DETROIT — Javier Báez’s Major League-leading 18th error of the season was a mistake of ambition, a well-intended but hurried attempt at an inning-ending double play in the second that went wide of first base to score the first of two unearned runs off Tigers starter Garrett Hill.
Four innings later, Báez made his latest highlight stop, a sliding grab of a Tyler Freeman chopper up the middle, his left knee planted into the ground as he whirled and threw to first base to open the sixth inning.
Báez’s team-leading 11th home run of the season was a solo homer in the bottom of the inning to account for Detroit’s lone run off Guardians starter Zach Plesac.
They are three varied but common outcomes from Báez’s first season as a Tiger, all on display in Thursday afternoon’s 4-3 loss to the Guardians in 10 innings. The power can be electrifying, the errors maddening, the highlight plays amazing. He nearly repeated the cycle later with his 19th error — this time booting a ground ball in the ninth inning — and an over-the-shoulder grab in the 10th, only to strike out with the potential tying run on third and one out.
In many ways, the loss was a microcosm of his first season in Detroit, filled with highs and lows.
“That’s pretty deep,” manager A.J. Hinch quipped when posed with that after the game. “I’m not sure where to go with it. But obviously today’s game was symbolic.”
The effort also represents the challenge the Tigers and Báez face moving forward as the team tries to get the most out of its most dangerous hitter and athletically gifted yet complex player. Báez wants to be part of the solution, not a problem.
“I’m always going to be the same guy,” Báez said after the game. “Whatever I can [do to] help the guys, I’m going to help. But I also need people that help me and tell me what I’m doing wrong so I can make adjustments.”
It’s an acknowledgement that he needs better out of himself.
While it’s notable that the Tigers parted ways a day earlier with Al Avila, the general manager who signed Báez to a six-year contract as a free agent last November, it’s overly simplistic. Avila and Hinch worked together to recruit Báez in person in south Florida last fall, with an assist from Miguel Cabrera. Detroit’s front office moved decisively to sign Báez once it became clear that Carlos Correa wasn’t going to sign in the early part of the offseason. Whoever Tigers chairman Christopher Ilitch hires as Detroit’s next general manager will inherit Báez, both the player and the contract.
Báez’s ability to impact a game has been evident in spurts, but his overall impact on a team has not. Though he showed signs of a breakout in late June, homering in three consecutive games from June 21-24 as part of a nine-game hitting streak, just three of those games were multihit efforts and three contained multiple RBIs.
It’s not for lack of adjustments. After struggling badly with sliders for most of the season, half of his eight home runs since June have come on breaking balls, according to Statcast, and he has cut down his swing-and-miss rate on breaking pitches. Now opponents have flipped their approach against him, throwing him more fastballs.
“I think they’re just pitching me differently these last two series,” Báez said. “This series especially, I saw a lot of fastballs. I know I can hit the fastball, but I wasn’t looking for it. I saw it a lot. It just wasn’t in my plan. They pitched to me really well.”
Báez was 1-for-11 with five strikeouts against fastballs in August before his fourth-inning single and sixth-inning homer on Thursday. But he also struck out twice on heaters, once on a called third strike as Plesac struck out the side in the first inning, then chasing a high 95 mph cutter with a runner on third in the 10th.
“I think that happens to a team when you try to do too much and you start taking bigger and bigger swings,” Hinch said.
That said, Báez has always been a big swinger. The shaky defense has been more of a surprise. He admittedly rushed his throw in effort to get Hill out of the second-inning jam. In hindsight, he said, he should have taken more time with a catcher running to first.
“Maybe if I didn’t rush it, I would get the double play,” Báez said. “It was a hard decision to eat the ball or just try to get him, but I’m not going to stop being myself because I make a lot of errors. I’ve just got to be focused and play better.”