Dunedin, Fla, — The question posed to manager AJ Hinch before the game here Friday was about his new $140 million shortstop Javier Báez.
How are you attacking the plate discipline issue with him?
If there is any negative to Báez’s game, it’s been his propensity to chase pitches (career-high 44.5% last season), which led to a 40.5% swing-and-miss rate.
“Javy is at a stage in his career where he’s probably been told everything,” Hinch said. “It’s just a different way of going about it. We’re very up front with guys with what our expectations are and what adjustments we want made.”
Báez doubled and singled in the Tigers’ 8-4 Grapefruit League win over the Blue Jays. He’s hitting a robust .770 and struck out just once this spring.
“Javy has always tried to be a more disciplined hitter,” Hinch said. “He’s never resisted that. As he’s gotten a little more mature and older, I think he’s starting to understand and appreciate it more. What you can’t do with veteran players is dance around the obvious.”
Báez appreciates that. He also welcomes the coaching.
“You never stop learning in this game,” he said. “With coaches, I pick something that helps me. A lot of coaches tell me different things. I’ve got to pick the things I know that I think are going to help me. Not everything.
“When it’s about hitting, it’s about seeing the ball and hitting the ball. It’s been really good for me listening and picking up little stuff from every coach.”
He’s also loving being in the same hitting group with Miguel Cabrera.
“Just more the way he prepares,” Báez said. “I’m getting to that age soon.”
Wait, Cabrera is a decade older than Báez.
“I mean, not soon,” he said, laughing. “But I’m getting there. And I’m seeing his preparation in the cage and in BP and it’s incredible. When you see the game is so easy for him, it’s because he works so hard for it.”
Báez also watches as Cabrera, in every hitting session, hits ball after ball to the opposite field. He rarely, if ever, tries to pull the ball in batting practice.
“Sometimes young guys, and I guess you can include me, too, sometimes we just go out and launch balls instead of working on driving the ball gap to gap,” he said.
Driving balls to the opposite field in BP helps hitters practice staying back and letting balls get deeper in the strike zone — exactly what Báez has been working on to improve his plate discipline.
“Since last year I’ve been working on less movement on the swing and trying to see the ball better,” Báez said. “It’s been working really good for me. I’ve got to have that trust and let the ball travel. I know I’ve got time to get to it.
“Sometimes I speed up and I’m swinging before the pitch is released.”
That’s when he gets himself out.
The thing about great players like Báez and Cabrera, Hinch has said, is that they want to be coached. And, with the way Hinch and his staff work, they will be coached.
“We just keep coaching them and keep encouraging them to get a little bit better,” Hinch said. “They have to adjust and adapt their game as they get older. Javy’s not old by any means, but the 29-year-old version is different than the 21-year-old version, in good ways and some challenging ways.”
Not for nothing, even though his chase rate went up last season, Báez cut his strikeout rate down from 36% to 28.5%. A lot of the improvement came after he went to the Mets and hit in the same lineup as Francisco Lindor.
He’s making strides. But there’s a fine line to walk here. Nobody is asking Báez to shorten up on the bat with two strikes and punch the ball to right field.
“I don’t want to take away his two-strike danger,” Hinch said. “You can go too far with trying to make him make more contact. If it’s bad contact, it’s like making no contact at all.”
Báez, like Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop — another hitter who tends to chase a bit — has done considerable damage with two strikes over his career — 53 homers and 177 RBIs. You don’t want him to be defensive at the plate, even with two strikes.
“There is no overhaul, no master plan (for Báez),” Hinch said. “But our job as coaches is to make him more aware of what he needs to do moving forward.”