Nolan Arenado

Javy Baez for NL MVP? Joe Maddon's driving the El Mago hype train

Javy Baez for NL MVP? Joe Maddon's driving the El Mago hype train

With each passing day, Javy Baez's case for National League Most Valubale Player picks up steam and seems more and more of a possibility.

"El Mago" woke up Thursday morning leading the NL in RBI and sixth in OPS. 

He leads the Cubs in just about every offensive category — runs, hits (22 more than the next closest guy, Albert Almora Jr.), doubles, triples, homers, RBI, total bases, stolen bases, slugging percentage, OPS and WAR.

He's already set career highs in RBI, stolen bases, triples, doubles and extra-base hits and there are still two months left in the season. Over the next week or so, he will reach new career marks in hits, homers and runs.

Where would the Cubs be if you took Baez out of their lineup?

"Oh, don't do that," Joe Maddon joked with reporters prior to Thursday's 6-1 Cubs loss to the Padres.

Seriously, though, where would the Cubs be?

They currently have the best record in the NL despite Anthony Rizzo's up-and-down season, a year for Kris Bryant marred by a shoulder injury that has limited his effectiveness even when he's been on the field and Yu Darvish accounting for only 40 innings of subpar results.

Through it all, it's been Baez that has anchored this Cubs lineup on a daily basis despite just a .333 on-base percentage and 16 walks (6 of which were intentional).

"He's hitting fourth, he leads the league in RBI still, homers are good, he's using the whole field — that's the part that's making the on-base not as bothersome to me," Maddon said. "He still will strike out, but like [Wednesday], drew that walk. He went from 1-2 to 4-2, I think. Did not chase for that third strike.

"That part is maturing a bit. I think he can sustain this. He's playing with so much confidence right now."

Looking at the other top MVP candidates around the league right now, only Nolan Arenado, Matt Carpenter and Freddie Freeman have a higher WAR than Baez.

Baez is significantly better defensively than Freeman and Carpenter, two guys who spend a lot of time playing first base, where defense is not as important. Arenado is a fantastic defender, but Baez is a much better baserunner. 

In fact, Baez rates as the fifth-most valuable runner in all of baseball, behind Jose Ramirez, Billy Hamilton, Eddie Rosario and Whit Merrifield. 

"I know [J.D.] Martinez with the Red Sox is wonderful, but he does not provide on defense or the bases what Javy is able to provide," Maddon said. "So that's my point — don't just get locked into hitting all the time. It's a complete game."

Baez was already a household name around baseball prior to the 2018 season. Many knew him for his flair or easy smile on the baseball diamond. Or they saw his breakout performance in the Cubs' 2016 World Series run that saw him win a co-NLCS MVP.

Yet he still began this season hitting eighth in the Cubs lineup, a 25-year-old that still had quite a bit of developing to do as a hitter.

"He's come a long way this year," Maddon said. "He's getting close [to being the guy other teams gameplan around]. The reason why I'm saying that is, I know he's not chasing as much, but his confidence.

"I don't even know if he could be more confident than he is right now. That plays also. If you get to this tight moment, he believes he's gonna beat you somehow. That has nothing to do with numbers. That's what's in his heart. That's what's in his mind.

"His mind, on a baseball field, is truly artisitic. He does things and he sees things that most other guys do not. And furthermore, he's got the courage to do things. He's fearless.

"I still think he's like a year or two away from being this player that tears everything up.  But for right now, he's trending in that direction. The way he's thinking is a difference-maker right now."

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Settling the Kris Bryant vs. Nolan Arenado debate

Settling the Kris Bryant vs. Nolan Arenado debate

Imagine you're the general manager of a Major League Baseball team and every roster was redrafted with each player going into a fantasy draft format.

Your team's spot comes up in the first round and both Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado are there. Which one do you choose?

The Bryant-Arenado "debate" has been a fun exercise for Cubs and Rockies fans alike on social media the last few years while both third basemen have positioned themselves firmly in the conversation of the game's best players.

The two have squared off "against" each other six times over the last 10 days, with a Cubs-Rockies series at Wrigley Field coming just over a week after the three-game set at Coors Field.

In those six games, Bryant has posted a .970 OPS, going 5-for-19 (.263 AVG) with a double, a triple, a homer, 2 RBI and 4 runs.  Arenado has absolutely mashed, hitting 5 of his 7 homers in 2018 off Cubs pitching while posting a .462/.500/1.115 slash line (1.615 OPS) in those six games, collecting 12 hits and a pair of walks in 28 plate appearances.

