastest guy to the plate. Javier Baez is standing on third base, catches Willson Contreras attention on first base and it’s on. Willson fakes a steal to distract Matz, and on the next play when Matz throws over, Javy heads home. Even Keith Hernandez was impressed [VIDEO]:
Since Javy is Javy almost exactly a month later he does it again. Although this time the Tigers seem to know what is about to happen to them, they are prepared. And you know what? It doesn’t even matter. Javy executes a perfect slide and is safe anyway. It’s truly a thing of beauty [VIDEO]:
While he was edged out in MVP voting after Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich finished the 2018 season on another level, Javy was by far the best player on the Cubs in 2018. Without his outstanding performance on the field the Cubs likely would have missed the Wild Card Game. The truly incredible part of his season is that he’s only 26 years old and there are still areas he can improve like his strikeout and walk rate. I can’t wait to see if Javy can kick it up to another level in 2019.