KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's a topic gaining momentum, at least in Chicago, where you can't turn on a sports-radio talk show without someone claiming that Chicago Cubs All-Star infielder Javier Baez is the leading candidate for National League MVP honors. They have a good point -- he's having a great season -- but is it the prevailing thought outside the city?
Based on an informal poll conducted in the early days of this month, if the season ended right now, Baez would be lagging behind others for the award. Of the 10 people asked, including eight members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, only two chose Baez as the winner. And one did so reluctantly.
For good measure -- just to make sure media members weren't missing anything -- a scout and National League front-office executive also were asked to pick a winner, and they both chose Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado led with four votes, Freeman had three, Baez had two, and St. Louis Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter garnered the remaining vote. It's close, but Baez is behind others.
"I don't think anyone wants to believe someone that doesn't walk at least 50 percent higher than his batting average should be worthy for an MVP, but look what he's doing," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said recently. "And don't forget the glove. And don't forget the baserunning."
The knock on Baez is obvious: Entering play on Tuesday, his on-base percentage was just .335, ranking 48th among qualified players in the league. It pales in comparison to that of Freeman, who ranks second with a .396 mark, and Arenado, who ranks sixth at .389. Baez has just 17 walks this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, if Baez won the NL MVP award with a .335 on-base mark, it would be the third lowest for an NL winner. As such, it's not impossible, but he has to shine in other areas.
Baez does lead the league in runs driven in and he's second in slugging percentage, and he is hitting .300, but it's the deeper dive into his game that would make the difference come time for the real vote.
"Don't get locked into hitting all the time," Maddon said. "God, that always upsets me. It's a complete game ... I'm hoping real baseball players are recognized. I want to believe we're getting back to that as opposed to being just this math equation."
Therein lies Baez's advantage over others. He plays three infield positions -- second, short and third -- at an elite level, while Freeman and Arenado, though very good at their respective positions, play just the one. Baez also has 19 stolen bases to go with his 25 home runs. Combined, the other two players have nine steals. Baez's combination of power, speed and elite defense at several positions isn't exactly an every-season occurrence in the league. The Cubs are hoping it all matters.
"You can't steal first, but at least you're still getting yourself into scoring position," former MVP Kris Bryant said of the stolen bases. "And he's stealing runs away in the field. It gives him an advantage where he doesn't have it -- in the on-base-percentage category."
It can't hurt that Baez has stolen home twice this season, meaning his legs have led directly to runs for his team. But he lags overall in a more popular category for sabermetric fans: runs created. Carpenter, Freeman and Arenado rank 1-2-3 in that category.
But should Baez's versatility on defense matter? It has before.
"That's what helped me out in 2016," Bryant said. "I was moving all over the field. He's doing the same thing this year. I think voters are smart enough to know that."
There's hardly a day that goes by without Baez making some kind of fantastic play on defense. On Monday, it was a diving stop down the line at third base and then a laser throw to first for an out. That was followed by an over-the-shoulder, run-saving catch while he played second base on Tuesday. Some believe Baez is the best the Cubs have at all three positions.
Also, the Baez backers will note that his run-producing numbers are in line with those of Freeman and Arenado, even if the runs created aren't, and the above intangibles should put Baez over the top -- or at least offset his low walk total. Stolen bases are extra bases gained, just as a walk is a base gained, right? Perhaps that's a stretch, but Bryant gave a more simplistic response to the whole debate.
"He's the most valuable player on our team, and we're in first place," he said. "Seems like he should be at top of the list."
Perhaps Baez will be, and perhaps the poll conducted recently didn't paint a complete picture. Most respondents admitted that it is still a wide-open race, which means there's time for Baez to impress by other means than simply getting on base more.
He was asked if he's aware of the talk -- and the MVP chants that have begun, even on the road.
"I'm trying to focus on my plan," Baez said after hitting a home run and double on Monday night. "The first at-bat, they're already yelling. I was nervous."
Bryant added, "He's way up there in terms of front-runners. I get a front-row seat to watch it all. He's an MVP for sure."