Tigers’ Javier Báez showing signs of snapping season-long slump

Detroit News

Boston — You take your glimmers when you see them and if his at-bats Monday and Tuesday against the Red Sox are an indication, Javier Báez might be breaking out.

“Yeah, I think so,” Báez said after he homered and tripled in the 5-4 loss Tuesday. “I was pulling a little bit to third base. I’ve been seeing it really good, but I was pulling it from my hips and I made that adjustment. I probably took a little bit too long to make that adjustment, but I feel good right now.”

Báez, booed lustily throughout the club’s recent homestand, came to Boston on a 5-for-35 skid with nine strikeouts over his previous 10 games. The home run he hit Saturday was his first since May 22. He’d gone 83 plate appearances without one.

But these last couple of days, maybe even a few games before that, there’ve been glimmers. And it’s more than the two doubles he hit Monday, more than the single, triple and home run Tuesday. It’s been the nature of the at-bats that gives hope for some long-awaited sustained production from a player who has produced his entire career.

“What I like about this situation in particular is just the adjustment,” manager AJ Hinch said. “Doing something different than just continuing to go up there trying to pull the ball. And getting rewarded for that type of adjustment is a good sign.”

‘Trending in right direction’: Javier Báez heating up, Tigers battle to final out in Boston

Báez put the ball in play in all nine of his plate appearances in the first two games here. Except for one rollover grounder to third and a double on Monday, Báez hit the ball to right-center or right field. That after going through a prolonged stretch of hitting just about everything on the ground to the left side of the infield.

“He’s still going to pull the ball,” Hinch said. “But I like that he’s been a tougher two-strike hitter and doing some damage to the opposite side of the field. He can hit the ball out of the ballpark anywhere. I’m just glad he’s seeing it better.”

Although he is still third among qualified hitters in the Major Leagues with a 47% chase rate, Báez only whiffed at two chase pitches in the first two games of this series.

First at-bat on Monday: Fly out to right field on a 1-2 slider from right-hander Josh Winckowski. He laid off a chase slider on 0-2.

Second at-bat Monday: Double down the right-field line, ambushing a first-pitch cutter that was middle-in.

Third at-bat Monday: Rollover ground out to third on an 0-1 slider that was out of the strike zone.

Fourth at-bat Monday: Double into the corner in left on a 2-2 slider from right-handed side-armer John Schreiber. Báez got into an 0-2 hole on two chase sliders away, then dug in. He laid off two more sliders. Both were non-competitive pitches, but Báez had been swinging at those repeatedly this season.

With the count 2-2, he somehow got a piece of a 97-mph fastball at the top of the zone and fouled it off. Schreiber came back with the slider but left it over the plate and Báez smoked it.

On Tuesday he faced lefty starter Rich Hill. Lefties have been like catnip for Báez, even in the deepest of his struggles.

First at-bat Tuesday: Triple to right-center, 386 feet, on a 1-0 fastball (90 mph). Hill threw him two straight fastballs, curiously.

Second at-bat Tuesday: Home run to right-center, 390 feet, on a 3-2 curve ball. Hill fell behind 3-1, unable to locate his curve ball. Báez had a good swing on a 3-1 fastball and fouled it off. He was not fooled when Hill went back to the curve ball.

Third at-bat Tuesday: Line out to right field on a 2-2 fastball. Hill this time showed him cutters and changeups. Then on 2-2 threw him a fastball off the plate down and away. Báez was on time with the pitch and hit it square, but right at the right fielder.

Fourth at-bat Tuesday: Line out to second on a 2-1 slider from right-handed reliever Ryan Brasier. Báez was a little anxious on a pitch that was up and in and out of the zone. It looked like a hanger but it hung in an almost unhittable spot.

Fifth at-bat Tuesday: Single to right field on a 1-1 two-seam fastball from Schreiber. Interesting that Red Sox manager Alex Cora went to Schreiber expressly against Báez two nights in a row. He knows that Báez has the third-worst runs above average against the slider (minus-6.9) and Schreiber’s slider has been lethal.

And yet, in this at-bat, Schreiber never threw Báez a slider. He threw a four-seamer and a two-seamer.

“When I make them throw strikes,” Báez said after the game Tuesday, “it’s good for me and bad for them.”

These two productive days didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s been a slow build. In the 10 games since he walked three times on June 11, Báez is slashing .278/.341/.583, walking at a 9.8% clip and striking out at a 12.2% rate.

Also encouraging, not only is he chasing less, he’s making more consistent contact on pitches in the strike zone. Through June 10, Báez had the highest swinging strike rate in baseball (22%). Since, he’s lowered it to 12.8% which is just over the league average (11.6%).

“What is encouraging to me is his track record,” Hinch said. “He’s been very good for a very long time. The inconsistencies have been his battle, but he’s very talented and very dangerous as a hitter. He’s carried teams for months at a time.”

Riley moving up

In his fifth big-league game, Riley Greene batted second. Hinch moved him to the top of his batting order against Red Sox right-hander Michael Wacha.

“Just the quality of his at-bats,” Hinch said. “Plus, I really think nothing fazes him. I don’t know if it guarantees future success but he’s shown complete comfort at this level so far. For him, it’s just matters when he has to get ready to hit, not where he’s hitting.”

Greene had gotten on base 10 times in 17 plate appearances going into the game Wednesday. Only one player in Tigers history reached base more in the first four games of his big-league career than Greene. That would be Barney McCosky, who reached base 11 times in four games in 1939.

In his first eight games, McCosky went 17 for 33 (.515), with five doubles, a homer, five walks and 10 runs scored. Gives Greene something to shoot for this week.

Another positive test

Tigers will be without bench coach George Lombard for the rest of this road trip. He tested positive for COVID.

“We’ve been very diligent, especially after a positive test (outfielder Austin Meadows),” Hinch said. “He woke up with a scratchy throat and a little bit congested. Nothing that he would have normally reported. But given that we had a positive test, he came in and got tested and it was positive.”

Lombard will remain in Boston for a few days until he is asymptomatic. Meanwhile, Tigers minor league field coordinator Ryan Sienko will join the staff in Arizona.

If Hinch has to leave the game, first base coach Gary Jones would take over as manager.

Been a minute

Andrew Chafin doesn’t give up many home runs, which made the first-pitch shot over the Green Monster by Christian Vazquez Tuesday so startling.

He went the entire 2018 season in Arizona, 77 games and 49.1 innings, without yielding a home run. The homer Tuesday was the first he’s allowed as a Tiger. It had been 25.1 innings, 111 batters and 392 pitches since he last served one up.

“It wasn’t even an ambush, I knew he was going to be swinging at it,” Chafin said. “I just missed my spot by a significant amount. I usually don’t give up hard contact. Once in a while they get the bat head out just enough.

“I was hoping to have another year where I didn’t give up a home run, too.”

Around the horn

…Right-hander Michael Pineda (broken finger) went 3.1 innings and threw 46 pitches in his first rehab start at Toledo. He allowed a hit and a run. Hinch said he is scheduled to make a second start on Sunday. “Which we hope is the final tune-up for him,” Hinch said.

…Right-hander Drew Hutchison, whom the Tigers designated for assignment last weekend, cleared waivers and elected to be a free agent.

…The Tigers traded Toledo Mud Hens catcher Ryan Lavarnway to the Mariners on Tuesday night for cash considerations.”

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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