Detroit Tigers shortstop Javier Baez brings tons of experience, but never stops learning

Detroit Free Press

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Detroit Tigers shortstop Javier Baez has played 862 MLB games over his eight-year career.

He has also played 36 games in the postseason — winning the 2016 World Series with the Chicago Cubs — 144 games in spring training, 397 in the minor leagues, 26 in the Puerto Rican Winter League and 14 in the Arizona Fall League.

And that’s not counting his youth and amateur career.

In short, Baez has played a lot of baseball.

“Javy, at this stage in his career, has probably been told everything,” manager AJ Hinch said. “Sometimes it’s just a different way of going about it. We’re just very upfront with guys about what our expectations are and what adjustments we want made.”

The topic of discussion is plate discipline, the weakest link in Baez’s All-Star-caliber makeup on the field. (He has played in two All-Star Games, by the way.) The 29-year-old packs a punch with mighty power. He manages the infield as a Gold Glove winner should. His instincts, especially on the bases, are off the charts. The energy he brings daily ignites magical moments.

Plate discipline, though, is where he falters.

“I’ve been working since last year, doing less movement on my swing and trying to see the ball better,” Baez said. “It’s been working really good for me. I just got to have that trust and let the ball travel in the zone. I know I have time to get to it.

“Sometimes I just speed up, and I’m swinging before the pitch is even released. Making that adjustment is really huge for me.”

Baez is hitting .308 (4-for-13) and slugging .462 in five spring training games, logging two doubles, three RBIs and one strikeout. He went 2-for-3 in Friday’s 8-4 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Tigers signed Baez to a six-year, $140 million contract this past offseason, locking him in as their shortstop of the future and looking to him for a passageway into the postseason.

“He’s 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 started to understand and appreciate it more. What you can’t do with veteran players is dance around the obvious.”

The Tigers have already addressed the obvious with Baez. He hit .265 with 31 home runs for the Cubs and New York Mets last season but led the National League with 184 strikeouts, to go with 28 walks.

His strikeout rate was 33.6%. His swing-and-miss rate was 40.5%. His chase rate was 44.5%. In all three categories, Baez was one of the worst — if not the worst — in baseball.

“You never stop learning in this game,” Baez said.

Baez will listen to his coaches.

He likes to know what others see in his game.

But that doesn’t mean Baez is going to act like a pre-programmed robot. He has been around for long enough — and he has been successful for long enough — to have freedom in the decisions about his approach.

“With the coaches, I pick something that helps me,” Baez said. “A lot of coaches tell me different things, and they see different things, so I got to pick the things that I think are going to help me. Not everything. When it’s about hitting, you’re seeing the ball and hitting the ball. It’s been really good for me, listening and picking up little stuff from each coach.”

He learns from his teammates, too. Moving from the Cubs to the Mets at last year’s trade deadline paired him with shortstop Francisco Lindor, a close friend and fellow Puerto Rican.

Lindor doesn’t struggle with plate discipline. He is known for his above-average walk rates, strikeout rates, whiff rates and chase rates.

So, Baez studied him.

Upon arriving in New York, Baez improved his strikeout rate from 36.3% with the Cubs to 28.5% with the Mets.

In Detroit, Baez is learning from Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera, who turns 39 in April, is entering his 20th season, has 502 home runs and sits 13 hits away from 3,000. His Hall of Fame résumé is stacked with accolades.

“For me, it’s more about the way he prepares,” Baez said. “I’m seeing his preparation. His plan in the (batting) cage and in BP (batting practice), it’s incredible.”

Watching Cabrera’s batting practice routine has given Baez some tips, as Cabrera is meticulous about hitting the ball to the opposite field. Doing this helps him calibrate the timing of his swing.

“Sometimes young guys, and I guess you can include me, too, sometimes we go out there and just launch balls,” Baez said, “instead of working on driving the ball gap-to-gap.”

But Baez isn’t Cabrera.

He isn’t Lindor, either.

There needs to be a balance in his two-strike approach, considering Baez drilled 12 of 31 homers last year, and 53 of 149 career homers, in two-strike counts. Power, regardless of the situation, is his greatest attribute.

Hinch is well aware.

“I don’t want to take away his two-strike danger,” Hinch said. “You can go too far in trying to make him make more contact. If it’s bad contact, it’s like making no contact at all. It’s a fine line on taking away strength while you’re doing this.

“There’s no overhaul. There’s no master plan. But our job as coaches is to make him more aware of what he needs to do moving forward.”

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

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