It’s been a few years now since we first discovered that Javier Baez has an elite tagging skill. At the time, it wasn’t obvious that a player actually could have an elite tagging skill. Applying a tag seems like a pretty specific, rote act. There’s not a lot of variation. Baez, though, somehow found a way to do it better than everyone. Baez has a way of doing that.
Well, it seems possible Baez has managed to somehow find value where none seemed clearly available — in this case, by causing fielders to self-combust while he runs the bases. It’s a skill that leads to errors and extra bases for Baez and his friends, and it was on display Wednesday night as Baez stood at first base with Anthony Rizzo up to bat. The Cubs’ first baseman hit a single to center field. Then this happened:
Baez scored on the throwing error and Rizzo advanced to second, eventually making it to third thanks to another throwing error. A guy on Twitter with 1.7 million followers asked for a post on this.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) September 6, 2018
Prior to this season, Baez possessed a lot of loud skills that hadn’t fully translated to the playing field. He had power. He had speed. He was good on defense and made some spectacular plays. He also struck out a lot, though, and never walked. And the power was good, but not great. In 2016 and 2017, that meant he was a roughly average player on offense. Complementing that with above-average defense meant he was worth 4.5 WAR in nearly a thousand plate appearances.
This year, Baez has struck out a little bit less and hit for power a little bit more. The result is that he’s recorded more wins in this season alone than the previous two combined. He’s also in the conversation for the NL MVP award.
Baez’s skill on the bases is generally well-known and accounted for by our various metrics. Baez has 22 infield hits on the season, and those show up in his batting average, on-base percentage, wRC+, and WAR. Baez has 21 stolen bases, and those show up in baserunning runs (BsR) — just as his eight outs do on attempted stolen bases.
To give a sense of how that works, here are the players with at least 20 stolen bases on the season, their times caught stealing, and their stolen-base runs (wSB):
In baseball, getting on base is the hard part, and it’s more valuable than advancing one base. As a result, the penalty for getting caught stealing is worse than the benefit of getting an extra base. That’s why, generally speaking, a runner needs to be successful in more than two-thirds of his attempted steals in order to make a positive offensive contribution. Baez is above that mark this season, and at 74% for his career, which has been good for two runs above average. However, it is possible that this understates Baez’s effect on the bases if he draws throwing errors at a higher than normal rate.
On Baez’s 29 steals this season, he has advanced an extra base due to error on five occasions, or on 17.2% of those stolen bases. That’s three times the normal rate: we would typically expect a player with Baez’s attempt numbers to draw just an error or two. Take this play from July in the 10th inning of a tie game against the Padres. Baez attempts to steal second to get in scoring position.
The play isn’t over yet.
Baez took a situation with a run expectancy of about 0.5 runs and ended up with 1.254. Yet, in this case, Baez only gets credit for around 0.2 of that 0.7 increase. More importantly given the situation, the game went from a 50/50 toss up to an 83% chance of winning for Chicago.
That was the most impactful play Baez made on a steal and error, but there are four other similar plays this season. One time, for example, Baez was “credited” with a caught stealing for a play on which he also scored, as seen below.
In the scorebook, that goes down as a caught stealing and costs him about 0.4 runs. In reality, the result of the play meant an increase of 1.1 runs expected. Some results don’t matter as much. Twice Baez stole second base with two outs — which is a positive move for which he gets credit — and then made it to third base on an error. The run expectancy barely changes at all, as the batter is likely to score on a hit from second base anyway. If we take the difference in results from the typical player stealing a base, Baez’s five steals on which he took more bases due to errors nets him about 1.3 more runs above average. How much credit to give Baez for these bases is somewhat questionable. Last season, there was just one error on a Baez stolen-base attempt, so it doesn’t necessarily appear to be skill-related. Looking at similar players, we find that Lorenzo Cain has had no errors on stolen-base attempts while Starling Marte has had four.
There’s also the matter of Baez reaching base on an error, as well as getting extra bases that way. Baez has reached base on an error 10 times this season, which may be something a little more skill-based considering he did so seven times a year ago. The average is between five and six over a full season. If we credit Baez with around 0.4 runs for every time he reaches on error above average and another 0.2 for the advancement of runners already on base, that’s another three runs to Baez’s total. It also helps his reputation to do so on the biggest stage, like in Game Five of the NLDS last year.
As for the original play in question, Baez was already getting credit for making it to third base, as going from first to third is a large part of baserunning runs. The error that allowed him to score and Rizzo to make it to second — the other error allowed Rizzo to make it to third — increased the run expectancy by about 0.3 runs, as first and third with nobody out is already a good situation for scoring. These types of plays occur far less often. There have only been 99 throwing errors from outfielders all season, and most throwing errors by infielders happen at first base.
Whether Baez has a “supernatural ability to induce errors” is probably in the eye of the beholder. Baez gets on base more than the average player via the error because he’s fast and runs hard. It’s a trait shared by others, but the only players with more in the National League this season are Starlin Castro and Ian Desmond, per Baseball-Reference. Baez has also advanced on more errors while stealing than most players, but that appears to happen randomly among players and seasons. Baez certainly creates those chances by attempting a decent amount of steals, but it doesn’t appear that he’s specifically responsible for the errors.
There might be somewhere in the range of three to five unaccounted runs that Baez is creating over the course of a season with his speed, but keep in mind that there are other players to whom this applies, as well. We notice Javy because he is a noticeable player on a very noticeable team. Sadly — or perhaps happily — these plays are not likely the result of a supernatural ability, but of an incredibly natural one in pushing opposing defenses to make plays and forcing the issue.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.