Cubs shortstop Javier Baez is a polarizing figure. We all know that. He's incredibly fun to watch when he's going well, but there's also plenty of pushback regarding his massive number of strikeouts. Some non-Cubs fans might get tired of hearing about him, so he's become disliked in a few circles. In said circles, it's become the norm to talk about how overrated he is and how he's actually not a good player.
His stat line in 2021 is too fascinating to ignore, though. Give me a chance and I'll show you.
Through 60 games, Báez is hitting .240/.276/.480. The league average slash is .237/.312/.396, so he's slightly above the league line in average, decently below average in on-base percentage and well above in slugging. It's good for a 109 OPS+ and 104 wRC+. In the most basic sense, he's an above-average contributor with the bat in his hands.
And yet, he leads the majors with 80 strikeouts and he's only walked seven times.
If Báez maintains his current paces, he'll have one of the the most absurd stat lines in MLB history. Check it out. Here are his current paces to finish the season:
- 132 hits
- 14 doubles
- 38 homers
- 105 RBI
- 86 runs
- 24 steals
- 19 walks
- 216 strikeouts
- 4.1 WAR
To see the steals with those home runs and RBI along with the strikeout-to-walk rate is mind-boggling. In fact, it would be an absurd and unique season and, from this perspective, nothing else really even comes close.
Over on Baseball-Reference's excellent Stathead feature, I did some digging. If we set the parameters to at least 30 home runs, 100 RBI, 150 strikeouts and an OPS+ over 100, we get 108 hits. But if I narrowed things down to middle infielders, we only get three. See how they compare to Baez's paces.
2021 Báez pace
2018 Trevor Story
2002 Alfonso Soriano
Not only did we find out he's blazing a new trail, but we also learned one of the people closest to what he's doing this year was the 2018 version of himself. The closest match here was probably Soriano, but he hit .300! And look at the strikeouts. Mercy.
I noticed the stolen base component didn't much matter, but let's zero in on the walks. Looking at every position, so we're not excluding anyone, I searched for 30-plus homers, 100-plus RBI, 150-plus strikeouts, and OPS+ of over 100 and fewer than 30 walks.
The returns? The 2018 Báez and 2002 Soriano we saw above and a newcomer. Red Sox third baseman Butch Hobson in 1977 hit .265/.300/.489 with 30 homers, 112 RBI, a 101 OPS+, 162 strikeouts and 27 walks. The league slash line that season was .264/.329/.401, so Hobson wasn't pulling a Javy. He also posted just 0.9 WAR, whereas Báez is already at 1.5 this season.
It appears our closest match is Soriano, but, again, Soriano hit .300 vs. a league average of .261. Also, note Báez is on pace for only 14 doubles. Soriano in 2002 had 51 doubles. Soriano in 2002 had 209 hits. Báez is only on pace for 132.
A portion of Cubs Twitter has taken to calling Báez a unicorn: something beautiful, incredibly rare and difficult to find. It's pretty apt. There's truly nothing else like him due to the weird mix of bad and good, the likes of which baseball has never seen. The good outweighs the bad, too, because he's still an above-average average hitter who is a good defender and is exceptional on the bases. Add it up and he's been productive enough to be on pace for a 4+ WAR. That's well above the threshold for an everyday player and approaching an All-Star level of production.
He definitely needs to cut back on the strikeouts and the errors are too high. These are things that prevent him from being in the elite tier year in, year out. He has MVP upside (he finished second in voting in 2018) but a very frustrating downside (look at the 2020 numbers).
On the whole, though, enjoy the ride with this unicorn. Báez is a fun player doing a combination of things we've never seen before.