Evaluating Detroit Tigers shortstop Javier Baez: A lot to like with one big negative

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers shortstop Javier Baez has the potential to win the American League MVP award.

The 29-year-old has one frustrating flaw — plate discipline — but should provide everything the Tigers need from their everyday shortstop. On Tuesday, the Tigers signed Baez to a six-year, $140 million contract. He has an opt-out after the 2023 season.

Baez is an above-average and versatile defender, crushes a lot of home runs, makes an impact on the bases, has 36 games of postseason experience — including a 2016 World Series championship — and should bring plenty of swagger.

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Let’s compare Baez to the other four top-tier shortstops from this winter’s free-agent class: Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story.

The Texas Rangers signed both Seager (10 years, $325 million) and Semien (seven years, $175 million), while Correa and Story remain free agents. Correa — the best of the bunch — is expected to cost north of $340 million, so the Tigers essentially saved roughly $200 million for future transactions by avoiding what’s expected to be a 10-year commitment.

Since 2018, Baez ranks third with 13.3 fWAR (Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs), behind Semien (19.3) and Story (17.1) but ahead of Correa (11.4) and Seager (9.7). He also beat out utility player Chris Taylor (9.3), considered the sixth-best shortstop on the market. Baez’s .508 slugging percentage was second only to Story’s .532 during the four-year span.

Baez’s fWAR totals have dipped since his high of 5.4 in 2018, with 4.3, minus-0.1 and 3.6 from 2019-21, respectively. His 2021 total would have ranked him first on the Tigers’ roster, ahead of third baseman Jeimer Candelario (3.2).

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A lot to like

Then there’s the defense.

Since 2018, Detroit’s shortstops were worth minus-45 DRS (defensive runs saved). That’s a group that includes Jose Iglesias (0 DRS), Niko Goodrum (minus-3), Harold Castro (minus-6), Pete Kozma (plus-1), Willi Castro (minus-13), Zack Short (minus-1), Isaac Paredes (minus-1), Gordon Beckham (minus-5), Ronny Rodriguez (minus-8) and Jordy Mercer (minus-9).

Meanwhile, over that same span, Baez was worth plus-44 DRS at shortstop. He won the Gold Glove at shortstop in 2020 with 6 DRS and a .968 fielding percentage in 56 games.

Across his eight-year career, Baez has been worth 0 DRS at first base (23⅓ innings), 16 DRS at second base (2,141⅔ innings), 7 DRS at third base (629⅓ innings) and 46 DRS at shortstop (3,950⅔ innings), giving him a total of 69 DRS in the big leagues.

Indeed, Baez will be a huge defensive upgrade.

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His résumé includes overwhelming power; the two-time All-Star shouldn’t have too much trouble adjusting to Comerica Park’s dimensions. (Of his 68 home runs over the past three seasons, 58 still would have been homers at Comerica.) Among 26 qualified shortstops last season, Baez finished second with a .229 ISO (isolated power) and 31 home runs. His 116 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus; MLB average is 100) tied for ninth.

Dating to 2018, Detroit’s shortstops posted a .145 ISO and 81 wRC+, along with a .294 on-base percentage and .388 slugging percentage. In the same timeframe, Baez delivered a .238 ISO, 113 wRC+, .311 OBP and .508 SLG.

Baez belted 23 homers (145 games) in 2017, 34 homers (160 games) in 2018, 29 homers (138 games) in 2019, eight homers (59 games) in 2020 and 31 homers (138 games) in 2021.

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Last season, Baez registered numerous career highs in the Statcast era (since 2015) with a 116.7 mph max exit velocity, 45.2% hard-hit rate and 13.4% barrel rate. He also logged a .454 expected slugging percentage, his third-best mark in that category.

Simply put, Baez crushes the baseball.

Another point of emphasis is Baez’s contributions on the bases. He stole 21 bases in 2018, 11 in 2019, three in 2020 and 18 in 2021. His sprint speed — 28.6 feet per second — ranked 21st in MLB last season and would have been fifth-best for the Tigers, behind Derek Hill (30.5), Akil Baddoo (28.9), Victor Reyes (28.8) and Willi Castro (28.7).

As the Tigers seek their first postseason berth since 2014, Baez brings with him 128 plate appearances in the playoffs. He has hit .221 with five doubles, five home runs, 14 RBIs, five walks and 41 strikeouts.

Playing for the Chicago Cubs, Baez reached the National League Championship Series in 2015, won the World Series in 2016 and went back to the NLCS in 2017. He also competed in the NL Wild Card in 2018 and 2020.

During the Cubs’ 2016 championship run, Baez earned NLCS MVP honors for hitting .318 in six games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The next season, he blasted two homers in Game 4 of the NLCS vs. the Dodgers.

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At the July 2021 trade deadline, the Cubs jumpstarted their rebuild by shipping Baez to the New York Mets for an outfield prospect.

All told in 2021, Baez hit .265 with 31 home runs, 87 RBIs, 28 walks and 184 strikeouts in 138 games, with a .319 OBP and .494 SLG. (He hit .248 in 91 games for the Cubs, then .299 in 47 games for the Mets.)

Earlier in his career, Baez finished second in 2018 NL MVP voting with a .290 batting average, 34 home runs, 111 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in 160 games.

He made the All-Star team in 2018 and 2019.

One big negative

The problem is obvious, though: Baez strikes out a ton.

It’s almost unfathomable.

There were 132 qualified batters last season, and Baez ranked 132nd in contact rate (62.2%), 132nd in walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.15), 131st in contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone (73.4%), 130th in chase rate (46.6%), 130th in strikeout rate (33.6%), 124th in walk rate (5.1%) and 121st in contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone (53.1%).

Baez led the NL (and finished fifth in MLB) with 184 strikeouts in 2021. He was the worst in swing-and-miss rate among qualified hitters, at 40.5%.

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Baez’s plate discipline troubles won’t magically disappear upon his arrival in Detroit, though it’s worth noting he improved from a 36.3% strikeout rate with the Cubs (91 games) to a 28.5% strikeout rate with the Mets (47 games) after last year’s trade.

In 2021, the Tigers had a 25.3% strikeout rate (28th in MLB), 8.2% walk rate (21st), 74.4% contact rate (27th) and 32.8% chase rate (23rd). Adding Baez to the mix won’t help the Tigers in those categories.

Baez’s strikeout rate — 29.3% for his career — has gotten worse each year since 2018. He has a career 4.8% walk rate. (For comparison, Goodrum — cut by the Tigers in November due to poor performance — has a career 30.7% strikeout rate and 9.2% walk rate.)

Besides the strikeout woes, there isn’t anything else to dislike about Baez’s on-field makeup.

That’s why he could become a consistent MVP candidate, if only he can cut down on those pesky whiffs and improve his all-around plate discipline.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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