Javier Báez‘s defense is magical — until it isn’t.
The 29-year-old shortstop, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Detroit Tigers in December, leads the majors with 20 errors, four more than Texas Rangers shortstop Corey Seager and 12 more than Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa. They were three of the five shortstops in last offseason’s stacked free-agent market.
Báez — nicknamed “El Mago” — completes jaw-dropping plays weekly but too often struggles to corral routine grounders and execute routine throws to first base. His defense, possibly more so than his offense, is a point of concern entering the 2023 season, creating a question the Tigers’ new general manager must analyze and address: Is Báez really the shortstop of the future?
“I think I can play wherever,” Báez said. “Maybe my age is telling me something, but I will give my 100% wherever I play. I’ve played all over the place in the past, so I just got to get used to it. The past two or three years, I’ve been moving between short and second. The only difference about short and second is the distance to first. But I got used to playing second and moving my feet less. Now that I’m at short, I need to pick up my feet better and move a little more. I got to make that adjustment.”
Báez had a particularly rough stretch from July 26-Aug. 11 — eight errors in 15 games, including three two-error games — before settling down again, with only one error in 12 games since. He seems to understand what he needs to do mechanically to be a great shortstop but hasn’t consistently applied his knowledge to game situations.
Báez isn’t a stranger to his struggles.
“Sometimes I feel like I can make the difficult plays better than the routine plays,” he said. “The routine plays, the throws I’ve been making this year are all over the place. But I know I can do better and can make no excuses.”
After some plays, manager A.J. Hinch tracks down Báez in the dugout. They have an inside joke about high-fiving as fast as his feet moved. He needs continual feedback to be reminded of the fundamentals. The Tigers’ coaching staff has been working with Báez on his defense, but the instructions haven’t translated to the field.
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If his feet aren’t synced with his arms, Báez said he doesn’t know where the ball is going to end up.
“We talk to him about it,” Hinch said. “The more he moves his feet, the better his throws look. The more that he plays through the ball, the more momentum he carries to first, and he gets over the top with his arm and doesn’t change his arm angle and the ball is very true and generally right on target.”
Flashy plays are no problem, as Báez is truly elite making plays up the middle and in the hole. He flipped a ball between his legs — without looking — for a force out earlier this season. He is quick at turning double plays and applying tags. His glove work is highly regarded, but Hinch said the 2020 Gold Glove winner “can get caught in the trap of relying on his natural skills rather than his fundamental technique.” Báez has been worth minus-5 defensive runs saved and plus-3 outs above average, according to two commonly used defensive metrics.
“I think it’s all mental,” Baez said. “We work on it every day, but if it doesn’t click at the right time and you don’t make that adjustment, it’s not going to come to you. I don’t know what it takes.”
Báez’s defense wouldn’t be such an eyesore if he were producing at the plate. After topping 20 homers in each of the past four 162-game seasons, Báez has 11 home runs this year in 111 games. He is slugging .367 and has a .634 OPS, the work full-season mark of his career. The month of May — featuring five doubles, one home run and a .432 OPS over 29 games — was arguably the worst of Báez’s nine-year career.
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Without that month, though, Báez is batting .247 with a .738 OPS in 2022. Still not good enough, but enough to suggest — along with track record — he should be much better in 2023. (Just in time to opt out of his contract after next season, potentially.)
Báez thrives on energy and big moments, hence his superstar performances this season at L.A.’s Dodger Stadium and Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field, the two ballparks where opposing fans have booed the loudest. He also crushed at Boston’s Fenway Park.
The lack of excitement surrounding the Tigers doesn’t create for an energy-filled day on the job. The Tigers rank 21st in MLB with an average attendance of 20,964 fans. The turnout could be a lot worse, considering the record, and several Tigers have tipped their cap to the fans this season. But if the new regime rights the ship, more fans will show up for a winning product. And it’s likely Báez’s bat will heat up, too.
As for where he will play on the field, that’ll be up to Hinch and his new general manager to decide. The Tigers have other positions to figure out, as well: third base, second base, first base, catcher, designated hitter and one corner outfield spot. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop and first baseman Spencer Torkelson could start next season at their primary positions, but third baseman Jeimer Candelario is likely to be non-tendered this offseason.
The upcoming free-agent class has two premier shortstops: Dansby Swanson and Trea Turner. Correa can opt out of his remaining two years (and $70.2 million) with the Minnesota Twins, and Xander Bogaerts can do the same for his three years (and $60 million) with the Red Sox. After that, the list of top-tier talent runs dry. The Tigers have Ryan Kreidler in their system, but the 24-year-old is batting .219 in 51 games — hardly enough to win a big-league job — for Triple-A Toledo this season after struggling with injuries.
So, what does Báez think about moving to second base?
“If whoever comes is going to do a better job, for sure,” he said.
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Then, he showed some passion in his voice.
“If not, I want to play short. It’s where the ball goes most of the time.”