If I'm a GM, Bryant would be my choice between the two, though it's ridiculously close. And it's also necessary to point out that I am biased, given I've seen Bryant play several hundred more games than I've seen Arenado with my own eyes.

Allow me to explain in a super-scientific way:

AGE/CONTROL

Let's start with age.

Both players are right at the beginning of their prime, so should be among the game's best players for another few years, at the very least.

Arenado was born 9 months before Bryant and due to an earlier call-up to the big leagues, will be a free agent in 2020. Bryant doesn't hit the market until 2022.

Edge: Bryant

OFFENSE

This is the toughest one to compare, as Arenado and Bryant are both rather different hitters with vastly different home ballparks.

Due to the wind blowing in at Wrigley Field a bunch over the last couple years, Bryant's home digs often serves as a pitcher's park. Coors Field, meanwhile, has always been a hitter's paradise.

Arenado is still a fantastic hitter, but he still has some pretty heavy home/road splits the last three years: .321 AVG/1.008 OPS at home, .273 AVG/.852 OPS on the road.

Arenado has also flashed power on a more regular basis with at least 37 homers in each of the last 3 seasons. He led the NL in homers, RBI and total bases in 2015 and 2016 and paced the Senior Circuit in doubles in 2017.

Bryant, of course, has been no slouch in the power department, but has just one 30-homer season under his belt (2016). 

Bryant strikes out more than Arenado, but also draws walks at a much higher clip and because of that, is still able to provide his team value even during a hitting slump.

For their careers, Bryant has a .917 OPS, 37 points higher than Arenado's .880 mark.

Since the start of the 2015 season, here's how the offense matches up:

ARENADO

Gs: 503
HR: 127
RBI: 412
RUNS: 328
TOTAL BASES: 1121
AVG: .298
OBP: .356
SLG: .579
OPS: .935

BRYANT

Gs: 481
HR: 97
RBI: 286
RUNS: 333
TOTAL BASES: 947
AVG: .288
OBP: .390
SLG: .527
OPS: .917

Arenado hits for more power and a higher batting average, but he does create more outs with his swing. Bryant walked 82 times more than Arenado did in 22 fewer games.

Those are just the back-of-the-baseball-card numbers, too. One of the best indicators of a player's overall offensive value in the world of advanced stats is OPS+, which accounts for home ballpark and every other factor. An OPS+ of 100 is average, so an OPS+ of 125 means that hitter is 25 percent better than the league average player.

Bryant has posted an OPS+ of 142 in his career compared to Arenado's 130 since the start of the 2015 season.

Edge: We'll call it a draw, just because either guy is a gamechanger with the bat in his hands.

DEFENSE

Arenado has saved 104 runs with his defense over his career across the nearly 6,400 innings at third base. Gold Glove voting isn't always the best way to tell the quality of a fielder, but the Rockies star has taken home the honor since his rookie season in 2013 and will look to make it 6 years in a row in 2018.

Only Andrelton Simmons (147 DRS) has saved more runs with his glove since the start of the 2013 season. Jason Heyward is third on the list at 92 DRS, 12 behind Arenado.

"I've always loved his defense," Maddon said after watching Arenado play six games over the last two weeks. "He's got a strong arm, he's accurate, he makes all the plays on defense.

"And of course, he's a very good hitter, don't get me wrong. But the thing that stands out to me is his defense."

Bryant, meanwhile, has saved 15 runs with his defense over his four years in the big leagues — 9 DRS at third base, 6 DRS as an outfielder. That's nothing to scoff at, but nowhere near the level of glovework Arenado provides.

Edge: Arenado

BASERUNNING

Bryant takes this one home and it's not particularly close. For their careers, Bryant has been worth 18.2 runs above average with his baserunning ability (by Fangraphs' metric) while Arenado has been at -7.2.

Edge: Bryant

INTANGIBLES

Both players are fantastic role models for the game of baseball and leaders in the clubhouse (even if only by example). They both have that extra "it" factor inside them to strive for greatness.

Bryant has a bit more edge in terms of flexibility to his manager by being able to play first base and all three outfield spots in addition to third base. But the Rockies would never need to move Arenado off the hot corner with his ridiculous defense there, so positional versatility shouldn't really apply.

Edge: We'll call it a draw again, mainly because it's so difficult to quantify intangibles

OVERALL

Bryant gets the nod here, though again, it's insanely close. The overall skillset and youth/team control factor are in Bryant's favor.

But the advanced stats are also in KB's corner. Bryant has been worth 21.6 WAR (FanGraphs) in 481 games compared to Arenado's 20.7 WAR in 747 career games.