For better and for worse, Javier Báez is a Tiger

Bless You Boys

Wednesday afternoon the Tigers announced that they had signed Javier Báez to lock down the shortstop position in Detroit for the foreseeable future. In a move that owner Chris Ilitch describes as a “turning point” for the franchise, El Mago was inked to a six-year, $140 million deal that includes an opt-out after two years. While he represents a significant upgrade at the position, questions remain about whether it was the right move for the Tigers.

In a stacked free-agent class at shortstop, the team finally put some of their money where their mouth is, but did not land one of the biggest fish in the pond. In Báez’s introductory press conference, general manager Al Avila stated that improving the middle infield was a priority going into the offseason, and that Javier Báez will help fill that need. Indeed he shall, but should fans feel fulfilled by the signing of Báez which represents a new competitive window opening, or is it still reasonable to feel a little disappointed in not going all-in on a blockbuster contract?

In Javier Báez, the Tigers are getting one of baseball’s most electric, frustrating, and exceptionally talented players. Let’s state the obvious now: he’s a very good player who is going to help the Detroit Tigers as they try to be competitive next year. He hits for power, runs the bases well, and remains a great defender who will also contribute the occasional jaw-dropping play. Seriously, just YouTube “Javier Báez defense” and enjoy the show.

For his career, he holds a wRC+ of 103, an ISO of .212, and has been worth 46 defensive runs saved over eight seasons. While we can’t flat out ignore his shortened 2020 season’s 55 wRC+, (editor’s note: I’m ignoring it) he was worth 116 in 2021, 112 in 2019, and 131 in his 2018 NL MVP runner-up campaign. Báez’s sprint speed is a legitimate weapon as well. Last season he stole 18 bases and was in the 86.2-percentile for speed in the league. Couple that with his gap-to-gap power and the vast outfield of Comerica Park, and you get a player who has a strong chance of leading the league in triples.

Another aspect of Báez’s game that he’s been able to work through is an inflated BABIP. For his career he has a .335 BABIP, while the typical number for many hitters is around .300. However, in his atrocious 2020 campaign his BABIP was a mere .262. The shortened season definitely threw a lot of players off their game, and Báez even suggested that some of his issues came from not being able to look at video of his swings in the dugout — thanks, Astros. In 2021 Báez had a massive bounce back season and his BABIP of .352 aligns. While Báez is a player whose production leans on an inflated BABIP, his skillset of running well and making high quality contact when he does put the ball in play allows that inflated BABIP to be more sustainable.

Javier Báez’s calling card is his ability to absolutely punish the baseball when he makes contact. His lightning-quick bat has resulted in the 85th-percentile for barrels, 74th-percentile for hard-hit rate, and 98th-percentile for max exit velocity. Báez’s average exit velocity was 90.1 MPH in 2021, and his max exit velocity was 116.7 MPH which represents the highest mark of his career. Translated into layman’s terms, when his bat actually hits the ball, it’s going to make a really loud sound that’s music to a baseball’s fans ears. In the short term, that’s tremendous, but how sustainable is it for the long term? Going into his age-29 season, it’s probably not a concern, but bat speed doesn’t last forever. On the other hand, he does have more of it than most to begin with.

The ugly parts of Báez’s game are what’s concerning as his issues are not so easily worked out. As an offense, the Tigers were fourth-worst in baseball in total strikeouts and third-worst with a 25.3% strikeout rate. Báez… is not going to help those numbers. For better or worse, he’s been a bit of a windmill throughout his career and things have been worse on that front recently. While that’s resulted in some hits akin to Vladimir Guerrero the Elder, it’s directly led to a 29.3% strikeout rate, including a career-high 33.6% rate last season. Disappointingly, he is not a high strikeout, high walk guy like the elite power hitters. For his career, he has an OBP of only .307. For reference, Harold Castro’s career OBP is .315. Yikes.

ZIPS projects Báez to be a reasonably productive player over the next five years, sitting at 3.3 fWAR in his best year and 2.1 fWAR in his worst year. Keep in mind that these projections do make adjustments for BABIP, so Báez does tend to outperform offensive predictions routinely. Again though, his production relies somewhat heavily on skillsets that tend to degrade roughly with age in sprint speed and bat speed. If he’s to remain a productive player on offense as he reaches the wrong side of 30, he must make some serious adjustments to his approach, starting with plate discipline.

While veterans rarely change their approach and have success, the Tigers might just have the right guy to teach Báez some plate discipline. While he isn’t the MVP in the box that he once was, Miguel Cabrera is essentially the Holy Bible of Hitting at this point. Cabrera was heavily involved in Báez’s recruitment process, and Báez even acknowledged wanting to absorb the knowledge that Cabrera has to offer.

Much of the same points on aging can be made about his defense. Again, he makes some absolutely dazzling plays, accounting for 31 defensive runs saved in 2019 and even winning a Gold Glove in 2020 for his work at shortstop. However, last season he only accrued 3 defensive runs saved and had a -0.1 ultimate zone rating at the position. Defensive statistics are far from being perfect, but the trend line tells us that his best days in the field are most likely behind him. I fully expect Báez to be a very good defensive shortstop for the Tigers, at least for the next few seasons, but probably not to the level that he’s been at in the past.

In order to get back into contention in the American League Central Division, the Tigers absolutely needed a shortstop and got a pretty good one in Javier Báez. Is he the right one though? It’s no secret that most fans wanted Carlos Correa, and few teams were better positioned to make a run at him than the Tigers. Correa will most likely get a deal of at least 10 years for around $35 million AAV. Still, with Detroit’s low payroll and Miguel Cabrera’s money coming off the books in two years, Correa would have slid seamlessly into a role as the new face of the franchise and a superstar tasked with leading the organization to its first World Series title since 1984.

Chris Ilitch promised to do what is needed to win, and although he came away with a pretty good player, you can’t help but feel the Tigers missed out on a golden opportunity to catapult the franchise back to relevancy. Mid-market teams only occasionally have a shot at landing one of the best players in the game. On the other hand, Ilitch did make clear that, as he’s claimed all along, he would boost the payroll significantly as the young core of talented prospects came on line. Whether he’s going to be willing to actually do what it takes to win remains to be seen.

What could have been is no longer worth worrying about since we know what is. And where the Tigers are at now is a good place with a good player on a contract that’s AAV of $23.3 million shouldn’t ever be an excuse to keep them from making additional moves to improve the team. Al Avila and the rest of the front office should still have resources to add to the team this offseason, most likely in the form of another quality starting pitcher along with help for the bullpen and possibly a bit of positional depth for the bench.

In regards to Javier Báez, he certainly comes with warts on his game, but he is going to be exciting to watch, help the team in a multitude of ways, and be recognizable enough to sell some tickets and jerseys. It’s a six-year contract, but with the opt-out after the second year, the best-case scenario is he tears the cover off the ball for a couple of seasons, opts out, and the Tigers don’t have to worry about his decline.

If he does stick around in Detroit for the whole six years, the end is likely going to get rough. Such are long-term deals for free agents. Right now though, let’s enjoy him for the fun player he is and hope the Tigers continue to make a push for the playoffs in 2022.

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