Despite some moments of angst and doubt early in the season, the Chicago Cubs sit 2.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers for the NL Central lead heading into the All-Star break. Their 55-38 record is also the best in the National League through the first half of the year.
The fact that they’ve achieved this without getting top production from Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant has been nothing short of remarkable. What’s even more impressive is that the Cubs’ first-half success has come from a talented but unlikely source.
Javier Baez’s full arsenal has been on display through 91 games, earning him his first trip to the MLB All-Star Game. While his highlight reel of dynamic plays gets plenty of coverage, he deserves more praise for his consistency and elite production.
Baez arguably has been the Cubs most consistent player in all facets, whether it’s on defense, at the plate or on the base paths. So when his name comes up as an NL MVP candidate, it certainly makes sense.
Of course, Baez will have to keep this pace up to earn the award. Baseball always has been a very humbling game. Just when you’re riding high, the game quickly grounds you with a slump or injury.
There’s no doubt that Baez will be a finalist come November if he continues playing down the stretch at this torrid pace.
He’s always had an elite glove, but his career at the plate has been inconsistent at best. While Cubs fans expect a slugger like Baez to have many more strikeouts than walks, they at least hoped he could avoid long slumps and have more dominant stretches at the plate.
This season, they’re getting their wish.
Baez has been laser-focused at the plate and has yet to experience a crippling stretch. Even though he’s on pace for a career-high in strikeouts, it hasn’t affected his offensive output at all.
Baez currently is on a career-high pace in all major hitting categories. Along with a solid .292 batting average and .326 OBP, his .566 slugging percentage ranks fourth best in the NL and eighth best in the majors. His 19 home runs are already four off his single-season best, and his 72 RBI lead the National League and are the second most in the majors.
During our midseason review on the latest Curses and Champions podcast, we discussed how Baez’s awareness and high baseball IQ have been showcased throughout the first three months of the year.
Sure, those swipe tags and home-plate steals are aggressive, but “Javy being Javy” isn’t just luck. When he’s locked in, he processes everything faster than an average ball player.
One area where that elite awareness has been prevalent is on the base paths. It’s helped him notch 25 doubles and three triples so far this season, which are both already career highs. He also has a career-best 18 stolen bases to this point.
Combined with his home run total, he’s on pace for a 30-30 season. And no one would’ve predicted that before the year started.
What makes his first-half performance MVP-caliber is that it’s all come when the Cubs have needed it most.
Aside from a hot month of May, Rizzo has had two massive slumps this season. Through April, he slashed a horrific .149/.259/.189. During a cold stretch from June 18-July 11, he slashed.211/.302/.289 through 20 games.
Bryant, who spent nearly three weeks on the DL, hasn’t shown his patented power to this point of the season. While his .280 batting average and .384 OBP are more than respectable, his 10 home runs put him on a pace to finish with the lowest season total of his career.
The Cubs count on Bryant and Rizzo to be the RBI catalysts in their lineup. But instead of it crippling the team, Baez has been able to pick up the majority of the slack. He didn’t just keep the Cubs afloat with their two best players slumping. He kept them near the top of the NL.
You expect both Rizzo and Bryant to come out of their funks, and their performances over the last week indicate that something could be brewing after the All-Star break (Rizzo 6-12 in his last three games, Bryant has hits in all four games since returning from the DL).
The Cubs have always been a strong second-half team under Joe Maddon. But if Baez sustains his high-caliber production as both guys rebound, then the team will likely match or exceed their usual second-half pace.
And if Baez does continue to be a major catalyst, the MVP talk will continue to grow louder.