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Javier Baez is having an MVP season

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An early look at how El Mago compares to the competition

Javier Baez makes a slick play at Wrigley Field
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

It’s August so all you have to do is type “NL MVP race” into any search engine and you’ll be overwhelmed with articles and podcasts previewing this year’s Most Valuable Player competition. One name appearing on a few of these lists, but not getting nearly enough love in my opinion, is the Cubs‘ own Javier Baez. The Athletic currently has him ranked seventh behind Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Aaron Nola, Matt Carpenter, Nolan Arenado and Freddie Freeman. The MLB.com voters didn’t see fit to include him at all, but did add in Lorenzo Cain.

In order to take a look at this race I looked at a few different things. I’ll start with how the voting works and the qualifications for MVP, then I’ll look at a stats and players in the conversation, finally I’ll make my case for El Mago as MVP.

Qualifications

The MVP is determined by a vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the same people who bring you the Cy Young Award, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year and inductees to the Hall of Fame. Each voter turns in a ballot with their top 10 candidates in rank order. Each rank corresponds to a certain number of points that are then totaled for a winner. The points by rank are below:

MVP Ranks and Points

Place Points
Place Points
1 14
2 9
3 8
4 7
5 6
6 5
7 4
8 3
9 2
10 1
BBWAA

There is always a debate about what it means to be the “Most Valuable Player.” Some writers believe eligible players should be on contending teams, some writers believe the MVP should be a position player rather than a pitcher. For what it’s worth, none of those are rules, just preferences. Here are the actual instructions voters receive:

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2. Number of games played.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4. Former winners are eligible.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.

In other words, pitchers are eligible and an MVP can come from any team. That said, a look at the last 10 years of NL MVP’s reveals that there are clearly voting norms that go beyond those instructions. Clayton Kershaw is the only pitcher on the list, you’d have to go back to 1963 for the last pitcher as NL MVP before that. There are no MVPs in the last decade from a last place team and you have to go back over 30 years to find one.

MVP by position and team place 2008-2017

Year Player Position Team's Place
Year Player Position Team's Place
2017 Giancarlo Stanton OF 2nd
2016 Kris Bryant 3B 1st
2015 Bryce Harper OF 2nd
2014 Clayton Kershaw P 1st
2013 Andrew McCutchen OF 2nd
2012 Buster Posey C 1st
2011 Ryan Braun OF 3rd
2010 Joey Votto 1B 1st
2009 Albert Pujols 1B 1st
2008 Albert Pujols 1B 4th
Baseball Reference compiled by Sara Sanchez

So is it possible that deGrom or Scherzer wins the MVP? Sure. It seems unlikely, though, so I’m going to focus on position players for this piece. Let’s take a look at the most likely MVP candidates for 2018 and how Javy compares to them.

NL competition

Below are the top 10 qualified position players by WAR in the National League as of August 8, according to Fangraphs. If we assume that players on last place teams are unlikely to be the MVP, that leaves us with seven candidates: Carpenter, Arenado, Baez, Freeman, Cain, Christian Yelich, and Paul Goldschmidt.

