Only a true turd would try to claim that Cubs infielder Javy Báez has not been the most consistently entertaining player in baseball over the last few seasons. From the moment he arrived in the big leagues he went about turning his every movement on the field into highlight-reel material, but there was always a bit of a gap between how much fun Báez was to watch and how useful he actually was. That gap has now been closed.
This isn’t to say that Báez was technically a bad player prior to this season; his 6.1 combined bWAR from 2016–17 is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. His slash line was respectable and he hit for decent power, but he also struck out a ton without getting on base enough or hitting for quite enough power to fully justify all that gorgeous free-swinging. Plenty of those swings are still coming up empty this year—Báez has struck out 105 times so far—but a good deal more are sending baseballs straight to baseball hell. He is undeniably and objectively good now.
Báez has already eclipsed his previous career-high homer mark, and currently has 25 on the season. His slugging percentage has also swelled up by more than 100 points, from .480 last season to a league-leading .594 this season. He’s already racked up 4.8 bWAR, and his slash line (.302/.335/.594) looks a lot less like one that belongs to an over-eager youngster and a lot more like one that belongs to a guy capable of carrying his team into the postseason. He continued to do that last night, when he all but singlehandedly secured a 3-1 win over the Royals:
What’s been the most fun about Báez’s improvement this season is that it hasn’t come at the expense of any of the things that made him fun before he was also good. His leap forward looks to be the result of him simply becoming a better version of the electric player he already was. His on-base percentage has jumped 18 points from where it was last year, but it’s not like he’s suddenly approaching at-bats like Joey Votto. He’s only walked 17 times all season, and his walk rate and strikeout rate have pretty much stayed put.
Báez’s journey towards superstardom has taken him over a tightrope. There’s very little margin for error for a player who swings as often and as hard as Báez does, and it’s very easy to imagine a prolonged slump sending him hurtling back towards the earth. But do you really want to live in a world in which Javy Báez is milking pitch counts and grinding out walks? If you’re like me, you’d much prefer to see him continue to do cool shit and be great at the same time. Which is to say you want to see him be Javy Báez. He’s still doing that—he can do no other—and it is working better than it ever has before.