Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Bucs, bucks and Javier Báez’s big swings

Detroit Free Press

We knew inflation was bad, but $140 million just doesn’t buy what it used to in MLB.

Oh, the Detroit Tigers’ troubles at the plate aren’t entirely Javier Báez’s fault. He’s clearly trying to hit, or at least clearly swinging at everything, via the Wayne Gretzky school of thought: “You miss 100% of the sliders you don’t swing at, and 54.4% of the ones you do.”

But still, he’s trying, as he’s fond of reminding us on a weekly basis: “I don’t like making excuses, but it is what it is. I’m going to keep trying,” he told the Freep’s Evan Petzold on Saturday.

But until Báez connected with an 84.1 mph changeup — a pitch he’s only whiffing on 36.4% of the time this season — in the fourth inning Sunday in New York, the first year of his contract felt a little like a demonstration of the Star Wars universe’s oft-repeated credo: “Do, or do not — there is no try.”

With, admittedly, a lot more of the “do not” so far.

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The last time the Tigers faced the Pirates — in a doubleheader on, ahem, “May the 4th” — Báez entered the day with an .833 OPS in 48 at-bats. Since then, however, he has a .420 OPS in 119 at-bats, bringing him down to a .540 OPS as the Tigers prepare to face the Pirates again.

Javier Báez keeps swinging and missing. He isn’t helping the Tigers ]

Then again, it’s not like Báez’s struggles have been a secret. He was able to explain it just fine to Our Man Petzold Saturday: “I’m not following the ball, not keeping my approach. They’re not throwing my pitch. As long as I don’t make them throw my pitch, they’re going to throw the sliders. I just got to make that adjustment.”

Sunday was a step toward that; he even connected with a slider in the eighth inning for a single. There’s more good news for Báez, too; Tuesday’s probable starter in Pittsburgh, lefty Jose Quintana, doesn’t even throw a slider. (His most frequent pitch selection, the four-seam fastball, aligns nicely with Báez’s preferences; his .256 average on four-seamers is by far his best of any pitch he has faced at least 10 times in 2022.)

Speaking of the Bucs, let’s get Báez’s bucks out of the way. The deal is, after all, a bit under market value, at just $23.3 million a year (and technically only $20 million this season and $22 million in 2023 before he can opt out). That’s a lot of Hot-’N’-Readys, true, but they weren’t much cheaper at Comerica Park when Niko Goodrum was at short instead of Báez.

And hey, in the summer of multiversal thought — be it inspired by ol’ Doc Strange or by “Everything Everywhere All At Once” — it might be fun to think about what this Tigers season might be like had they landed one of the four other prime candidates on the market, but the reality might not be any more pleasant. Let’s check in with how they’re faring across the American League …

Carlos Correa: The ex-Astro with the three-years-that’s-really-one-year, $105.3-million (or $35.1 million) deal in Minnesota is hitting .279 with almost no power — just nine doubles and three homers in 35 games. He also has one stint on the 10-day IL this season and has missed all of the Twins’ June games with a bout of COVID-19. Still, he has produced 1.1 bWAR, good for 12th among MLB shortstops in 2022.

Corey Seager: The 28-year-old, who signed a 10-year, $325-million deal with the Rangers just before December’s lockout, hasn’t exactly been a smash in Arlington/Dallas/Fort Worth/Frisco Texas with a .232/.299/.424 slash line. Then again, in the current run environment, that’s good for 1.4 bWAR and a tie for eighth among all shortstops this season.

Marcus Semien: After six seasons at short, followed by all of 2021 at second with the Blue Jays, Semien was slotted into the Rangers’ hole on the right side of the infield when he signed a seven-year, $175-million deal. The first 52 games have not gone well, as the 31-year-old has a .548 OPS and 0.4 bWAR — nearly identical to Báez’s numbers (.540, 0.4), which rank 25th among shortstops.

Trevor Story: The ex-Rockie was the last of the “Big Five” to sign, landing with the Red Sox on a six-year, $140-million deal (sounds familiar). Of course the BoSox already have a shortstop in Xander Bogaerts (.878 OPS, 2 bWAR), so Story is spending his time at second base. (At least until the Sox plead poverty again and lose Bogaerts in free agency, but that’s this winter’s story…)

Story had Boston fans all riled up with a homer-free first 25 games in which he struck out 36 times in 98 at-bats (36.7%). But in 23 games since May 11, Story’s strikeout rate has “dipped” to 29 in 85 at-bats (34.1%) and he has nine homers. (He also approached peak BAWH-STUN while rocking a Celtics jersey to start a recent road trip. All he was missing was a “Dunkin” cup and a long-winded explanation about why Bob Cousy was better than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry and LeBron James combined.)

