On Sept. 2, in the sixth inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies, it took but one swing of his bat for the Chicago Cubs’ do-it-all infielder Javier Báez to knock out two huge milestones on his season. His home run off Phillies ace Aaron Nola marked both his 30th homer and his 100th RBI of the season — and brought the discussions surrounding his MVP candidacy to a fever pitch.
On the final day of the regular season, the Cubs clinched a National League wild-card postseason berth and Báez had slugged 34 home runs, cementing his status as the Cubs’ best power hitter. But it is his versatility, above all, that makes Báez so prized, and that was reflected this year by the infielder’s franchise-record mark.
Javier Báez is the first player in Chicago Cubs history to surpass 40 doubles, 30 home runs and 20 stolen bases in the same season.
Báez joins Sammy Sosa and Ryne Sandberg as the only players in Cubs history with 30-plus home runs and 20-plus stolen bases in a season. In 1990, Sandberg became the first player in Cubs history to accomplish the feat. Sosa would do it three times — 1993, 1995 and 1997 — in his decorated career. Now, 21 long years later, here is Báez to join their ranks — with some one-upmanship to boot.
Among current and former Cubbies, Báez’s accomplishment is transcendent. But what about in baseball as a whole? After all, this season boasts some newly minted members of the 30-30 club (30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a single season), including the Boston Red Sox’s Mookie Betts and the Cleveland Indians’ José Ramírez. They’re the first two to punch that membership card since 2012.
The award takes much more than power and speed into account — and in those other metrics, Báez has also excelled.
“It’s tough to do power. There are fewer guys who even get to 20 stolen bases, and the ones that do don’t even have 30 home run power,” says MLB analyst Mike Petriello. As for Báez’s accomplishment, in particular, Petriello muses it might say “more about the Cubs over the years” that there was a 21-year gap in the club’s players reaching the 30-20 mark. Still, he adds, “it’s a nice accomplishment when you’re in a conversation with Sosa and Sandberg.”
Why is it so rare for a player to amass at least 30 home runs and 20 stolen bases in any given year? It’s that elusive blend of power and speed, embodied by the all-time greats like Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez. (And yes, before you mention it, performance-enhancing drugs surely played a factor in some of those cases.) Baseball analyst Bill James developed a sabermetrics statistic to combine a player’s home run and stolen base numbers into one metric; the four previously mentioned players come in at Nos. 1–4, respectively, on the all-time list. In 2018? Báez, at 25.96, was fourth in the National League, behind the Colorado Rockies’ Trevor Story, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Christian Yelich and the Washington Nationals’ Trea Turner. In the modern game, steals have fallen out of favor, as sabermetrics show that they hinder rather than help teams’ attempts to score runs. This year, teams averaged 0.68 stolen base attempts per game, which is the lowest mark since 1964. That makes players like Betts, Ramirez and Báez with 30-20 or 30-30 ability all the more valuable.
Come November, this year’s National League and American League MVPs will be announced. Will Báez hear his name called? Obviously, the award takes much more than power and speed into account — and in those other metrics, Báez has also excelled. He finished the year first in the National League in RBI (111) — yes, above even red-hot Yelich. He was fourth in the NL in slugging percentage — there’s that power again. What could put him over the top, though, is his defensive prowess.
“People don’t talk about his leadership qualities on the field,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon told MLB.com after that Sept. 2 game. “You watch him and he’s directing traffic all the time, creating havoc on the bases.”
Whether or not he earns the NL MVP, Báez’s noteworthy accomplishment is a feat of offensive production — inside and outside the confines of Wrigley Field. Players in the modern game of baseball simply don’t achieve these kinds of home run and stolen base numbers — though, as Ramírez and Betts have shown, that could be changing.