Fans of the Chicago White Sox have been feeling themselves on social media this season. And rightfully so! Their club of choice has been among the best in Major League Baseball in the face of a myriad of injuries and questionable managerial decisions. Naturally, their focus at this time of year is the trade deadline and potential acquisitions that could await them at month’s end.
Based on my observation, you can cross at least one name off their list: Javier Báez. While the observation alone is an overgeneralization, there seems to be a large contingent that wants no part of their crosstown rivals’ starting shortstop in a deadline deal. As such, the purpose of writing these words is not to debate the merits of a trade of Báez between the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, but rather to highlight the fact that this underscores a fairly obnoxious issue within the “rivalry” between the two clubs.
The respective rises of both Báez and Sox shortstop Tim Anderson have both been absolutely fantastic developments for Major League Baseball. They each bring a unique skill set to the equation while playing with their emotions on their sleeve in the best possible way. But since the two shared a Sports Illustrated cover prior to the 2020 season, there has been a seemingly endless barrage of comparisons between the two.
So in the interest of comparison, let’s do a little of that:
- Tim Anderson in 2021: .309/.345/.424/.770, .116 ISO, 23.6 K%, 5.2 BB%, 114 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR
- Javier Báez in 2021: .238/.284/.493/.777, .255 ISO, 36.6 K%, 4.5 BB%, 107 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR
If you glance at each of those statlines, there isn’t any question as to who is having the better season. However, as objective as baseball statistics are, “better” lends itself to much more subjectivity. Because while Anderson has obviously emerged as one of the league’s best contact hitters, Báez contributes in his own unique way (obscene strikeout rate be damned). He supplies the power between the pair and makes harder contact overall, with an 87th percentile Barrel% (14.0) that both represents the best of his career and dwarfs Anderson’s 5.6.
On the flip side, there is likely no place in the multiverse where Báez could accomplish what Anderson is doing. As much of a free-swinger as Javy is (57.0 Swing%), Anderson actually swings at a slightly higher rate (59.1), which trails only Salvador Pérez among qualifying hitters. The difference is that Anderson makes contact at a 74.4 percent rate against 61.9 for Báez. And despite making hard contact at a rate that sits in just the 49th percentile, he’s able to sling the baseball all over the field to the tune of a .395 BABIP.
And so, just as the two eggs in The Great Gatsby, “their physical resemblance must be a source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead.” You have a pair of guys who go up to swing. Anderson walks at a rate under six percent; Báez walks at a rate under five. Either way, you’re looking at a guy who loves to swing the bat. But, as Fitzgerald put it, “a more arresting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except shape and size.” The real difference occurs in their ability to make contact and what they’re able to do with that contact.
From an offensive perspective, what exactly is “better” here then? You love a guy who makes enough contact that totally compensates for his distaste for the free pass. But you also don’t hate someone like Báez, capable of changing a game at any moment. The difference in “better” is likely due to lineup context. Anderson’s skill set will play in any lineup. And he’s a boon to a White Sox lineup that has been incredible, regardless of health. Javy likely needs a little more OBP around him to maximize that impact. The Cubs have...not had that in recent years (and rank just 22nd again this year). So the perception may be a little skewed because of lineup dynamics and the difference in the consistency of their respective skill sets.
There isn’t a right answer from an offensive standpoint. It’s about skill set, lineup construction, and general taste. But is the answer lurking in the other phases of the game? Baserunning and defense? Might we find our answer there? Báez has always been an exceptional baserunner. I mean, there’s this:
Oh yeah, he did this earlier this year:
That one still puts my jaw on the floor in the same way that it did in May. Here’s a video montage with the rest.
From a statistical perspective, however, the difference is marginal. Báez is in the 82nd percentile in sprint speed. Anderson is in the 76th. FanGraphs’ BsR metric has Javy at 2.3. Anderson is at 2.7. So while the former may be more likely to do more outlandish things on the basepaths, Anderson is perfectly capable as well. Guess our answer isn’t there either.
Defensively is likely where you’d find your only surefire answer. For his career, Báez has a UZR of 8.8 and 46 Defensive Runs Saved. And those numbers come even with his tendency to be erratic on the throwing end (40 throwing errors across almost 3,800 innings). Here are five minutes of his tags that compensate. On the other hand, Anderson is at a -21.9 UZR and -13 DRS. His defense has evened out this year to almost average (0.7 UZR/150, -1 DRS), but it’s really no contest here.
But as for our answer as to who is the better overall player? The answer should legitimately be this:
Stop. I’ll beg if I have to. Stop debating which is the better player. As much fun as it may be to dive into numbers, especially for two players of this caliber, debating who the better player is between the two is a completely futile exercise. It is possible for two players to be good and fun and exciting, even if they do play in the same city. You have a guy like Javy Báez who can make even the most pedestrian of plays exciting (I’m gesturing broadly as I type this). And then Anderson who is a completely steady player in the most exciting fashion possible:
In the interest of futility, my hope here is that laying it out there and showcasing the differences in skill set puts an end to it. It is, for sure, a fool’s hope. But as frustrating as it is to look across the baseball landscape and see criticism directed toward any of the exciting players, it elicits the same emotion when social media is abuzz with a debate over which of these two wildly exciting talents is the “better” player. Javy has more power and is the better defender. Tim Anderson just hits and hits and hits some more. Flare and swagger are present in copious amounts for each. Acknowledge it and leave it there.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.