Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch talked late Friday night about the fans and shortstop Javier Báez. The Tigers are losing too many baseball games, and Báez is chasing nearly every down-and-away slider.
Fans aren’t pleased.
“We are not going anywhere without the production of Javy Báez, whether it’s this series, this season or in the coming years,” Hinch said after Friday’s 10-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. “He’s on our side. He’s wearing our uniform. We’re going to support him.”
Báez heard the boos.
“I got no comments on that,” Báez said Saturday. “I’m just going to go out there, be myself and play hard. It’s obviously frustrating for us when we struggle. It’s frustrating for them, too, when they want to see you do good, but we’re struggling. It’s part of it. Sometimes we’re down on ourselves, but it’s not about that. It’s about coming the next day and being better.”
Báez showed up to Saturday’s game, hit sixth for the first time this season and finished with three unintentional walks — for the first time in his 909-game, nine-year MLB career — and a single.
The Tigers won, 3-1.
“I can finally say I saw the ball pretty good today,” Báez said. “I was a little bit more focused, just seeing the ball more deep in the zone. I know I can get to any fastball. I was on the fastball today, and I got (the ball) closer to me. I just got to make them throw strikes.”
Báez drew his first walk in the first inning. Before he stepped to the plate, he told Hinch he was going to take four straight pitches. On the first pitch, he took a big rip and missed at a slider away. Then, he didn’t swing for the next four pitches, all outside the strike zone. Three traveled down and away, and two of those were sliders. He refused to chase.
In his four plate appearances, Báez faced 17 pitches: 12 balls and five strikes. After Kevin Gausman’s slider on the first pitch, he didn’t swing again at a pitch outside the zone. He looked like a completely different player.
“I was just more focused on the offensive side,” Báez said.
He didn’t score in the first inning, but he made it around the bases after his six-pitch leadoff walk in the fourth inning. Eric Haase drove him in with a two-out triple to the right-field corner, putting the Tigers ahead 2-0.
“I feel every time I get on base, it changes they way they see, they got to pitch to the next guy and worry about me on the bases,” Báez said. “As long as I keep getting on base, it will be helpful for the team.”
In the sixth, Báez lined a first-pitch fastball from Gausman into center for a single. He faced a new pitcher, right-hander Trevor Richards, in the ninth inning. Richards sprayed the ball all over, and Báez simply worked a five-pitch walk.
The last walk impressed Hinch the most.
“I’m proud of Javy for staying with it, including that last at-bat,” Hinch said. “Once he had the two walks and the hit, it’s very easy for a player to go back to old ways and try to get a little greedy and pull the ball for a homer. He got that third walk. He should be happy today.”
Gausman, who entered Saturday with seven walks across 64⅔ innings, issued three walks in six innings Saturday. (Austin Meadows was the other recipient of a free pass, in the first inning.) Gausman is known for his split-finger, his best secondary pitch, and throws sliders just 11.7% of the time. (Richards, by the way, doesn’t throw a slider.)
“I was just trying to see the ball,” Báez said. “I did a couple swings, and I let it go. I just didn’t make any contact going forward.”
For the Tigers to turn their season around, Báez — and many of his teammates — need to improve on offense. Chase rates must be trimmed down. The Tigers (24-34) have the worst scoring offense in baseball, at 2.79 runs per game. They chase at a 36.1% clip, more than any other team.
Báez has a 50.3% chase rate, by far the worst of his career.
Chasing pitches outside the strike zone is part of Báez’s baseball DNA. His plate discipline is bad. But in a career-worst season, Báez is chasing at a league- and career-worst rate. A repeat of Saturday’s three-walk performance is unlikely, but if Báez eases up on his out-of-zone swings, even by a few percentage points, his production should pick up.
He is hitting .200 with nine walks and 50 strikeouts in 47 games, along with three home runs — none since May 22 — and a .552 OPS. His 51 wRC+ ranks 161st of 161 qualified hitters. (Jeimer Candelario and Jonathan Schoop rank 158th and 159th, respectively.)
When Báez carried the Tigers over the Chicago White Sox on Opening Day with a walk-off hit, the new shortstop connected with the fans at Comerica Park for the first time. He spoke to them on the field, saying, “Fans, it’s not going to be easy this year, but it’s going to be fun. We need your support. Let’s go, Tigers.”
The relationship isn’t the same two months later.
Friday’s disapproval was a clear indication.
“It’s going to be fun when everything clicks,” said Báez, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract in December. “The pitching, the offense, the base running, the outfield, the infield, when everything clicks, it’s going to be fun. I’m still going to have fun all the time.”
For the Tigers to get going, Báez needs to get going.
He said some of his teammates asked him if he’s still having fun.
“I tell them, ‘Yes,'” Baez said. “If you’re having fun when you struggle, imagine when you’re doing good, how fun it can be and how relaxed it can be.”
Saturday’s focus at the plate was a perfect way to start.