Ednel Javier Baez is the most valuable player in the National League. He’s first in the NL in RBI (88), third in both fWAR (4.4) and bWAR (4.9), sixth in steals, and he’s all over the top 10 in various other measurements of production. Then you’ve got the most compelling case, which is made by his clear leadership in the amorphous “What the f— did I just see?” category.
The BBWAA offers no set definition for what “most valuable” really means, though they have used the following three criteria since voting on the award began 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.
The obvious backdrop against which we can stage the argument for El Mago is that he’s posting career numbers at a time when his team most needs him. Absent a former MVP for much of the season and dealing with stagnant production from another perennial candidate until the last month or so, Javy has placed the Cubs on his back.
There’s a sense that if he doesn’t work his magic in a given game, the Cubs aren’t going to win. It’s as though the roster is a beautifully crafted Tiffany lamp and Javy is the bulb. It’s all quite pretty of its own accord, but absent a light source it’s really just an expensive paperweight. And isn’t the definition of “most valuable” a player without whom his team would be significantly less dynamic and successful?
I’ll reserve assessments of the respective salsa- and altitude-fueled cases for Matt Carpenter and Nolan Arenado, since that’s not really the point here. Suffice to say Javy makes better salsa and his numbers would melt faces if he played at Coors Field 81 times a year.
But he doesn’t. Play at Coors, that is. And even though he is at the center of a massive market and is well known to all around baseball, the paradox of Javy’s MVP candidacy is that he has to be seen to be believed. And not just once or twice, but many times. Closely, too, since much of what he does can neither be quantified nor objectively judged absent proper context.
“I can’t explain it,” Cubs third base coach Brian Butterfield told The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney (subscription required/recommended. “I was telling my son on the phone the other day that he does one or two things every day that I’ve never seen before. He’s a special talent. There are so many different things that he can do.”
If a baseball lifer who bears frequent, up-close witness to Javy’s exploits can’t adequately describe what he sees on a daily basis, how can a group comprised of two writers from each MLB city be expected to properly appreciate it? Even though technological advances allow us to more easily consume the sport than at any time in the past, you can’t tell me the folks in LA and Seattle are ogling El Mago rather than adding another inch or two that morning’s column.
And are the scribes on the East Coast really willing to acknowledge the existence of the other 50 nifty United States beyond the 13 original colonies long enough to pay much heed to Javy?
Setting aside geographical bias, we can’t overlook the basic demographics of the institution responsible for naming the MVP. While some new blood is continually pumped into the BBWAA’s sclerotic veins, its body is largely made up of old white dudes whose opinions of the game still haven’t evolved from the days when beat writers shared scotch and cigars with players on the train between cities.
Javy’s impact can’t be measured by even the smallest statistical scalpel because he’s operating on a plane that even the most scientific minds still explain as magic. He folds the 90 feet between bases into an Einstein-Rosen bridge that only he can traverse and then he Michael Phelps-es his way to the next base, sending shares of Pfizer plummeting 5 percent by the time he’s done.
But not everyone chalks those exploits up to being valuable.
“To a baseball player, a lot of the shit he does is really risky and stupid,” an anonymous MLB player told The Athletic. “When you play against him, you f—ing hate watching him. But as a fan, I would want to watch him every single day. I get it.”
There are no doubt some writers who feel the same way, who would classify Javy’s actions as reckless and foolish. He’s glitzy instead of gritty, thereby failing to conform to the rote definition of “effort” laid forth in their voting criteria. Or perhaps they see the tattoos and swag and put red ink all over the “general character” and “disposition” categories. But to do that is to completely miss who Javy is.
“[T]he thing that I’m most impressed with is how intelligent he is, how caring and respectful he is of his teammates, of his coaches,” Butterfield said. “He’s just above and beyond.”
You might think I’m giving the writers too hard a time, that I’m simply jealous of them or mischaracterizing them based on the worst of their ilk. And maybe you’re right. Maybe the voters are totally woke to the way Javy holds defenders spellbound when he’s on base or the way he tries to make plays no one else can because, dammit, he knows he can make plays no one else can.
No, he doesn’t walk enough. Yes, he swings too often at sliders that would hit Anthony Rizzo in the right foot. But I shudder to think where the Cubs would be without him in the lineup every day.
And in order to truly understand that, to appreciate what Javy means to this team, you really do have to watch him play all the time. Which is why I don’t think he’ll end up coming close in the MVP vote absent a really successful whisper campaign or some truly monstrous run by the Cubs down the stretch that he single-handedly sparks. Neither is out of the question.
Would not winning really be the worst thing, though? Heck, maybe it would push him even harder to fill the remaining holes in his game. And can you imagine Javy walking more while striking out less? Oh, doctor, you can hang an MVP star on that one.