The Detroit Tigers search for a shortstop appears to be taking all kinds of twists and turns. First it was Carlos Correa. Then there was reported interest in Trevor Story and Marcus Semien. General manager Al Avila has mentioned on several occasions that a trade would be difficult, but that going that route is still an option. On Friday, it was Javier Báez’s turn.
The defensive wizard reportedly turned down an extension worth $168 million back in the spring of 2020, and was traded by the Chicago Cubs to the New York Mets this season. Overall he put up a pretty good season, though there are some markers that have to raise concerns about impending decline.
The Tigers had talked to Marcus Semien, Carlos Correa before recently focusing on Javier Baez, who likely will be less expensive than what Correa, Semien seeking. Baez was offered 8/$168m by Cubs in March 2020 and his camp said no…but COVID hit, interrupted those negotiations.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 26, 2021
Javy Báez 2017-2021
Javy Báez needs little by way of formal introduction. Owner of one of the great defensive and baserunning highlight reels of our time, El Mago, the Magician, regularly does things that thrill and astonish on the baseball field. The Puerto Rican born infielder has spent the past eight seasons alternately frustrating and blowing the minds of Chicago Cubs fans.
The statistics back him up defensively as well. Báez consistently grades out above average defensively, and on a few occasions has put together some outrageously good defensive numbers, both at second base and at shortstop. Great hands, a great arm, and jaw-dropping awareness and body control allow him to make plays few others can, and he is an absolute artist with the tag around second base, no matter where he’s coming from to get to the bag. It’s like having prime Jose Iglesias with better range and much better arm strength.
On the bases too, Báez is extremely aggressive. Sometimes this leads to mistakes, but overall he goes first to third well, will steal you 10-15 bags a year with a solid success rate, and has a knack for incredible slides around tags and weird instinctual plays that cause meltdowns by his opponents.
You can’t expect something like this to happen again, but the example below illustrates Báez’s ability to sometimes make the truly inexplicable happen. On the one hand, the Pirates make one of worst series of plays you’ll ever see. On the other hand, these things happen when Javier Báez is on the field.
Ok, so Báez is obviously talented and generally an entertaining force defensively and on the bases. The aggression leads to more mistakes than you’d like, and so in both regards he grades out worse than Trevor Story, for example. For further context, Carlos Correa typically grades out similarly to Báez defensively, though he doesn’t offer anything extra on the basepaths. The place where these three players diverge quite a bit is at the plate.
Báez has plenty of power, but quite miserable plate discipline, with a lot of swing and miss. He destroys left-handed pitching, but is pretty pedestrian overall against right-handers. Earlier in his career, his hands and overall ability to get the barrel on the ball made up for the free-swinging nature and he was on a path to stardom. However, the last two years have seen his strikeout rate soar to pretty awful levels well beyond 30 percent. The power numbers were enough to make him a well above average hitter in 2021, while his 2020 season was a disaster. Presumably, we can write that one off, and expect that he’ll post a weighted runs created (wRC+) mark of around 15 percent better than league average next year.
Despite being of pretty average stature at six-feet tall and a listed 190 pounds, Báez does have exceptional batspeed and raw power. His maximum exit velocities put him in the tier below the Aaron Judge’s and Giancarlo Stanton’s of the world. Of course, this is partly because he features a big leg kick and sells out for power to the pull field most of the time. As a result, he makes a ton of weak contact on the ground even when he isn’t whiffing. His speed allows him to beat out more than his share of infield grounders and turn the odd flare into a double, but he doesn’t walk and he’s never going to hit for enough average to post good on-base marks.
Even at his best, it’s a very all-or-nothing approach, with Báez ambushing enough fastballs and hangers to do plenty of damage, but otherwise being a target for pitchers with good breaking and offspeed stuff and the command to use it. Unlike Story, Correa, or Marcus Semien, Báez is a guy you want hitting a little further down in the batting order, rather than in the heart of your lineup. He has a knack for heroics, seems to feed off the crowd—in both good and less endearing ways—and the big moments, but is often a non-factor for weeks at a time offensively.
Should the Tigers bite?
Javier Báez is a very good baseball player, despite the flaws at the plate. He would radically improve the Tigers’ defense, add another burst of speed with which to pressure pitchers, catchers, and defenders, and potentially contribute more home runs than we’ve seen from a Tigers’ hitter in a half decade. The question is whether he’s worth the likely cost, and whether there is any chance he can still improve versus the likelihood that his skills start to degrade within a few seasons.
On the latter question, the odds seem quite poor. Joe Maddon’s coaching staff in Chicago no doubt tore their hair out trying to convince Báez to see more pitches and be more selective at the plate, but it never took. Heading into his age 29 season, expecting him to play anything other than Javy Báez-style baseball is almost certainly a mistake.
The problem is that there is almost no approach of any sort at the plate. He depends entirely on his superb hand-eye coordination and batspeed to foul off the pitches he can’t lay off of until he hopefully gets something he can drive. The power should hold up, but hand-eye coordination even at this freakish level can degrade significantly in a player’s thirties. If Báez starts finding the barrel less often, his production could crater to a degree well beyond what we’d expect from a decline phase for Story and particularly Correa.
It’s possible that decline may already be underway. Báez isn’t just chasing out of the zone a lot over the past two seasons. He’s missing fastballs over the plate more often. From 2017-2019, Báez crushed fastballs in the strike zone, producing a .423 wOBA against those pitches. In 2021 that number was down to .391. As those are the pitches he made his bones by crushing, that is a little bit scary. On the other hand, Báez absolutely demolished breaking balls in the zone this year, posting a .492 wOBA against those pitches.
So, at the moment, Báez can be described as a flawed, but extremely talented, three-to-four win player. That’s on par with Story, who also has arm trouble that is a cause for concern. Correa is on another tier as more of a five-to-six win type player who is coming off one of his best seasons.
FanGraphs estimated a contract of four years, $80 million for Báez. That feels rather light to convince him to come to Detroit over a return to the New York Mets, who are also still interested, but we’ll run with it. As Story is pegged at something like $24 million a year for five seasons, and Correa expecting roughly a 10-year, $300 million deal, Báez certainly would leave them more payroll flexibility to add help this offseason. Maybe, just maybe, he can also give them everything they need at the shortstop position at reasonable cost.
There’s a fair amount of risk in the profile, but if the deal is reasonable enough, Báez makes for a fallback plan that should allow the Tigers to add more help this offseason while still keeping a roughly league average payroll and seriously boosting the production from the shortstop position. This still doesn’t feel very likely, but the Tigers do appear to be casting a wide net and exploring every possibility, as they should.