‘I will always have his back’: Tigers’ skipper’s faith in Javier Báez is unwavering

Detroit News

Detroit — AJ Hinch has been through this before. Maybe not with a player quite as mercurial as Javier Báez, but he’s had to massage the bruised psyches of struggling superstar players before. Carlos Correa and George Springer both went through miserable stretches during Hinch’s time in Houston.

Back in 2018, Correa hit .181 the last two months of the season, striking out about every fourth at-bat. Hinch stayed with him. Correa went 1-for-10 in the Division Series. Hinch stayed with him. Correa validated the faith, hitting .316 in the American League Championship Series.

Springer, that same year, hit a wall in June and for two months hit just .204, against striking out about every five at-bats. Hinch stayed with him and Springer got hot, hitting .315 with an .840 OPS in August and September.

You see where this is going, right? Hinch isn’t going to panic with Báez. Nor is he going to kid-glove him. Before the game on Sunday in New York, I asked Hinch how he was managing Báez during what is easily the most prolonged bad stretch of his career.

“It’s managing people,” he said. “My job is to be an encourager and also to be a realist and be open and honest with all my players. The majority of my job is relationship-based. I will always have his back. I’m going to be in the trenches with him.

“We’re going to try to find solutions, not just make observations and critiques.”

Hinch hasn’t pulled punches with Báez. Adjustments need to be made, plain and simple. Hinch even benched Báez for a couple of days to let him clear his head. But he isn’t beating him over the head with the obvious, either.

“I would tell you it’s easier observing it and analyzing it than doing it,” Hinch said. “‘Oh, just don’t swing at sliders.’ It’s not that easy. ‘Oh, just swing at balls in the strike zone.’ It’s not that easy. Obviously, Javy knows the remedy for coming out of this.

“But putting it in and executing it against the quality of pitching we’ve faced lately has been difficult.”

It’s not going to be a sudden, flip-of-the-switch solution for Báez. He’s in too deep right now. A third of the way through the season and he’s produced three home runs and 15 RBIs, with a career-low hard-hit rate of 32% and a career-high chase rate of 47.8%.

Pitchers haven’t had to throw him strikes, especially with sliders and curve balls, to get him out. He’s whiffing on 54% of the breaking pitches he sees.

“I know he’s frustrated and I can’t blame him,” Hinch said. “We’re going to continue to work and unlock more of a refined strike zone.”

What it’s going to take is a string of games like Sunday. He locked onto a change-up from lefty Jordan Montgomery in the fourth inning and smoked a line-drive double to the gap in left-center. Hopefully, he will take note of how smooth and straight to the ball his swing was. He didn’t try to hit it into the Hudson River, and it still left his bat with an exit velocity of 104 mph.

Just as importantly, for his psyche, he got rewarded for a bad swing in the eighth inning.

Right-handed reliever Miguel Castro threw him a slider away. The pitch caught too much of the plate and if Báez was on his game, he would’ve likely done big damage with that pitch. Instead, he pulled his head and body clear off it and managed to squib it off the end of his bat.

It was placed just enough in the hole to where first baseman Anthony Rizzo couldn’t get it.

Those are the kind of hits that can start hot streaks, though. Sunday was a positive step for Báez, but he’s going to need to string a lot of them together.

This is where Hinch’s “win today’s game” philosophy really plays. Báez’s stat line isn’t going to correct itself any time soon. Maybe it never will. There’s nothing anybody can do about the first 175 plate appearances, so why carry it forward?

Báez hit .500 Sunday, with an extra-base hit and an RBI and helped put the Tigers in position to win the game. That’s the focus. On Tuesday in Pittsburgh, he’ll face lefty Jose Quintana, who, as crafty as he can be with a four-seam and change-up, does not throw a slider. And Báez is hitting .333 with four doubles against lefties.

Take a positive step every day and we’ll total up the hits and outs in October.

Marvelous Miguel

Can we take a quick minute to enjoy what Jose Miguel Cabrera continues to do at age 39?

He’s hitting .301 and leads the Tigers in RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. Since May 1, Cabrera is slashing .327/.361/.455 with an .817 OPS.

“Miggy is in a good place,” Hinch said. “He’s competing, not trying to do too much. He just plays the game. He moves the ball forward. He can hit with two strikes. He never really concedes anything. Even when he swings and misses, he doesn’t waver.

“He’s impressive. That’s why he’s still playing at age 39.”

Around the horn

… Willi Castro doesn’t always take the best routes on fly balls, though he tracks and catches most of them. What he does do well in the outfield, though, is throw. He might have the best arm of any Tigers outfielder. Try to convince the Yankees otherwise. On Friday, he threw out Aaron Judge at second base from right field, trying to stretch a single. On Sunday, playing left field, he threw a seed to third base to nab DJ LeMahieu trying to go first to third.

… Austin Meadows went 1-for-4 with a walk in what the Tigers hope was his last rehab start with Toledo on Sunday. The expectation is he will join the club Tuesday in Pittsburgh. Unless Jeimer Candelario has to go on the injured list — he left the game Sunday because of shoulder soreness — either Daz Cameron or Derek Hill would likely be optioned back to Toledo to make room.

Tigers at Pittsburgh

Series: Two games at PNC Park

First pitch: Tuesday – 7:10 p.m.; Wednesday – 12:35 p.m.

TV/radio: BSD/97.1

Probables: Tuesday – LHP Tarik Skubal (4-2, 2.15) vs. LHP Jose Quintana (1-2, 2.32); Wednesday – RHP Alex Faedo (1-2, 3.09) vs. RHP Mitch Keller (2-5, 5.77).

Skubal, Tigers: He’s been a beast, no other way to say it. The Tigers are 4-2 in his last six starts, when he’s allowed only five runs in 38 innings, striking out 41 and walking seven. He’s holding hitters to a .176 average and .267 slugging in that stretch.

Quintana, Pirates: He has a knack for keeping balls off bat barrels. He’s allowed just two homers in his first 10 starts. The Pirates a 4-2 in his last six starts, when he’s given up just six earned runs in 31.1 innings, limiting hitters to a .233 average and a .298 slugging.

Twitter@cmccosky

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