Strictly speaking, that headline is a little misleading. Javy Báez, himself, is in a three-way tie with Trea Turner and Paul DeJong for the 10th most productive individual shortstop in 2020, but when you include the backups, the Cubs shortstop position ranks 13th in MLB. Which, well, all of that is a little disappointing, but perhaps maybe not entirely unfair. There is context to consider.
Let’s take a closer look at the big picture:
It’s not particularly surprising to see Francisco Lindor and the Indians (all 2.3 WAR) leading the pack, as I’d certainly call him the top shortstop in baseball overall. Meanwhile, Astros fans are probably happy to see Carlos Correa (1.7 WAR) finish in a relatively close second, after missing most of 2019 with a fractured rib and 50 games in 2018 with some breathing problems (since corrected by surgery). Notably, FanGraphs does not imagine Correa will recapture all of his 2017 breakout (152 wRC+), but does still think he’ll have a huge season relatively speaking.
If you’re wondering, Alex Bregman is largely expected to return to 3B in 2020, though together he helps bump the Astros final projection to 2.0 total WAR. Together, those two form a clear top-tier in baseball, and I don’t have much of a problem with that.
Javy Báez/the Cubs shortstop position does make it into the second tier, but only barely, and that’s where our discussion really begins.
Tier 2 – Shortstops (Projected Starter)
3. Athletics (Marcus Semien): 1.6 WAR
4. Red Sox (Xander Bogaerts): 1.6 WAR
5. Dodgers (Corey Seager): 1.6 WAR
6. Rockies (Trevor Story): 1.5 WAR
7. Yankees (Gleyber Torres): 1.5 WAR
8. Blue Jays (Bo Bichette): 1.4 WAR
9. Nationals (Trea Turner): 1.4 WAR
10. Padres (Fernando Tatis, Jr.): 1.4 WAR
11. Angels (Andrelton Simmons): 1.4 WAR
12. Cardinals (Paul DeJong): 1.3 WAR
13. Cubs (Javy Baez): 1.3 WAR
As you can see, the relative difference between the Cubs/Baez in 13th place and the Athletics/Semien at the top of this group is relatively small. Over the course of a 60-game season, this entire tier is largely expected to perform almost equally well. So there’s probably no reason to get too worked up. An over-performance here and an under-performance there and suddenly, Baez is the third best shortstop in baseball this season. Maybe better.
But that shortened season is also why I think Báez could make these look really silly (in either direction).
Starting with the positive, I think Báez has about at least as much ceiling as any shortstop in Tier 2 (and certainly more than most of the names above) on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. And if he happens to catch a heater at just the right time, he’d rocket past the rest of the group even if they were all having solid seasons. That’s just the nature of someone with as much upside as Báez in a short season. HOWEVA, pretty much anyone with that much upside comes with a lot of risk – and Báez still possesses risk.
His glove will always keep him productive, of course – remember some measures have him as THE best defensive infielder in all of baseball – but the bat is probably more of a question mark than we’re willing to admit.
It’s easy to forget, but the year Báez nearly won the NL MVP award (2018) was the first season he finished with an above-average slash line by wRC+. In the 1,267 plate appearances before that season, Báez was a career .255/.300/.427 (89 wRC+) hitter, or about 11% worse than the league average hitters. That’s not to say something can’t click and change a player permanently for the better – in fact, we think that’s exactly what happened – but my point is he does not have a long track record yet of high offensive impact.
Last season, for example, he was just 14% better than the league average hitter, as his strikeout rate rose, while his batting average, OBP, and power each regressed. For 2020, FanGraphs also points out that Báez’s line drive and ground ball rates went in the wrong direction, which is not what you want to see, especially in an era when getting the ball in the air has about as much value as ever.
So when I see a .273/.312/.510 projection for 2020, which would’ve been right around 15% better than the league average last season, it’s hard to argue.
But here’s the thing (prepare for the homerism) … Javy Báez is exactly the guy I want starting at shortstop for the Cubs. From a personality/fandom standpoint, there’s exactly one guy I’d even consider over Báez (Lindor), and from an upside standpoint (which, again, might be ESPECIALLY important in a 60-game season when 1-2 hot streaks can literally carry the year), Baez is second to … what, two or three of the guys above? That’s more than enough reason to be thrilled that he’s still in Chicago, and so I don’t really care where he “ranks,” even from a statistical projection like everything above.
And remember, the Cubs were working on extension with Báez, before things shut down. Hopefully, those talks will pick back up soon after the season:
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) July 9, 2020