Trailing by two runs, Javier Báez stepped to the plate in September against Kansas City Royals right-handed reliever Dylan Coleman in the eighth inning. Zack Greinke tossed seven scoreless innings that night at Comerica Park, and immediately following his exit, the Detroit Tigers worked the bases loaded with one out.
Báez watched a first-pitch slider in the dirt, putting himself ahead in the count, but the free-swinger whiffed at the next three pitches: a fastball near his head, a slider in the dirt and a slider in the left-handed batter’s box.
It was a frustrating, familiar plate appearance.
“Every veteran that I had during (batting practice) come up to me from other teams, they pretty much said the same thing: The first year was always hard,” Báez said Oct. 5, at the end of his first season with the Tigers. “Players try to do too much, and that’s exactly what I was doing. I was trying to show some stuff that I needed to let come to me instead of me going to get it. That’s something I got to work on.”
The Tigers ended up tying the game in the eighth, thanks to a two-strike, two-out single from Harold Castro, and winning, 4-3, in extra innings on a two-strike, two-out, walk-off single, again from Castro. But Báez, in the first year of his six-year, $140 million contract, didn’t come close to putting together a quality at-bat in a crucial situation.
He was supposed to lead the Tigers’ offense in 2022.
In some ways, that late-game at-bat against the Royals exemplifies who Báez is at the plate. He is consistently undisciplined, and without his usual power, the soon-to-be 30-year-old shortstop experienced the worst full season of his career. Báez finished with 17 home runs, fewer than 20 for the first time in a full season since 2016, and a .671 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He didn’t thrive defensively, either, leading MLB with 26 errors. That number tied his season total for walks.
“I was trying to do too much,” Báez said. “The way I hit is different than other guys. I hit wherever I think the ball is going to land. That’s where I look. I know I’ve got to get the strike zone closer to me, but there are other balls I can hit to help my team. When they’re out of the zone, and I make the right adjustment, I hit it hard.”
Báez, who has an opt-out clause in his contract after 2023, is signed for five more seasons with the Tigers and owed $120 million. Entering the offseason, the Tigers seem prepared for Báez to continue in his role as the everyday shortstop, barring a trade or free agent signing, and manager A.J. Hinch thinks the lessons learned this season could spark the former World Series champion.
“Javy will do whatever is asked of him,” Hinch said Oct. 3. “We’ve got to make sure that we aggressively ask him and tell him what that is and what he needs to do. I think I’ve learned that he appreciates up-front, in-your-face coaching as much as any player I’ve ever been around.”
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Competing alongside his friends for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic should help, too, as will the organizational shakeup from new president of baseball operations Scott Harris. Báez played eight seasons for the Chicago Cubs, where Harris worked in the front office under Theo Epstein and helped win the 2016 World Series. The Cubs, of course, are known for being a best-in-class franchise. Organizational changes will likely be felt within the Tigers’ clubhouse, which has the potential to inspire Báez and others.
But Báez is a complex individual.
The Tigers’ coaching staff, beginning with Hinch, needed time to get to know him.
“He was a player we needed to learn a lot about prior to being able to reach him,” Hinch said Oct. 7. “He’s an easy person to deal with. He’s very coachable. Getting the implementation into the game is always going to be a challenge because he plays with a reckless abandon that is both attractive and stressful. But I think he can be a really good player for us.”
A NEW APPROACH:How a secret Tigers meeting ignited Javier Báez’s turnaround
At first, Hinch took a hands-off approach and let Báez handle his business. Báez, however, appeared to lack focus, or at least he failed to display his focus in a way that positively impacted the Tigers. After an exciting Opening Day, he slumped and suffered an injury before enduring a terrible May, batting .159 with one home run in 29 games.
A June 15 meeting between Hinch, Báez and his agent helped the two-time All-Star find his way back on track. Beginning June 16, he ranked eighth among 24 qualified shortstops with a 112 wRC+ and ninth with a .750 OPS in his final 94 games. During that time, Hinch employed a more hands-on approach when coaching his second-highest-paid player. He tried to teach Báez — better against lefties than righties — to take a well-thought-out approach to the plate.
Beginning Sept. 1, Báez hit .293 with six homers and an .831 OPS in his final 30 games.
“If we and Javy bring the best out of him, it’s a very exciting player,” Harris said Sept. 20, at his introductory news conference, “and it’s a player we love to have.”
What won’t change is Báez’s style of play, as he will forever strike out too often by swinging and missing pitches outside the strike zone. He had a 24.9% strikeout rate, second-best of his career, but a career-worst 47.5% chase rate. Facing sliders, Báez hit .196 with a 45.5% swing-and-miss rate and a run value of minus-14. He graded out as the worst player in baseball against sliders.
In 2021, though, Báez had a plus-11 run value against sliders.
“I just got to make that adjustment during games, during at-bats,” Báez said. “And believe in what I’m trying to do against the pitcher.”
Many of Báez’s attributes are here to stay, whether the Tigers like them or not. There’s a reason pitchers threw only 34.8% of their 2,092 pitches to Báez inside the strike zone, according to FanGraphs, with 65.2% outside the strike zone. His walk rate, 4.4%, was among the lowest in baseball. It’s all part of the package.
The good news for the Tigers is Báez, worth 2.0 fWAR, finished the season better than he started, a sign of hope for a better 2023. He also gets the World Baseball Classic, an event he is passionate about, to prepare for his second year in Detroit.
Naturally, he should feel more comfortable in Year 2.
And Hinch’s staff will have a better coaching plan.
“I’m not really happy with my numbers this year, but I had a pretty hot month in September and October,” Báez said. “Still, it’s not like I was helping to get back on track or make the playoffs or anything like that. I was just playing hard, and I took a lot of pressure off me. That’s something I need to do the whole year.”
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.