Detroit Tigers’ Javier Báez hitting .100 with 4 singles. He knows why, but will he fix it?

Detroit Free Press

TORONTO — Javier Báez has four hits in 40 at-bats this season.

All four hits are singles.

He isn’t hitting the baseball in the air. He isn’t hitting it hard. He isn’t sticking to an approach at the plate.

The Detroit Tigers are paying him $22 million this season to hit, and while his defense has improved this season, he has been a liability in the batting order through 11 games. The former All-Star isn’t playing like one; not even close. It’s no surprise the Tigers grade as one of MLB’s worst offenses, averaging three runs per game.

“I’m staying the same,” Báez said Wednesday at Rogers Centre. “Same routine, same thing. I just got to select my pitches better.”

If this were the middle of the summer, the lack of production would be chalked up to a couple of bad weeks. But it’s April, and the Tigers are 2-9. They’re slipping fast, just like the past two seasons, without signs of steady progress. The product on the field is consistently overmatched.

Báez is at the epicenter.

His swing decisions are the crux of the situation.

“He’s trying. It’s not a lack of belief by him, and it’s not something he’s defiant against,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said Wednesday. “Just putting it into operation during the game, he’s been a little bit inconsistent as we’ve seen. It’s trying to make sure he has a definite plan when he goes up there with pitchers that he’s unfamiliar with.”

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Báez is capable of being a threat in the middle of the lineup. He might not be a superstar, but he hit 31 home runs for the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets combined in the 2021 season, then signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Tigers. He has survived and thrived for 10 years in the big leagues, making his money as a power hitter, with miserable strikeout rates.

Enduring the strikeouts is easier when he’s crushing home runs.

Of his four singles, he has collected one hit against 69 fastballs, two hits against 61 breaking balls and one hit against 21 other offspeed pitches. That’s alarming, because he is supposed to create damage on fastballs. Opposing pitchers aren’t throwing him as many fastballs anymore, so when he gets them, he needs to hit them.

Báez, contrary to popular belief, understands what’s going on at the plate, to an extent. It’s a combination of pitch selection and timing. Pitchers refuse to purposefully locate fastballs inside the strike zone, leaving Báez with limited opportunities, but even when he swings at pitches inside the zone, he is struggling to get the ball out of the infield.

It’s frustrating to watch.

In Tuesday’s 9-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, Báez swung at a second-pitch slider from right-hander Alek Manoah. The pitch didn’t break down and away, so it was a crucial mistake from an elite pitcher over the heart of the plate. Still, Báez flied out to center field.

He expects to start hitting mistakes in the near future.

“I’ve been feeling better,” Báez said. “I’m still swinging at a lot of balls out of the zone, but at least yesterday (Tuesday), I felt much better. I missed a ball that hit straight up, and I felt good with it because my timing was good and it was a good pitch to hit. I just missed it by not even an inch. Once I get that, I will do my best.”

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What happened in Sunday’s 4-1 loss — the fourth loss in a current six-game losing streak — paints the picture. The Tigers were facing Boston Red Sox reliever Chris Martin with one out in the eighth inning and two runners on. Báez swung at a first-pitch fastball nowhere near the zone, way too far up and in, and grounded out to the first baseman. Trailing by two runs, the runners advanced but were later stranded in scoring position.

The same thing occurred April 3, in a 7-6 win over the Houston Astros, to begin the 10th inning in a tie game. Báez swung at an up-and-in first-pitch fastball from reliever Hector Neris and popped out to first. The Tigers went three up, three down and saw five pitches in the inning.

Báez is unable to consistently follow a hitting approach. He knows what pitchers are trying to do against him, and he can comprehend the importance of in-game situations, but when he walks from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, he typically abandons the plan.

“It’s hard to do it out there in the game,” Báez said, “but once we figure it out, we’ll take off.”

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He has arguably played the worst 11 games of his career: zero balls hit on the barrel of the bat, 62.5% ground-ball rate (career worst), 9.4% line-drive rate (career worst), 4.2-degree launch angle (career worst), 86.1 mph average exit velocity (career worst) and 28.1% hard-hit rate (career worst). His wRC+, which measures hitting performance with a 100 league average, is minus-28.

Báez has three walks in 44 plate appearances for a career-best 6.8% walk rate. His strikeout rate, at 18.2%, is a career-best mark, too, as a product of his better-than-normal contact rates despite puzzling swing decisions.

“Sometimes it’s impressive,” Báez said. “But sometimes I get focused and try to see the ball much better. I know they’re not really pitching to me right now, but if I keep chasing pitches, they’re going to keep throwing them. I have to make adjustments. If I keep going out of the zone, they’re going to keep doing it to me.”

The sample size is small, which is true for any statistic in the first two weeks of the season, and the walk rate and strikeout rate should regress toward the mean over time. Doesn’t the same phenomenon apply for his power numbers?

Probably.

He has a .100 batting average and eight strikeouts in 11 games. He was hitting .296 through his first 11 games last season but ended up at .189 through his first 50 games. Suddenly, Báez improved in the middle of June.

He hit .264 with 14 of his 17 homers in his final 94 games.

“It’s a long season,” Báez said. “There are ups and downs. I’ve been here. I’ve been through this. To me, it’s the same progress. Everyone is desperate for hitting, winning and pitching. It is what it is. We’re going to figure it out, and we’re going to be better.”

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Everyone, from the fans to the coaches, are waiting for Báez to settle in. The performance of the Tigers, along with any chance at turning around a terrible start to the season, depends on his production, more so than the production of second-year players Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene.

So far, he isn’t helping the team.

“I’m not changing anything,” Báez said. “My routine is the same. My preparation is the same. If I’m swinging at strikes and hitting the ball hard and we’re winning, nobody will say anything about why we’re struggling or anything like that. I’m being the same. The team is being the same. We just got to play better, pitch better, hit better and play as a team.”

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

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