Cleveland — Maybe Javier Báez can take some inspiration from Red Sox shortstop Trevor Story.
Story and Báez signed almost identical $140 million contracts this offseason and both struggled mightily out of the gates, drawing boos from the home crowds at Fenway Park and Comerica Park, respectively. Story was hitting .196 and slugging .286 after 29 games.
Then all of a sudden he went off. He blasted four home runs in two games, knocked in 11 runs and has carried the Red Sox to four straight wins heading into play Sunday.
Báez has a rich history of such offensive explosions. And he’s due. Way due.
He went into the game Sunday hitting .205 and slugging .308. He’s produced two home runs and 11 RBIs in 30 games. His swing-and-miss rate is a career-high 41% and ranks in the bottom 2 percentile in baseball. His chase rate of 47.6% is also a career-high and ranks in the bottom 1 percentile in baseball.
He’s had high whiff and chase numbers throughout his career. What’s different this year is that he hasn’t done nearly as much damage when he does make contact with the baseball. His average exit velocity on balls in play is 88.4 mph, 2 mph softer than last season. His hard-hit rate is 33.7%, down from 45.2% last year.
His average launch angle when he makes contact is 6 degrees — down from nearly 11 last year. Consequently, he’s hitting the ball on the ground 58% of the time — another dubious career high.
Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch offered some perspective on what Báez is dealing with.
“He’s obviously been overly aggressive, even though that is in his DNA,” Hinch said. “But even for him, it’s been more excessive. And that changes your contact point. You start catching the ball out front more and your error is going to be on the ground. You’re not going to get the ball in the air.
“If you tend to catch the ball deeper in the zone and work a little more up the middle and to the opposite field, the ball will be in the air a little more. That could be contributing to it.”
But, Hinch said, every analysis of every hitter, whether they are raking or scuffling, comes down to pitch selection.
“That is the over-arching theme,” Hinch said. “Get a good pitch to hit that you can drive and you drive the ball in the air and all your numbers will correct themselves.”
Báez is seeing a steady barrage of spin — sliders and curve balls — 42% of them overall but more like 60% in recent games as his struggles have deepened. Báez is swinging and missing at 53% of the breaking balls he sees.
According to FanGraphs, Báez is minus-4.3 runs above average against sliders and minus-0.7 runs above average against curves. Last season, he was plus-12.4 against sliders and plus-2.4 against curves.
“Until he makes an adjustment, the league will continue to take that approach against him,” Hinch said.
Between the rainout Saturday and the rash of injuries, the starting rotation is being patched together series by series.
The Tigers officially put lefty Eduardo Rodriguez on the 15-day injured list Sunday with a rib cage strain.
“We still have to rule out a couple of things with him,” Hinch said. “We have to make sure there’s not a stress reaction in his rib cage. Something is still bothering him when he throws. And we’re not going to be able to test him. We’re certainly not going to put him out there until he has another battery of tests.”
Rodriguez is scheduled for more tests when the Tigers get to Minneapolis on Monday. The ramp-up process, Hinch said, will be slow and cautious. So expect Rodriguez to miss at least three starts.
Replacing him in the rotation is another Rodriguez, rookie Elvin, who made his big-league debut out of the bullpen in early April and will make his first big-league start Monday against the Twins at Target Field.
“To be honest, I never thought this would happen so quick,” he said through Tigers’ bilingual interpreter Carlos Guillen. “But of course I was preparing myself and working so hard to earn and deserve this opportunity. I am very happy it’s happening.”
Rodriguez, 24 and acquired from the Angels in 2017 in the Justin Upton trade, pitched five innings in each of his last two starts for Triple-A Toledo, allowing just one earned run with eight strikeouts and five walks combined. He’s maxed out at 78 pitches.
“He will probably make a couple of starts while our rotation is getting re-shifted,” Hinch said.
Lefty Tarik Skubal was walking around comfortably and going through his normal between-starts routine Sunday — no worse for wear after getting drilled with a 104-mph line drive in his left shin Friday night.
“He avoided any major concern, but I know he’s sore,” Hinch said. “We will end up giving him an extra day as we rearrange the rotation after the rainout. That’s more just to get guys as much rest as we can now during this long stretch of games than it is his leg. His leg is fine.”
Skubal’s next turn in the rotation would be Wednesday in Minnesota, but the Tigers are listing TBA for that day’s starter. It will likely be a bullpen game for the Tigers.
Elvin Rodriguez and Beau Brieske will work the games Monday and Tuesday.
The Tigers continue to have a love-hate relationship with the PitchCom technology. A couple of pitchers have tried it but so far it hasn’t stuck
“It’s been hit or miss,” Hinch said. “Some guys like it. We even got Tuck (catcher Tucker Barnhart) to like it for a short period of time. But a couple of times we had malfunctions at home, for whatever reason. Both sides (Tigers and Oakland) had a hard time with the connection at Comerica. It didn’t work.”
Ultimately, Hinch hopes his players embrace it.
“For no other reason than as this game evolves, I think it’s going to be more prominent,” he said. “Because I think the pitch clock is coming. The managers I’ve talked to that have guys using PitchCom see an uptick in the tempo of the game.”
Around the horn
Outfielder Akil Baddoo has only played in two games since he was optioned to Toledo. On Saturday he was placed on the injured list with an oblique strain.
…Hinch, who missed the game Friday night with an illness, said he was prepared to manage Saturday but was still feeling awful. He was only marginally better Sunday but wanted no part of watching another game from his hotel room. “I wasn’t sick enough to throw up Friday but when Tarik got hurt, I felt that all the way back in my room,” he said. “It’s harder to watch us struggle offensively from a distance. I wish I was in the trenches with the boys.”
… Skubal’s ERA through eight starts is the sixth lowest by a Tiger since 1984. The top five, you might’ve heard of them: Jack Morris, 1.85 in 1984; David Wells, 1.86 in 1993; Justin Verlander, 1.93 in 2013; Max Scherzer, 2.04 in 2014; Anibal Sanchez, 2.05 in 2013.
On deck: Twins
► Series: Three games at Target Field, Minneapolis
► First pitch: Monday-Tuesday — 7:40 p.m.; Wednesday — 1:10 p.m.
► TV/radio: All three games on BSD/97.1 FM
► Probables: Monday — RHP Elvin Rodriguez (0-0, 13.50) vs. RHP Chris Archer (0-1, 4.10); Tuesday — RHP Beau Brieske (0-3, 5.13) vs. RHP Sonny Gray (1-1, 3.48); Wednesday — TBA vs. RHP Dylan Bundy (3-2, 5.14)
► Rodriguez, Tigers: It will be his first big-league start. He made his debut on April 10 out of the bullpen, pitching two scoreless innings against the White Sox before getting tagged with a three-run homer by Andrew Vaughn. He’s coming off two solid starts at Toledo, allowing one run over 10 innings with eight strikeouts and five walks.
► Archer, Twins: The 10-year veteran has been used as a modified opener, going three or four innings in his seven starts. He’s got 24 strikeouts and 14 walks in 26.1 innings. He’s been leaning heavily on his slider, throwing it 47% of the time and holding hitters to a .211 average with 15 punch-outs.