Why Javier Báez’s 2022 has been catastrophic for Detroit Tigers: ‘I’m just struggling’

Detroit Free Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Javier Báez leaned against the wall near his locker Wednesday morning, a few hours before the Detroit Tigers wrapped up a three-game road series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Báez spoke candidly about his performance with the Tigers this month, or lack thereof: He hasn’t homered since April 26 and hasn’t driven in a run since April 30.

“I’m just struggling right now,” he said.

He is the spark to his team’s success, so it’s no surprise the Tigers, like Báez, aren’t playing their best baseball. The Tigers are 13-25, the worst record in the American League, and averaging just 2.76 runs per game. Even in this season of struggling offenses across the majors, that’s nearly half a run worse than the next-worst offense (the Baltimore Orioles, at 3.21 runs per game).

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Báez, signed to a six-year, $140 million contract in December, is hitting .204 with six doubles, two home runs, 11 RBIs, five walks and 30 strikeouts in 29 games.

May has been even worse: In 18 games, the 29-year-old carries a miserable .145 batting average with three walks and 19 strikeouts. Although he didn’t ground into a double play until May 13, he has four of them in the past six games.

“I got to make adjustments,” Báez said. “I’m just trying too much. I think I’m over-swinging, and when I keep doing that, it’s not going to work. I got to control the game and control my balance and all that stuff at the same time. But I just got to follow the ball and get back on that timing.”

Báez struck out three times in four at-bats during Wednesday’s 6-1 loss to the Rays, as the Tigers dropped their 10th of 12 series this season. The offense, for the most part, is to blame, and Báez — the 2018 National League MVP runner-up — is supposed to carry the offense.

That’s why the Tigers signed him.

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“We’ve got to get him inside the strike zone a little bit, but he’s going to chase,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Like, he is. He has his whole career. We’ve got to harness it the best we can, but we’re not going to try to get him to be passive. We’ve got to get him to hunt pitches. … Javy is going to be an aggressive player, and we’re going to embrace him.”

In one category, Báez is the worst player in baseball this season: A whopping 41.5% of his swings have been whiffs this season. Only two other players qualified for the batting title — Joey Gallo (41%) and Chris Taylor (40.7%) — have a whiff rate above even 40%.

Another big issue: Báez’s 46.7% chase rate — how often he swings at pitches outside the strike zone — is second-worst in MLB, behind only Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson (46.9%). But Anderson only has a 19.6% whiff rate.

Báez has a 25.2% strikeout rate, which is better than three of his teammates — Spencer Torkelson (30.6%), Robbie Grossman (30%), Miguel Cabrera (26.9%) — but worse than 120 of the 171 qualified hitters.

Like Hinch said, this isn’t new; Báez had a whiff rate of 40.5% and a chase rate of 44.5% just last season.

Báez’s poor plate discipline won’t suddenly change.

“When it’s game time, I’m just going to go out there and play,” Báez said. “There’s time to practice, and there’s time to play. I’m going to go out there, play hard and see. Obviously, I make adjustments during the game, but I’m not going to think about it, because it’s too much and too hard to do that.”

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What stands out this season though is Báez’s ground-ball rate: 56.6% of his batted balls have been grounders, tied for ninth among all qualified batters.

He is grounding out more than ever before in his nine-year MLB career, in which he has two All-Star appearances, a 2020 Gold Glove and the 2016 World Series title. Last season, Báez hit just 46.7% of his batted balls on the ground; in his MVP runner-up season of 2018, it was 47.1%. But this season, Báez is too often hitting rollover grounders to the left side of the infield, a product of trying to pull the ball amid inconsistent contact.

As for all these metrics?

Báez doesn’t acknowledge them.

“I don’t play with numbers,” he said. “I don’t know stats or whatever. I go out there, compete and play hard against the other team.”

At this point, Báez believes playing through his slump in search of consistency is the most effective way for him to get back on track. After all, he has played just 29 games this season, with a stint on the 10-day injured list back in April. There’s plenty of time for him to improve his season-long results.

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The Tigers, though, are running out of time to turn their season around, and to fix the offense, they’ll need Báez at his best. They’re nine games behind the Minnesota Twins for first place in the AL Central, despite the Twins owning the worst record (22-16) of any division leader.

“We still got to play a little better,” Báez said. “We get a lot of hits, and we’re not getting a lot of runs, so we got to make that adjustment. And pitching-wise, everything’s got to click with the offense. Once we do that, and we score more runs, we can control the wins.”

To reach 90 wins, which should be enough for the playoffs, the Tigers need a .621 winning percentage over their final 124 games. So far this season, only two AL teams — the New York Yankees (28-10) and Houston Astros (24-14) — have played at that clip entering Thursday.

But Báez isn’t giving up on his new team.

“I’m pretty confident,” Báez said, when asked about the Tigers’ ability to play winning baseball. “There’s a lot of young guys here. They just got to play out there and get the experience out there to play at this level.”

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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