DUNEDIN, Fla. — Javier Báez watched Hyun Jin Ryu try to get him to chase up in the zone for two pitches. He declined, but Báez was ready when Ryu came back with a changeup down in the zone.
The resulting hit was a 112.3 mph line drive to the wall in left-center for an RBI double, by far the hardest-hit ball in the Tigers’ 8-4 win over the Blue Jays on Friday afternoon at TD Ballpark. It’s the kind of contact Báez is looking for as he prepares for Comerica Park, resulting from the kind of disciplined at-bat Báez has been working on since well before he signed with Detroit.
The latter part, Báez admits, has been a work in progress. In his final at-bat, he worked a 3-0 count against Blue Jays reliever Anthony Kay before swinging and missing at back-to-back fastballs up and out of the zone. With a full count, Báez connected with another high fastball, but he grounded out to short. In between, however, he singled in a tough at-bat against sidearmer Adam Cimber.
“I’ve been working since last year on doing less movement on my swing and trying to see the ball better,” Báez said. “It’s been working really good for me. I just have to have that trust and let the ball travel in the zone. I know I’ve got time to get to it. Sometimes, I just speed up and I’m swinging before the pitch is even released. Making that adjustment is pretty huge.”
While Báez had a career-high 44.5 percent chase rate last year, according to Statcast, his 46.7 percent contact rate when chasing pitches outside the zone was his lowest mark since 2015 (44.4). However, 12 of his 31 home runs last season came in two-strike counts. The Tigers hope Báez can find the balance between tempering his chase tendencies while remaining a threat for hard contact in all counts.
That could be a particularly important balance this season as Báez assumes a spot in the middle of a Tigers’ batting order that has grown deeper since the end of last season.
“He’s always tried to be a more disciplined hitter. He has never resisted that,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “As he has gotten a little bit more mature and older, I think he is starting to understand and appreciate it a little bit more.
“What you can’t do with veteran players is dance around the obvious. That might be something on defense. It might be something on the bases. It could be something at the plate. Just keep coaching and keep encouraging them to get a little bit better, because they have to adjust and adapt their game as they get older. He’s not old by any means, but the 29-year-old version is different than the 21-year-old that debuted.”
For a 23-year-old hitter, Isaac Paredes continues to show a veteran’s eye for the strike zone when he’s comfortable. He worked a 10-pitch at-bat against Blue Jays reliever David Phelps before lining out to short, then worked a 2-0 count against Julian Merryweather his next at-bat. Paredes chased a high 2-0 fastball out of the zone before turning on a 97 mph fastball over the plate for a go-ahead three-run homer.
“He’s one of the better at-bat managers on our team, and he’s always been that way,” Hinch said. “He’s put up a good at-bat. He knows a ball from a strike. Pull-side power is good to see. He makes good choices on what to swing at. It’s one of his strengths as a hitter.
“I’m glad he’s flashing the power a little bit. That’s something that has been talked about a lot on how impactful of a hitter he can be at this level.”
That balance between power and plate discipline is important for Paredes to find. While his strikeout rate dropped from 22.2 percent in 2020 to 12.9 percent last year, his average exit velocity also dropped a tick to 85.5 mph, according to Statcast. But his launch angle rose from 7.5 to 18 degrees, showing a more concerted effort to get the ball in the air.
Skubal seeks calm aggression
While Tarik Skubal yielded two runs on four hits and one walk over 2 2/3 innings against Toronto, most of his damage came in a 24-pitch opening inning that began with a George Springer ground-ball single and included doubles by Bo Bichette and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who drove in Toronto’s first two runs.
Skubal was happy with his pitch execution, but not his demeanor.
“I just need to pitch with a little bit more aggression, not as calm as I was today,” he said. “I want to be collected, but maybe just a little bit more controlled aggression.”
Skubal has been trying to temper his aggression this spring with breathing exercises while he’s on the mound, but he suspects he overcompensated.
“I think I might have just calmed myself a little bit too down,” he said.