Yelich was named the runaway winner Thursday in voting by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, finishing with 29 first-place votes. The other first-place vote went to the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, who won the NL Cy Young Award.
Baez finished a distant second, earning 19 second-place MVP votes.
In the American League, Gold Gove right fielder Mookie Betts of the World Series champion Red Sox also ran way with his league’s award, garnering 28 of 30 first-place votes after batting .346 with 32 home runs and 30 stolen bases. He finished far ahead of Angels center fielder Mike Trout and Indians second baseman Jose Ramirez.
Neither Yelich nor Baez was in the MVP discussion when the 2018 season began, and Yelich was overlooked most of the year, playing on a team that got little national exposure until the postseason.
But in his final 35 regular-season games, from Aug. 23 to the divisional-tiebreaker game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, Yelich hit .388 with 16 home runs and 48 RBIs, compiling a .500 on-base percentage and 1.368 OPS. He finished leading the NL with a .326 average, .598 slugging percentage and 1.000 OPS, along with 36 home runs and 110 RBIs, nearly winning the Triple Crown.
Yelich, acquired from the Marlins in January, became the fourth Brewer to be named MVP, following Robin Yount (1982, ’89) and Rollie Fingers (’81) and teammate Ryan Braun (2011).
Baez had impressive numbers: a .290 average, 34 home runs and a league-leading 111 RBIs. But while Yelich turned it up a notch, Baez slowed down a bit in September, hitting .269 with four homers, 13 RBIs and a .791 OPS in the final month. He won the NL Silver Slugger award at second base and finished among the top three in Gold Glove voting, but the MVP award that seemingly was in Baez’s grasp slipped through his fingers.
Still, in a Cubs offseason dominated by managerial and coaching intrigue and the regurgitating of their late-season fade, it’s easy to forget what went right in 2018. Baez carried the Cubs for most of the season with a performance that rivaled those of the most recent Cubs MVPs — Ryne Sandberg in 1984, Andre Dawson in ’87, Sammy Sosa in ’98 and Kris Bryant in 2016.
As if his offensive numbers weren’t enough, Baez stole 21 bases and repeatedly made spectacular plays at second and shortstop. He practically patented the swim-move maneuver on headfirst slides, reaching toward the base with his left arm before pulling it back and extending his right arm toward the bag, eluding the tag as if he were playing a game of Twister on his stomach. Defensively, more than anyone in the game, Baez has turned the previously overlooked act of tagging baserunners into an art form.
“Jav is Jav,” Cubs ace Jon Lester said in early August when the “MVP” chants began at Wrigley. “So you’re going to expect a lot out of him. We’ve all seen him and what he has turned into as a baseball player. The expectation now is to see him put us on his back. He’s fun to watch. With all the good things he does, you sometimes have to take the minor, minor bad things he does and move on.”
All in all, it was a year in which Baez evolved from being a fun-to-watch player into one of the game’s elite. He made his first All-Star appearance, starting at second base and leading off for the NL team.
“It was a tough year for us; it was a great year for me,” he said after the Cubs’ wild-card loss to the Rockies. “I still believe I can do a lot better. We’ll see next year.”
What can Baez do to have a better season?
“There were some little ups and downs where I stayed more down than in between,” he said. “Just speeding up a bit. When I was going good, I got a little comfortable with my swing and kind of forgot about making adjustments. Those were my downs. But I think I can get more RBIs, more hits, more homers if we play more as a team.”
One prominent Las Vegas betting website didn’t even have Baez on the board for NL MVP candidates in July, so finishing second shows how much he grew in the minds of voters in the second half. And this surely won’t be the last time Baez is in an MVP race. He turns 26 on Dec. 1 and has played only three full seasons, improving his power numbers every year since 2016, when he burst into national prominence as the co-winner of the NLCS MVP with Lester.
It wasn’t the ending the Cubs or Baez had hoped for in 2018, but after the playoff loss at Wrigley, Baez said it would serve as a good lesson for him and his teammates.