NL MVP Candidates by WAR

Name Team G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR WAR
Name Team G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR WAR
Matt Carpenter Cardinals 109 471 30 75 62 1 15.3% 22.7% .312 .312 .282 .393 .594 .409 160 -0.2 4.8
Nolan Arenado Rockies 107 468 29 75 81 2 12.0% 17.9% .282 .322 .306 .389 .588 .409 143 -0.6 4.8
Javier Baez Cubs 111 442 25 72 88 19 3.8% 23.8% .288 .346 .300 .333 .589 .382 139 4.7 4.4
Freddie Freeman Braves 110 489 18 68 69 7 11.5% 18.8% .206 .366 .315 .397 .521 .389 145 2.2 4.4
Lorenzo Cain Brewers 97 421 8 56 30 19 12.8% 16.4% .124 .345 .295 .390 .419 .357 122 4.6 4.1
Christian Yelich Brewers 100 436 17 78 59 14 8.3% 22.7% .214 .394 .323 .385 .537 .393 145 5.7 3.9
Eugenio Suarez Reds 97 422 26 60 87 1 10.7% 21.3% .276 .333 .303 .384 .579 .403 153 -2.4 3.7
Paul Goldschmidt Diamondbacks 113 503 24 70 61 4 14.1% 25.8% .239 .344 .276 .386 .515 .384 141 1.9 3.6
Scooter Gennett Reds 110 456 17 67 68 3 6.8% 19.5% .181 .362 .314 .364 .495 .367 129 1.5 3.6
J.T. Realmuto Marlins 85 369 14 54 53 1 5.1% 18.2% .214 .328 .294 .343 .507 .363 130 3.2 3.6
Select stats for NL MVP candidates Fangraphs

Considering that the MVP ballot is all about ranking candidates relative to each other, I think it’s useful to look at these stats relative to each other. To do this I recreated the same chart, but put the ranks for each player relative to their competition, you can see that below. Note, these are relative ranks, so a one on this list just means first among these seven players, not first overall:

NL MVP Offensive Stats and Relative Ranks

Name Team HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR WAR
Name Team HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR WAR
Matt Carpenter Cardinals 1 2 4 7 1 3 1 7 6 2 1 1 1 6 1
Nolan Arenado Rockies 2 2 2 6 4 6 3 6 3 4 3 1 4 7 1
Javier Baez Cubs 3 4 1 1 7 2 2 3 4 7 2 6 6 2 3
Freddie Freeman Braves 5 6 3 4 5 5 6 2 2 1 5 4 2 4 3
Lorenzo Cain Brewers 7 7 7 1 3 7 7 4 5 3 7 7 7 3 5
Christian Yelich Brewers 6 1 6 3 6 3 5 1 1 6 4 3 2 1 6
Paul Goldschmidt Diamondbacks 4 5 5 5 2 1 4 5 7 5 6 5 5 5 7
Selected stats and relative ranks Fangraphs data compiled by Sara Sanchez

As you might suspect, Javy differentiates himself here with his stolen base numbers and suffers from one of the lowest walk rates in the league which impacts his over all OBP. In fact if you’re just looking at offensive numbers, it makes sense to focus on players like Carpenter, Arenado and Freeman.

Luckily for us, the MVP conversation is also supposed to look at defense and the “actual value of a player to his team,” when we consider that, Javy really distinguishes himself.

But can they do this?

Part of Javy’s value is his positional flexibility and off the charts baseball instincts. Jon Morosi noted on MLB Central that Javy will likely have the first season ever with 100 RBI, 30 HR and 20 SB for a player with more than 20 games at SS and 2B. He also makes unbelievable plays so regularly we almost forget how ridiculous they are. Check out these Javy clips:

First up, Javy making an incredible catch in right field [VIDEO].

Can your second baseman also play third? [VIDEO]

And don’t forget, he’s been carrying the Cubs offense in August [VIDEO].

By the way, I didn’t even go out into the archives for magical Javy slides, the multiple steals of home, or the times he’s made a catch in the stands this year. All of the above clips are from Javy Baez’s last week, and he’s been like that all year. Play, after play, hit, after hit, all season long.

Are their players with slightly better offensive numbers? Yes. Will a handful of guys get on base more and hit more home runs? Guaranteed. However, none of those players are going to do that and steal 20 bases, including home twice. None of those players are in the top five in almost every offensive category with a highlight reel of all-around defensive excellence at multiple positions. Frankly, the stats that capture the pure magic that Javy demonstrates sliding and tagging haven’t even been invented yet.

There is zero chance the Cubs are in first place without the season El Mago has put together so far in 2018, and if he keeps it up through August and September Carpenter, Arenado and Freeman are going to have to learn some new tricks if they want to beat him in NL MVP voting.