Meet Javier Baez: Smooth new Detroit Tigers SS will excite you in more ways than 1

Detroit Free Press

Javier Baez is the type of player who endears himself to fan bases and ruffles the feathers of rivals.

He plays hard, he saves his pitcher runs with his defense, he creates runs his base-running and is always ready to defend his teammates — from the opposition and from fans.

Then again, some dislike his penchant for strikeouts (he led the National League with 184 strikeouts in 2021), his swagger and his celebratory style. He won’t hesitate to talk to opposing hurlers and has had beef with certain pitchers in the past (hey, Amir Garrett).

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Detroit Tigers fans will have plenty of time to draw their opinions. Baez signed a six-year deal Tuesday with the Tigers.

Baez, who will turn 29 on Wednesday, hit .265 with 31 home runs and 87 RBIs in 138 games between the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets last season. He stole 18 bases and walked 28 times, registering a .319 on-base percentage and a .494 slugging percentage (.813 on-base plus slugging).

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If nothing else, he should provide a jolt of power, flash eye-popping defense and generate more general interest in the Tigers. Get to know him:

Who is Javier Baez?

Baez is known for bat flips, late-game heroics, his thumbs and his friendship with fellow Puerto Rico native Francisco Lindor, but here, let’s stick to the basics.

Most fans probably associate Baez with former Cubs general manager Theo Epstein, since the two won the 2016 World Series together, he was actually drafted ex-Cubs GM (and former Dave Dombrowski assistant) Jim Hendry ninth overall in the 2011 draft. He became a top-60 prospect within a season and debuted in Chicago in 2014, hitting a decisive, extra-inning home run in his first game.

From there, he’s made the All-Star game twice (2018, 2019), won a Silver Slugger (2018) and was the National League Championship Series co-MVP in 2016, hitting .318 with five RBIs, four doubles and two stolen bases in the series. He had three hits and three RBIs in Game 5.

But perhaps his most attractive, and consistent, skills are his base-running and defense.

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A different kind of base-runner

Baez won’t steal 40 bases, but he’s an opportunistic extra-base taker and has a knack for avoiding tags and winning rundowns.

There was this unbelievable play in Pittsburgh that symbolized just how creative Baez can be on the basepaths — and how hopeless the Pirates, who finished 61-101, would be in 2021.

My favorite part is him signaling safe before booking it to first (and then second). Or that at any time, even after the runner crossed the plate, the first baseman could have tagged the bag and ended the inning, rendering the run moot. But El Mago has an effect on guys sometimes.

And at shortstop, he’s won a Gold Glove in 2020 and has four times been named to the acclaimed Fielding Bible team (2016-18, 2020).

He can nearly cover four lanes of traffic with his range and his arm strength from the hole can turn an infield single or bouncer through the hole into a disappointing jog to the dugout.

Take a look:

He hears you

Baez and the 2021 Mets made headlines for being mightily talented, but also underachieving. The team slogged to the finish line after a rash of trade-deadline deals and were booed in August by the Citi Field faithful, prompting a thumbs down to the crowd from Baez and two teammates. Baez, Lindor and Kevin Pillar, who all poo-poo’d the audience, apologized for the gestures.

Sports pundits were aghast he’d signaled negatively toward the fans while others thought it was simply a player returning some of the energy they get.

REACTIONS: ‘I’m not mad but I’m pretty mad’: Tigers fans like, but don’t love, Javy Baez deal

Baez has had run-ins with the Cincinnati Reds, among other teams, because of his willingness to speak his mind or defend his teammates. Expect the same at Comerica Park.

Follow the Free Press on Facebook and Twitter for more news. Tyler Davis can be contacted at tjdavis@freepress.com or on Twitter @TDavisFreep.

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