Javier Báez playing his best baseball for Detroit Tigers but needs a bounce-back 2023

Detroit Free Press

For Javier Báez, it’s all about his hands.

He separated them, focused on controlling his top hand and has started driving the ball to the middle and opposite parts of the field. Manny Ramirez introduced Báez to the adjustment nearly a decade ago. Looking ahead, the Detroit Tigers‘ shortstop should have plenty of momentum heading into the 2023 season.

He needs to bounce back.

“He’s very coachable, and he’s very much a realist,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “We’ve got to do a better job as a group, now that we know him after a year, of pushing buttons faster, getting him in a better place and even confronting things a little bit faster.

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“At the beginning of the season, there was a feeling-out period on all fronts. Lately, the communication that we’ve all had, the emphasis on the right things and his implementation in the game has been much more manageable.”

Enter Scott Harris.

Harris — the hottest name in Detroit sports this week — spent seven seasons, from 2012-19, with the Chicago Cubs under team president Theo Epstein. The Cubs drafted Báez in 2011, a few months before Epstein took control on the North Side.

On Monday, Harris became the Tigers’ president of baseball operations. He has talked a lot about getting the most out of every player, and that most definitely includes Báez. Eventually, Harris will sit down with Báez for a conversation: What has this season been like for you? How can the Tigers better support you?

Those will be the type of questions Harris asks the two-time All-Star shortstop owed $120 million over the next five seasons. (Báez could opt out after 2023, but considering his poor production, that seems unlikely.)

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“In that, we can help bring the absolute best out of him,” Harris said.

Harris thinks he can get Báez right. That’s crucial for the Tigers moving forward. Whether Báez plays shortstop or second base, his bat — specifically his power — is intrinsic to Hinch fielding a winning lineup and the team having success. Báez, in a career-worst season, has 14 home runs in 132 games in 2022, including three in September.

September, with a .982 OPS, has been Báez’s best month. He is batting .364 with seven extra-base hits in 18 games. His 114 wRC+ ranks 75th among 145 qualified MLB players since the All-Star break. Before the break, his 76 wRC+ came in at 146th of 156 players. That means, at least over the past two months, Báez hasn’t been as bad as the back of his baseball card indicates. His eight-game hitting streak was snapped Wednesday in Baltimore.

Hinch said Báez put a “great investment” into finding solutions.

“The way I opened my hands is working,” said Báez, who emphasized the importance of timing and seeing the type of pitch. “I’ve been feeling my top hand a lot. When I feel like I’m overdoing something, I can go back to what I was doing before.”

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Before September, Báez hit 55.2% of batted balls to the middle and opposite portions of the field. This month, however, he’s putting 63.1% of balls in those areas. Creating space between his hands seems to help Báez avoid roll-over groundballs to the pull side.

“I love that part of his game,” Hinch said. “He’s more of a complete hitter. Earlier in the year, he wasn’t getting rewarded in the big part of the ballpark, (at Comerica Park) specifically. He got into some bad habits.”

Defensively, Báez leads MLB with 26 errors.

Throwing, more than fielding, is the primary issue.

“We just got to focus and play better baseball than we have all year,” Báez said. “We’re trying to play smart and play hard. I can’t play about 80%. I gotta play hard every time I’m out there. I’m gonna try to finish hard and healthy and try to get my numbers up.”

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His chase rate, a career-high 46.3%, and lack of walks (25 this year) are problems the Tigers must live with, but Báez’s offense remains his most valuable talent. Adding a few established veteran hitters, even if they’re on short-term deals, will take some of the weight off his shoulders. Playing for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic is expected to spark future success, as Báez thrives in the big moments.

And Harris’ determination to extract as much value from every player could be the biggest difference-maker.

“If we and Javy bring the best out of him, it’s a very exciting player,” Harris said, “and it’s a player we love to have.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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