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Javier Báez’s baserunning is the least of his issues

The shortstop’s comments after being benched on Thursday night point to the real issue with his game.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch and shortstop Javier Báez generally seem to enjoy a good relationship together. They even spent a few days together at Báez’s home in Puerto Rico over the offseason to get to know each other better outside of the clubhouse. With five years left on Báez’s contract unless he opts-out this offseason, the two know they need to understand and trust each other to get the best out of the relationship.

So don’t expect long lasting repercussions after Hinch benched Báez for his baserunning during Thursday’s contest with the Blue Jays in Toronto. He’ll be back in the lineup tonight, and both men will try and move on. Báez has been through this before and doesn’t hold a grudge. And as frustrating as he’s been, the blunders aren’t the real problem with his game these days.

With one out in the second inning of a scoreless game, Báez cranked a drive to right field and stopped to watch it for a moment before recognizing it wasn’t leaving the park. He managed to get into second base ahead of the throw anyway, and the 2-9 Tigers were in business and badly in need of a win. Akil Baddoo then lifted a fairly deep fly ball to Daulton Varsho in center field and Báez immediately took off instead of tagging up, thinking there were two outs. Varsho doubled him off at second and the scoring chance and the inning were over.

Báez played in the bottom half of the inning, but when the team came off the field between innings, Hinch called him over. The two men went down in the tunnel for a conversation, and when they emerged, Báez collected his gear and went to the clubhouse.

Baserunning mistakes have been a common theme for the Tigers in the early going. On Wednesday night, Matt Vierling thought the ball had been put in play on a stolen base attempt and neglected to slide into second base. He was a dead duck as a result. In another mistake, Eric Haase immediately broke for third from second on a ground ball to shortstop, and was easily cut down at third as the lead runner. Nothing much was said other than Hinch pointing out the obvious in his post-game scrum; you can’t make those mistakes and win, particularly on a team with limited talent. However, neither player was in starting lineup on Thursday.

As Hinch said after Thursday’s victory, the baserunning errors aren’t just a Báez problem, but he’s supposed to be the one setting an example rather than being made an example of, and a message had to be sent to the whole team. The Tigers’ manager confirmed that Báez would be back in the lineup on Friday night at home as the San Francisco Giants come to town. Fans will be hoping the message gets through to the team after a 3-9 start that has featured an alarming amount of blunders they can ill afford.

Hinch isn’t the first of the mercurial shortstop’s managers to wonder how to get the best out of him and keep his head in the game. Cubs manager David Ross dealt with the same situation as Hinch two years ago. Báez lost track of the number of outs and blundered the Cubs out of an inning. Ross benched him as well and had no further issues, but with Báez headed to free agency, it was only a month later that the struggling Cubs traded him to the New York Mets anyway.

On that occasion, Báez was more directly contrite.

“I can’t go against him,” Báez said. “I blame it on myself. I lost count of the outs. We talked about it. We’re on the same page. I’ll be there tomorrow to help the team.”

Báez said there were no excuses after Thursday’s game, but didn’t really take ownership of the blunder either. Instead, he pointed out that if he was hitting well and the team was winning, he wouldn’t have been benched for the mistake. He’s not wrong, but that was better left unsaid. In the process, he focused the attention right on the real issue here; his overall performance.

The second quote just doesn’t make a lick of sense. He’s hit in multiple different spots in the lineup just in the past few games. It just reads like he’s frustrated to be dropped in the order. Despite saying there are no excuses, blaming not knowing how many outs there on his spot in the batting order comes off as exactly that. At best he’s flailing for a rationale other than his own inattention. At worst, his struggles at the plate are really getting to him mentally and he can’t keep his head in the game. Neither option is good.

No one in the game would deny that Javier Báez is a very talented baseball player. Not just in terms of his skill level and pure physical ability, but also in his level of awareness and reactions defensively and on the basepaths. A significant portion of his lengthy highlight reel consists of him reading and measuring situations more quickly than everyone else on the field. That obvious baseball intelligence only makes an even stronger and more maddening contrast to his blunders.

Of course, we knew all this going in. While former managers and teammates insist that lapses of focus are the issue, rather than effort level, the fact remains that the occasional mental blunder has always been a part of Báez’s game.

The much bigger problem for the Tigers is that they aren’t getting much of the good Javy Báez to balance things out. As he says, perhaps too candidly, if he was mashing the baseball, this would be easier to take. He had some good stretches in 2022, but a horrific start to the year left his offensive production significantly below average for the first time in his career at age 29. We’re only 12 games into the new season, but he’s only hit a couple of balls hard and just about everything has been a weak ground ball off his bat. Hard to take comfort in his career low 18.2 percent strikeout rate when so many of the swings are defensive and his wRC+ is negative nine.

Is this the aging curve catching up to him? Was 2022 just a down year compounded by the thumb injury early in the season? Are the Tigers mistaken in trying to make him something he isn’t by focusing his attention so much on just trying not to strike out?

With Báez, it’s harder to forecast than most players, because his skillset has always defied much of the usual basis for those forecasts, such as plate discipline. Tigers fans watching him now may think his routinely bad swings at sliders down and away are a sign that he’s lost it. But he’s literally always done that. The difference is that he hasn’t hit for his usual power numbers. Instead he looks defensive at the plate, flailing just to put the ball in play.

Right now, there isn’t much the Tigers can do but hope his yearlong power swoon comes to an end. Al Avila’s final parting gift to the franchise is the antithesis of a Scott Harris-type player, and while his contract isn’t that large, without better production than last year it’s already well under water. Sure the Tigers would love for Báez to eliminate the mental mistakes, but some of this just comes with the territory. What they need is power production. That would make the rest a lot easier to take.

For Hinch, the issues are more immediate. He’s trying to ingrain better habits into a struggling team and get them to stay focused and force mistakes on their opposition rather than making them. His shortstop’s mistake was an opportunity to make the point to the whole team, and the Tigers’ manager clearly needed to send a message.

Báez will be back in the lineup on Friday night against the Giants. The team will move on from this. But if the Tigers have to take him at his worst to get him at his best, as Báez seems to suggest in his post-game comments, he better show the latter half of that equation soon.