Javier Báez is the perfect puzzle for the modern game.
At a time when everything on the field is tracked, contextualized and used to predict future outcomes, baseball's most enigmatic player defies logic and expectations.
The best hitters today typically are countering the opposing pitchers' strikeout stuff by swinging less, walking more and trying to hit home runs. Báez hacks at more than 56% of the pitches he sees, and misses more than 40% of the time when he swings. No player who strikes out 10 times more than he walks should be able succeed in the big leagues, and yet he inexplicably makes it work.
It helps that Báez an exceptional athlete who hits for power, runs the bases well and plays excellent defense. But what the Cubs shortstop does best cannot be measured with statistics; instead, it is felt. That's what makes his pending free agency so interesting. How do teams assign financial value to intangible greatness? How can they account for this?
This is simultaneously one of the best and worst plays of the season, so of course it was the incomprehensible Báez toying with the incompetent Pirates. The play begins with two outs, Willson Contreras on second and the Cubs leading, 1–0. Báez pulls a grounder to third. The throw to first is slightly off the mark, but first baseman Will Craig snags it with plenty of time to step on the bag for the third out of the inning.
Instead, Báez halts abruptly and starts running back toward the plate. Craig, for some reason, chases Báez in an attempt to tag him instead of just ending the inning with the force at first.
Craig panics when he sees Contreras heading for home and tosses the ball over the galloping Báez to catcher Michael Perez, but Contreras gets in ahead of the tag. Báez excitedly makes the safe sign and then takes off for first.
Perez sees this, prepares to throw but realizes nobody is covering the bag; Craig is standing hopelessly a few feet up the third base line. Instead, it's up to second baseman Adam Frazier to get to the bag in time, but Báez slides safely in head first.
Somehow, it gets even more ridiculous. Frazier can't handle Perez's throw, which goes into right field, allowing Báez to reach second. The next batter, Ian Happ, drives in Báez with a single to center field. 3–0 Cubs.
Certainly, Báez shouldn't get all the credit for what unfolded. All Craig had to do was step on first base and nothing would've happened. Instead, he took Báez's bait and the Cubs added two runs they had no business scoring.
But Báez is one of the few players with the athleticism and instincts to make two runs out of a routine, should-be inning-ending groundball. Báez reacts to the unexpected—like a major-league first baseman forgetting to step on the base—and then improvises as if he had anticipated it all along. Contreras's run doesn't count if Báez doesn't make it to first safely.
It's hard to gauge where Báez fits within the superclass of shortstops hitting free agency this offseason. Measuring his production in comparison to a league-average player cannot fully capture all the value he brings to a team.
Soon, front offices across the league will spend countless hours pouring over spreadsheets, hoping to measure Báez's future value and convert it to a specific number of years and dollars. When those attempts prove futile, they should watch the third inning of an otherwise meaningless afternoon game in May, when baseball's most confounding player found order—and more importantly, runs—out of the chaos he created.