Can World Baseball Classic help ‘comfortable’ Javier Báez energize Detroit Tigers in 2023?

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — It was March 14, 2017, and Puerto Rico, led by a middle-infield tandem of Javier Báez and Francisco Lindor, controlled a 3-1 lead with two outs in the eighth inning against the Dominican Republic in the second round of the World Baseball Classic.

What happened next was one of the greatest defensive plays in WBC history.

“The last time we played in the Baseball Classic, it was fun,” said Báez, who is entering his second season with the Detroit Tigers — arguably the most important season of his professional career. “This year, we have the same mentality to have fun, compete and get ready for the season.”

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Nearly six years ago, Nelson Cruz — now the Dominican Republic’s player-general manager — attempted to steal second base. Puerto Rican catcher Yadier Molina — now Puerto Rico’s manager — caught the pitch from relief pitcher Edwin Diaz and fired the ball toward second base.

That’s when the magic happened.

Báez, playing second base, stared down at Molina behind home plate and pointed to him before catching the ball. He kept his eyes locked on the future Hall of Fame catcher, and kept his finger pointed at him, while receiving the ball and applying a no-look tag for the third out in the battle between Caribbean rivals.

“He is a leader for us,” Puerto Rico general manager Joey Sola said. “Obviously, he’s a great player. He brings a lot of experience and feels a lot for Puerto Rico.”

“And energy,” said Luis Rivera, the third base coach.

“High energy-level guy,” Sola continued. “I think he’s the smartest player on the field. It’s going to be awesome and fun watching him play the game for us.”

‘The Javy that everybody knows’

The 2023 World Baseball Classic, the first since the 2017 edition, started Saturday for Puerto Rico with a 9-1 victory over Nicaragua.

The atmosphere of the international tournament feeds into Báez’s personality between the lines and could spark the best version of him in the regular season. He is competing in the WBC alongside his brother-in-law, Toronto Blue Jays right-hander José Berríos.

“I think he’s going to be more comfortable,” Berríos said of Báez’s upcoming season. “He knows the people with more confidence. I know what Javy can do on the field, so this year, I know he’s going to be the Javy that everybody knows.”

The comfort aspect is a big piece of the puzzle. Báez thrives in high-energy environments, but he also needs a comfortable environment. It’s why he lives in Puerto Rico during the offseason and hangs out at a mountaintop ranch, and it’s part of the reason why he struggled in 2022.

Now, the Tigers understand Báez better than ever before.

“I expect Javy to settle in,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “It was a big deal when he signed to come over here, and I think he tried to carry the entire team. We just need the best version of him. It’s going to come with some peaks and some valleys, but he seems to be in a really good spot.”

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Puerto Rico is playing in Miami as part of Pool D with two other heavyweights: Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Only two of the five teams in the group will advance to the single-elimination round.

Báez, who plays shortstop for the Tigers, started at second base against Nicaragua. He finished 2-for-4 with one double, RBI and strikeout, along with making a spectacular defensive play in the second inning.

On a bouncing ground ball up the middle, he glided across the grass behind second base, backhanded the ball with his glove, spun as he jumped to his feet and completed an accurate throw to the first baseman.

Starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, as pumped up as ever, shouted profanities to his second baseman.

Báez — nicknamed “El Mago” — nodded confidently.

Powerful cheers filled the ballpark.

“He has knowledge of the game and is very aware of the situations in every game,” Rivera said. “He’s a good defender. He won a Gold Glove a few years ago. I know he struggled a little bit last year, but he can go back to being a great shortstop again because he has that talent. He’s a big piece of our squad. He has fun on the field.”

‘We’re building something here’

During the offseason, Hinch traveled to Puerto Rico to connect with one of his highest-paid players in an intimate setting. They had momentum coming off a noteworthy on-field development last season.

In 2022, Báez hit .238 with 17 home runs in 144 games.

Hinch took a hands-off approach at the beginning until realizing Báez wanted “up-front, in-your-face coaching” as much as any player in his managerial career. Beginning June 16, Báez ranked eighth among qualified shortstops with a 112 wRC+ and ninth with a .750 OPS in his final 94 games.

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The mystification of Báez’s off-field personality can be exemplified by his lack of communication with new hitting coaches Michael Brdar, Keith Beauregard and James Rowson.

“They all texted me,” Báez said. “I’m really hard to find.”

Báez never texted back.

“I did in my mind,” he said, laughing.

But Hinch wanted to take their relationship to the next level.

So, he went to the island.

“He and I have become close,” Hinch said, “and he’s confided in me in a lot of things, like things that he enjoyed last year, things that bothered him, and things that he’s looking forward to being better at.”

It’s unclear what exactly bothered Báez, but the Tigers have taken several steps in the past four months to provide a first-class experience for the players in their organization, including new outfield dimensions and a revamped clubhouse at Comerica Park, as well as a new team plane.

The Tigers did everything they could to make their star player as happy as possible. As a result, Báez looks and sounds more comfortable heading into Year 2.

“A lot of things here are mental, and we’re going to fix them,” Báez said. “We’re going to make this a winning organization.”

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He has an opt-out clause in his six-year, $140 million contract after this season, but he would likely need an MVP-caliber year to benefit from returning to free agency. The Tigers are paying him $22 million.

“We’re building something here,” Báez said. “There’s a lot of rumors about a lot of different stuff, but we’ll see what happens in the future. I don’t want to start a new thing, a new chapter with a new team. We’re here, and we’re trying to win.”

Make no mistake, the two-time All-Star will never stop chasing down-and-away sliders, but leaders from Team Puerto Rico, just like leaders from the Tigers, think his overall performance will improve.

The Tigers put in the work behind the scenes.

Now, Báez’s work needs to energize the Tigers.

Just like the World Baseball Classic energizes him.

“Javy cares a lot about his performance,” said Sola, the general manager. “He has a year already under his skin playing in Detroit. There’s no way, as smart as he is, that he’s not going to have a better year. We can bet that he’s going to be pretty good.”

“It was his first year in a different league,” said Rivera, the third base coach. “Lindor in his first year with New York wasn’t as good, and in his second year, he was Lindor again. Javy can be the same guy. Javy can be Javy in the second year. That’s what we hope for him.”

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

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