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Javier Báez is back, for now

The Tigers’ shortstop has finally gotten red hot. Hopefully it lasts longer than his slump did.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox
Guess who’s back, back again, Javy’s back, tell a friend
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an old saying about good things coming to those who wait. Well, Tigers fans have been waiting for over two and a half months, nay, over five years, ok, make it seven years, for good things to happen. So far in 2022, the results remain rather bleak. Suffering through a long, drawn out rebuild, there seemed to be a bright light at the end of the long dark tunnel as the club started the 2022 campaign. The organization had its stash of top prospects either in the majors or about to take the field, and ownership and the front office had just added a couple of shiny new free agent talents to the roster.

Their biggest addition was at shortstop, when they gave Javier Báez a six-year, $170 million contract. Sure, the former Cubs’ star wasn’t the shortstop many wanted, and there are some serious concerns about how the contract will play out given his profile as a hitter. Still, the 29-year-old represented a massive upgrade over the rotating group of players they played at the position in the past few seasons. Without a real answer in the farm system, a deal like this was arguably a necessary overpay to solidify a crucial position.

Unfortunately, after a strong start, the mood of optimism soon faded as Báez and most of the Tigers’ offense struggled for the first two months of the year.

The numbers were really, really, ugly coming into June. A slash line of .200/.235/.309, good for an OPS of .544 and a wRC+ of only 53. Far from the strong defender with a lightning quick power bat that defined his reputation, he only had 3 home runs on the year and had fallen from the top of the lineup down to the 6th spot.

The only hint of positivity was that he was keeping a low strikeout percentage compared to his marks over the last few seasons while running a BABIP that looked decidedly unlucky. It may come as hard to believe from watching him this season, but Báez holds a career low 23.7 percent strikeout rate this year. That’s just over league average, for a hitter who has struck out over 30 percent of the time each of the past two seasons.

All that has been cold comfort over the past two months as he put balls weakly in play for routine outs or singles instead of doubles and home runs. Báez was really frustrated, and it eventually reached a point where AJ Hinch benched him for two games to let him clear his mind.

Soon after he returned, something started to click. On June 11, he walked three times in a game, a career best. A few games later, he hit his first home run in 22 games. Suddenly the balls were flying off his bat with authority again. He’s currently on a 7-game hitting streak and has collected 11 hits in 27 at bats with 3 doubles, a triple, 3 home runs, 2 walks, and just 2 strikeouts in that span of games. THIS is the Javier Báez the Tigers have been waiting for.

Javire Báez batted ball data

Data Range BB% K% GB/FB BABIP HardHit% BA xBA LA°
Data Range BB% K% GB/FB BABIP HardHit% BA xBA LA°
2016-2021 4.7% 28.3% 1.40 0.339 40.1% 0.271 0.244 10.4
Prior to June 10 3.3% 26.8% 1.65 0.260 33.0% 0.196 0.205 8
Since June 10 10.2% 12.2% 1.31 0.257 47.0% 0.279 0.358 13
Fangraphs & Baseball Savant

Something has certainly clicked. Looking at some highlights in these stats over the past 2 weeks, obviously the first things that jump out are the BB and K percentages. Those aren’t sustainable the rest of the year, but it is encouraging he was already striking out less than normal on the year. The walks would be nice to see be above his normal, but double-digit BB% is not realistic for him. Typically in his career he’s posted solid on base percentages based on hitting the ball hard, and beating out some soft singles in the infield with his speed.

The improved performance at the plate can also be seen in his launch angle and subsequently his GB/FB ratio. He’s been lifting the ball more recently, and it’s helped. He’s also upped his hard hit rate substantially. No longer is he hitting easy grounders, but he’s now spraying line drives and getting his flyballs to turn into a few home runs.

What I find interesting is his BABIP and his expected batting average (xBA). For those unfamiliar with xBA, it’s a Statcast calculation that looks at the launch angle and velocity of a batted ball and calculates how often balls with a similar trajectory turn into hits. It goes nicely with BABIP to give you an indication of whether a player might be getting lucky or not. With Javy’s BABIP being below his normal mark and a large difference between his actual batting average and his expected batting average, it indicates his numbers in the past few weeks should probably be even better than they are.

Eventually, Javier Báez will cool off. Most batters do. The question is how long he can keep it going, and whether we’ll hopefully see something closer to his career norms the rest of the year. Of course, still keeping in mind that career norms for the mercurial shortstop typically include big swings in performance like this. It’s guaranteed to remain a wild ride, but for now it’s clear that good Báez is still good. The issue is how to better avoid long stretches of bad Báez. Overall this has been a pretty rough watch.

Right now, it appears that he’s found his form and is locked in at the plate. He’s a streaky hitter by nature and will still have some at bats where he swings at pitches well out of the zone, but that’s just who he is. Hopefully the BB and K numbers continue to be favorable, and he’s found a bit more patience at the plate. We’d like to believe this has been a transition period where Báez altered his fundamental approach and got used to his new team and new home park. But the odds are good that it’s just going to be like this going forward too. Nothing is certain in life, and especially in baseball, but for the time being, Javy is trending in the right direction.