This Tiger is figuring it out at the plate

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Javier Báez has a hard time describing some feats he can do on a baseball field. It can be difficult to put pure athleticism and baseball instincts into words. He doesn’t know how he does some things, but he just does them.

Báez had a 33.6% strikeout rate in 2021 with the Cubs and Mets, before he signed with the Tigers, who knew they’d have to temper that. He entered Friday having nearly cut that in half. His drop from 24.9% last year to 17.6% entering this weekend’s series against the Nationals is the 11th-largest drop by percentage among qualified MLB hitters this year, according to Statcast. He had the fourth-largest drop from 2021 to 2022. He currently ranks in the 72nd percentile, just outside the top quarter of Major League hitters, in strikeout rate.

He has become the symbol of a Tigers offense that has grown more disciplined at the plate after first-year president of baseball operations Scott Harris emphasized dominating the strike zone.

“We’re controlling the zone a little better,” Báez said. “I don’t want to say me, because I’m still swinging at pitches out of the zone. I’m making adjustments. I’m trying to be short to the ball and not trying to hit it so hard. But it’s hard, man. I’m seeing the ball good. And timing-wise, it’s pretty good.”

Part of the adjustment was mechanical. Báez said he was loading his swing too much to get ready to hit fastballs, and it didn’t give him much time to track breaking balls and offspeed pitches. He opened his batting stance some and has seen the ball better since.

“I think there is something to be said for tracking the ball a little bit better and not committing too early in the process, which I think hitters get into that habit,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Not just Javy, but others, when they are betting on a strike, they’re going to start their swing intending to hit it. And when the ball moves or cuts or sinks or breaks, they just collide with the ball at less than their best bat speed and bat angle and that leads to outs.”

Part of it, too, is a change in philosophy. He hasn’t tried to get away from power, but he has done more damage with line drives this season.

Báez has never finished a season with a strikeout rate lower than 24%. His 28.8% whiff rate would be his lowest since 2016. His 44% chase rate is still well above the MLB average, but his lowest since 2020. But he’s making contact on pitches he chases at a 56.9% rate, his highest since 2016.

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