PHOENIX — Javier Báez, a two-time All-Star stuck in the worst slump of his career, sat the bench June 15 for the Detroit Tigers‘ series finale against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park.
That same day, Báez’s agent — Nick Chanock from Wasserman Media Group — flew into Detroit and spent a lot of time with his client. The trip included a scheduled meeting between Chanock, Báez and Tigers manager A.J. Hinch. At the time, Báez was hitting .189 with three home runs in 50 games.
Hinch called for the meeting.
The exact details of the conversation are unclear, but there was plenty of talk about what Báez needed to change and how Hinch and the Tigers could better support their star free agent acquisition.
“I think he’s focusing on having fun playing baseball,” Hinch said after Friday’s 5-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Obviously, some adjustments come along the way. He’ll never tell you. I’ll never tell you.
“But I think he understood that adjustments had to be made. The way that he was playing, we were playing at the beginning was not indicative of how it has to be for the whole season. Subtle adjustments mentally and physically have gone a long way.”
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Since the meeting, Báez is hitting .387 (12-for-31) with three doubles, one triple, four home runs, nine RBIs, two walks and three strikeouts in eight games. He carries an eight-game hitting streak and a three-game home run streak into Saturday’s matchup against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
“I think just my feet and the way I’m seeing the ball,” Báez said Friday. “I know how fast my hands are, so I was breaking too fast, doing my swing with my hips. I made that adjustment with my feet, and now with my hips, I’m breaking through the (strike) zone and seeing the ball pretty good.”
In Friday’s series opener, Báez crushed a 459-foot grand slam in the third inning. It marked the longest home run for a Tiger since July 2019. The 29-year-old also homered Tuesday and Wednesday against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, but the Tigers were swept in the three-game series.
Báez, hitting .216 with seven homers in 58 games this season, is the third Tigers shortstop with homers in three straight games, following Carlos Guillen in 2007 and Dick McAuliffe in 1966.
“He is doing better at staying inside his zone where he can hit,” Hinch said. “The good version of him is electric and magical, as they say, and we’re seeing firsthand how he can get very, very productive very fast. … He’s a really good player. We signed a really good player. None of this surprises me.”
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Báez watched videos — presumably after the June 15 meeting — of last year’s swing to help him make a correction. He focused on the positioning of his body.
Báez has repeatedly said he doesn’t like watching videos or analyzing metrics. He will never be found reviewing old videos on an iPad near his locker in the clubhouse, like some players do religiously. He prides himself on the simplicity of playing hard.
For some reason, though, Báez finally decided to watch film and study his swing.
It was a subtle adjustment.
“A.J. reached out to me last night after the game, and he asked me if I wanted the day off. I wanted it,” Báez said June 15, after he didn’t play in the Tigers’ embarrassing 13-0 loss to the White Sox. “Today, I felt like I wanted to work on my swing. That’s what I did. I was working on it in the cage for three or four innings. And I feel great.”
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Before the meeting with Chanock, Báez ranked last among 156 qualified hitters with a 47 wRC+, making him the worst offensive player in baseball. Entering Saturday, Báez ranks 139th among 155 qualified hitters with an 80 wRC+. (Weighted Runs Created Plus values each outcome for a hitter as it relates to run creation and adjusts for factors like ballpark and era; a wRC+ of 100 is league average.)
He has a long way to go before his season-long numbers correct themselves, exemplified by his career-worst .637 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He also has a career-worst 45.4% chase rate, despite a career-best 23.7% strikeout rate. But the Tigers are starting get the return on their six-year, $140 million investment from this past offseason.
There’s another element to Báez’s revival: He is starting to sound like a leader, something the Tigers desperately need for 2022 and beyond.
“We did struggle,” Báez said, when asked about the Tigers’ 27-43 record. “We lost a lot of games, but the energy was the same. I think the energy is the same right now. Everybody is having the same fun. Things are going good. When we win games, people will forget about the past. We’ll keep moving forward.”
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.