Detroit Tigers’ Javier Baez has a magical touch at shortstop — though it fizzles at times

Detroit Free Press

TAMPA, Fla. — Class was in session on Saturday morning.

The pupil: Javier Baez, the Detroit Tigers‘ new shortstop.

The teacher: Ramon Santiago, the Tigers infield coach.

The classroom: the edge of the infield dirt.

It was the morning before Baez’s first spring training game in a Tigers uniform. The Tigers were going through batting practice, and Baez and Santiago were standing on the infield, going through a lesson.

There is no question that Baez can make dazzling plays — he’s an athletic, gifted glove man who will improve the Tigers’ defense with jaw-dropping brilliance and a flair for the dramatic.

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But the Tigers still are trying to clean up his defense, trying to make him better.

Because in the midst of all of that beauty, there are blemishes.

He commits too many errors.

“He’s elite,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said earlier in camp. “It’s really as simple as that. We wanted an elite shortstop, and we got one that wanted to be here. That was important, that Javy bought into what we were doing. He’s a winning player.”

But even elite players can get better.

And Santiago was doing most of the talking on Saturday morning.

“Veteran players still need to be coached,” Hinch said. “It’s one thing I love about our staff is, none of them are afraid to coach.”

A magician with too many flubs

Baez will make some amazing plays that leave you shaking your head in awe: How did he make that off-balance, twisting throw? How did he make that diving catch? How did he get to that ball deep in the hole? At times, it’s like watching a magician.

But he will also fail to make some plays that leave you wondering: If he can do the spectacular, why couldn’t he make that play? Why did he drop that ball? Why did he throw that one away? It’s as stunning as watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat but drop it by accident.

Baez had 20 errors playing shortstop in 2021 — seven fielding and 13 on throws.

He also had four errors at second base.

“I think he had some careless errors last year, that he will admit, is something that he can he can take out of his game,” Hinch said.

Baez started last season with the Chicago Cubs. There were stretches when he played error-free ball. He had four errors in all of April. Then, he had five errors in a six-game span in May, including three in a single game.

But he seemed to get it back together, ripping off 13 games with one error combined; then he played 22 games in June with two errors.

“He had some footwork issues that created some throwing problems for him,” HInch said. “I think it’s more attention to detail for him. He’s a veteran player who has some hardware but he needs to still be reminded to stay locked in on every play and not be careless with his footwork or careless with his throws. And that will lead to less errors.”

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Preparation makes perfect

Hinch’s coaching philosophy can be broken down to three elements: 1. Preparation, 2. Having fun; 3. Winning.

But preparation might be the most important: It leads to wins. It leads to the fun.

Preparation is a wide-ranging term that encompasses everything.

Season preparation. Daily preparation. Shoot, even moment-by-moment preparation.

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In Hinch’s eyes, it explains almost everything.

Why did a player have a throwing error? It was probably the footwork that lead up to it.

Why did a player miss a ball to his backhand? It was probably not getting prepared before the pitch.

Why did a player not get prepared before the pitch? He wasn’t moving correctly.

One thing the Tigers focus on is the pre-pitch routine. Hinch wants all of his infielders to be in the air right as the ball crosses into the hitting zone.

If that all comes together, they will be in an athletic stance, able to cut in any direction, When it’s done right, when it all comes together, it’s like a ballet.

A beautiful, choreographed routine.

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In the old days, a coach might tell an infielder to step into an athletic crouch during the pitch.

But the Tigers want more. They want quick feet. They want nimbleness. They want to set everything up.

To cut down on those errors.

I was watching Santiago coach Saturday, and he hopped into the air, exaggerating his movements, performing the pre-pitch hop.

Baez had a 76% success rate in outs against average in 2021 while playing shortstop, according to Baseball Savant.

But ah, those errors. There were too many.

“If you look at it, his outs above average, it’s really good,” Hinch said. ‘If you look at his, his errors, it’s below-average. And those two things generally don’t, don’t get tied together in that in that way.”

So the Tigers are trying to break those things apart, removing the mistakes and accentuating the ability to be elite.

“His baseball acumen is top of the charts,” Hinch said. “His hunger to be better is good.”

There is no question Baez can hit. He had a hustle double on Sunday, driving in a run against the New York Yankees in the first inning.

But if he can improve his defense — just a little? If he can knock down on those errors?

If he can clean up the careless mistakes?

Then the Tigers could have something truly magical.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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