Even the most successful of the group, Story, has produced 1.6 bWAR. That would slot in seventh among shortstops (though we’re fudging the defensive components a bit) but only 42nd among all hitters.

In the end, Báez knows what he needs to do, as he told Our Man Petzold on Friday: “What can I do? I just got to keep working.”

Which is what The Great One and Yoda were talking about in the first place, right?

Bronx bummers

All the worrying about Baez aside, the Tigers’ series in New York, well, stunk. Losing three straight is never fun, especially when you muster just four hits and no runs over two of them combined. But — and we don’t think this is exactly a secret — the Yankees are really good; losing to them (especially with rookies starting two of the three) is hardly cause for panic. Likewise, the series before, in which the Tigers took four of five from the Twins in Detroit, was encouraging. So what do we know about the Tigers after showdowns with two of the AL’s three division leaders? It’s still early, the Freep’s Shawn Windsor writes, but when things click, this squad has the potential to be … fun.

Sku’s in session

One of the reasons for optimism? Left-hander Tarik Skubal, who takes the mound Tuesday against the Pirates. Last season, Skubal was seemingly a lock to surrender a homer or two every start. This season, though, he has allowed just two homers over 58⅔ innings, and the “Skubal Watch” has gone from homers to hits, as the 25-year-old has dominated. His pitches are the same, but his mix of them has boosted him into elite company, as Our Man Petzold reports. Click here to find out what pitch is his go-to tool to fool hitters.

Castro-nauts take flight

Another rare bright spot this season has been the play of the Castro Non-Brothers, Harold and Willi. (As long as you don’t bring up Willi’s adventure in center field Friday night…) Harold’s scoreless streak on the mound finally ended Friday, but he’s still hitting .286 with 11 extra-base hits in 110 plate appearances. Willi hasn’t been quite as successful, but his .618 OPS is still sixth on the roster. Our Man Petzold broke down here why they’ve exceeded expectations so far this season.

Captain Kody

Unfortunately, there’s still one position player on the active roster who’s searching for his first career hit: Kody Clemens, called up last week (you can read about his fateful meeting in a Home Depot parking lot here), is 0-for-12 in the majors after hitting .283 with nine doubles, six triples and eight homers with Triple-A Toledo. Still, Clemens has a big-league pedigree, with father Roger a seven-time Cy Young Award winner. Click here to find out why “The Rocket” thinks his son has what it takes to succeed.

Carpenter’s hammer

Of course, not everyone in the Tigers organization is struggling at the plate. Outfielder Kerry Carpenter is crushing the ball for Double-A Erie, with eight doubles and 19 home runs in 47 games. Last season, Carpenter hit 15 homers in 112 games with the SeaWolves. So what changed? The Freep’s Jeff Seidel has the scoop on Carpenter’s “leap of faith” with a Detroit-area hitting coach.

Three to watch

Three key cogs in the Tigers offense are at turning points for the season:

JEIMER CANDELARIO: The third baseman left Sunday’s loss early with a shoulder injury.

AUSTIN MEADOWS: The outfielder could return from his rehab stint as early as Tuesday.

SPENCER TORKELSON: The rookie was cruising before he got to New York.

Tigers birthdays this week: Will Vest (27 on Monday), Al Alburquerque (36 on Friday), Avisail Garcia (31 on Sunday).

Mark your calendar

After cramming eight games into seven days last week, the Tigers have two off-days this week, on either side of their Tuesday-Wednesday series against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. That’s followed by a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays at Comerica Park that’s being billed as the team’s “Summer Baseball Bash. Friday features a pregame Q&A session with past Tigers greats, Saturday brings more than a dozen Tigers greats from the past six decades to the park for photos and autographs, and Sunday will be a celebration of Miguel Cabrera’s 3,000th hit (because the Blue Jays didn’t get enough Miggy Milestone time last summer with homer No. 500) before the game. There’s one ex-Tiger scheduled to make Saturday’s festivities who may be unavailiable, though: Brandon Inge, who — depending on the outcome of Monday’s NCAA tournament game between Michigan and Louisville — could be wearing maize and blue in College Station, Texas, instead. Find out why here.

TL;DR

An undersized defensive wizard out of nowhere with an abundance of gray hair and a knack for awkward phrasing who went on to turn underdogs into heroes to a generation … yeah, Yoda mighta done OK with the ’84 Tigers, too…

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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