In the extremely unlikely event that you’ve followed my past writing at outlets aside from BtBScore, you’d know that Javier Báez is my single favorite player to write about this side of Jake Lamb. Because there’s nobody else like him. Almost nobody embodies the type of high-risk, higher-reward presence that El Mago presents, and fewer players still are as polarizing as the New York Mets middle infielder.
Speaking of the Mets, it’s been a rough go for, well, the season. After acquiring Francisco Lindor and a bit of starting pitching to go along with an already very solid roster, they added Báez at the trade deadline in hopes that A. He could provide stability at short with Lindor out and B. Form a wildly successful middle infield combination with his friend when Lindor did return from the Injured List. Of course, in between, myriad ethical violations have surfaced from the front office and coaching ranks, both from this year and others. All this while they’ve failed to maintain pace with Atlanta as they sit 5.0 games back in the National League East race.
And yet, somehow, it’s Báez who has managed to draw more ire from fans and media alike. More than the moral disaster of a front office, an owner who can’t but help letting his fingers do a little too much walking on social media, and a roster that has largely underperformed at the most inopportune of times. No, it’s Báez who is the subject of borderline (or just blatant) racist thinkpieces and cheers at a HBP. Weird, right? The purpose here is not to pile on the Mets, of course. Been on social media? We don’t need to add to that (or do we?).
Instead, what I want to look at is simply Javier Báez, purely because of his enigmatic nature mentioned in the lede. The difference here is that he’s been doing it—“it” being the wide array of wild things he does on a baseball field, for better and worse—with the stability of a contract and a Chicago Cubs fanbase that would likely go to war in his name. Now, however, he’s facing free agency and a whole heap of uncertainty as to what his next steps will look like. Do recent developments impact that at all?
What is so extraordinary about Javy is the concept of what we can quantify out of a baseball player and what we cannot. What we can quantify is that Báez has had a five strikeout game and a pair of three strikeout games in barely more than a month in Mets uniform. He’s also hit eight home runs, which trails Pete Alonso by just one over that time for the team lead. In fact, his offensive numbers during his tenure in Queens might be mildly shocking, considering the narratives and said thinkpieces swirling around him thus far.
As of this writing, Báez has registered 119 plate appearances in a Mets uniform, having been limited by injury for a very short stretch. In that time, he’s slashed .300/.353/.582/.935, with a .282 ISO, a 153 wRC+, and an fWAR of 1.3. He’s also struck out nearly 29 percent of the time while walking at less than a five percent clip. Having struggled so much with the Cubs, that runs his cumulative slash up to .262/.310/.509/.819, with a .247 ISO and strikeout rate actually near 35 percent.
There is perhaps nothing that better illustrates Javier Báez as a baseball player than that blob of numbers above. You take the good with the bad. Because there is so much good. And so much of the opposite. He’s streaky, he’s messy, and he’s astounding. In April, Báez hit .244. In May, he was at .281. Then, he hit just .157 before following it up with a .320 July. A .213 August was followed by this .422 first half of September. Same goes for the power. There’s a June of a .217 ISO sandwiched in between a .250 May and .240 July. His August ISO was just .197, which followed that .240 July and preceded this obscene .356 September. His inability to consistently produce, really on both sides of the ball, is the heavy part of why we see narratives formed around him.
And then mixed in with all that streakiness is the unquantifiable things he does. The flashy plays with the glove, the brilliant baserunning concluding in swim move slides, the immense baseball IQ. The extreme inconsistency, with moments of greatness followed by moments of utter futility, was always going to make his impending free-agent picture a somewhat murky one. Especially with the likes of Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and Trevor Story ahead of him in the shortstop market. But does his most recent stretch with the Mets amplify previous concerns to the point where his free agency just becomes a big ol’ mess?
I’m not going to speculate on the type of contract Báez is likely to receive. I’m incapable. He’s likely not going to get the type of nine-figure deal he hoped for while on the North Side of Chicago. And the idea of him returning to the Cubs on a one-year pact isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. Báez was never going to cash in in the way that Seager, Correa, or Story will anyway. There’s just more stability in the other three for teams actually willing to drum up the funds to sign a top-tier free agent.
Things we know: Javier Báez has as much upside as any infielder in baseball. He’s got 87th percentile barrel capability and 78th percentile average exit velocity. He’s smarter than almost anyone else on the field. And in between all of that, he’s going to showcase his third percentile strikeout rate and demonstrate some erraticism with the arm. Regardless of the false narratives formulated during his time in New York, we know exactly what Báez is as a player, as much as we don’t know what to expect.
As such, it’s not as if the time in New York changes things. The “thumbs down” gesture was overblown. It’s New York media. Ultimately, his time in New York hasn’t been a shred different than anything he ever did on the North Side. Fans just...liked him in Chicago. So his free agency was always going to be a complicated one. This doesn’t enhance that complication, but it might put it under even more of a microscope than it otherwise would. It’ll be more widely discussed, even if almost identical to the way things would have transpired had he been traded to a stable franchise.
But there have always been these warped perceptions of Báez, both at his highs and at his lows. If anything, this makes him a lock to wait just a little longer for that next deal. But, in this climate, with collective bargaining negotiations on the horizon, that won’t make him unique. Even if everything else he brings to the table certainly does.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.