Getting beat by fastballs adds a new layer of concern for Tigers, shortstop Báez

Detroit News

Kansas City — There are very few elite-level players as self-aware and self-critical as Tigers’ shortstop Javier Báez. If the first step toward recovery is copping to the problem, Báez is well on his way to getting right.

“I am a fastball hitter,” he said before the game Monday. “It doesn’t matter who it is. You can throw 105 mph, 110 mph, it doesn’t matter. But if you throw it in the zone, we’re going to get there. But if they keep throwing it out of the zone and we keep swinging at it, they’re going to keep throwing it out of the zone.”

Báez wasn’t in the starting lineup Monday night. It was his first healthy non-start since June 19. Initially, the plan was for him to be off on Thursday. But after going 0-for-4 Sunday in Seattle, finishing the day with two non-competitive strikeouts and capping a 13-game stretch where he went 10-for-51 (.196) with just two extra-base hits and 13 strikeouts, the reset day was pushed up.

“I told AJ (Hinch, manager) that I’m not seeing the ball well,” Báez said. “He told me to take the day today and I’m fine with it. I’ve got to clear my mind and just restart my approach again.”

The crux of the issue is that Báez is getting beat with fastballs – specifically, four-seam fastballs at the top and outside of the strike zone. The numbers are astounding, especially since, as he said, he’s always done damage against fastballs.

Against all fastballs, he’s hitting .207 and slugging .271 – career lows. Against four-seam fastballs he’s hitting .169 and slugging .260, with a 34.4% chase rate and a 34% whiff rate.

Last season, Statcast had his run value against four-seam fastballs at plus-10. This year, it’s minus-8. Even more alarming, he’s only hitting .192 against four-seam fastballs in the strike zone.

“Some of it is mechanical, him getting in a good position,” Hinch said. “The majority of it is trying to cover every bit of the strike zone and the area around the strike zone at the same time. Once we can get his mentality to shift and get him to stick with a plan from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, it can click for him.”

Báez agreed with that and said the problem wasn’t limited to zone control.

“I’m trying to cover everything,” he said. “I’m trying to cover three pitches instead of being ready for the fastball and then reacting to the other pitches. But I am a hitter who has the ability to hit balls out of the zone. But that’s just a natural reaction.

“Sometimes now I’m looking for balls out of the zone because of the way they’ve been pitching me and that only makes it worse. Sometimes it works for me. But I’ve got to be disciplined and make them throw strikes.”

He’s caught in a maddening cycle. His power numbers are down so he’s changed his mechanics, almost turning his back to the pitcher before unleashing his swing. That makes him late and it also makes him doubly vulnerable to the sweeping breaking balls outside the zone that have tormented him throughout his career.

And all of that is exacerbated by his fierce desire to produce and help carry the offense. As he said, he’s trying to do too much.

“Just my energy and the way I want to be here for the team – I’m just trying to do everything at the same time,” he said. “I need to slow the game down and make them throw strikes and make them throw the fastball for a strike.”

He’s had stretches where he was stringing base hits, stretches where he controlled the zone better, stretches where he was content to take what pitchers were giving him. But the vast majority of balls he’s put in play the past month or longer have been to the opposite field, a sign that his swing is tardy.

He’s broken a ton of bats, too, another indication that he’s not getting on the fastballs.

“It’s OK, I get free bats,” he said, smiling. “No, I hate getting jammed and I’m getting jammed because I’m not getting to the fastball. If I swing at balls in the zone I won’t break my bat.”

It’s eating at him. It is especially frustrating to him that this cycle of inconsistency has continued this long. To this point, he’s performing below his career-low levels of a year ago — .220/.254/.321, 60 OPS-plus and just six home runs.

“I’ve got to focus and I’ve got to play better,” he said. “The boys are playing good baseball right now.”

Hinch was clear that he didn’t bench Báez Monday. He was available off the bench and he will be back in the starting lineup Tuesday.

“Javy is a realist,” Hinch said. “He never denies the things he’s done well or the things he’s struggled with. He’s very open about it. But the adjustments that are going to be needed, we want to get a jump start on it now.

“Because when he gets hot, he gets white-hot. That’s something we’re looking for.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

Tigers at Royals

When: 8:10 p.m., Tuesday, Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City

TV/radio: BSD/97.1

Scouting report

LHP Tarik Skubal (0-0, 0.00): In the eight scoreless innings he’s pitched (two, four-inning starts) since coming back off the injured list, he’s given up two hits and three walks with 11 strikeouts. The Tigers will continue to monitor his workload judiciously and cautiously to the extreme. Perhaps, depending on his performance, he will get a fifth inning in this one, but likely no more.

LHP Daniel Lynch (2-4, 4.18), Royals: He discombobulated Tigers hitters at Comerica Park on June 20, blanking them on one hit over seven innings, and he only needed 78 pitches to do it. He had them off-balance and in-between with essentially two pitches – a 92 to 93-mph four-seamer and an 82 to 83-mph changeup. The Tigers put 19 balls in play with a mild average exit velocity of 87 mph. Interesting to see who adjusts first or best.

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