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Tigers player preview: Will Javier Báez reappear after his disappearance?

For his next trick, “El Mago” looks to make his game reappear after a bit of a vanishing act in his debut season in Detroit.

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at Detroit Tigers Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

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.

That was the introduction I used in my article on Javier Báez which I wrote back in June, as he was in the midst of a hot streak. It’s been a fairly accurate assessment of his acquisition and I still stand by these words. I said this to summarize his performance so far at the time:

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 for 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.

Well, as you’re probably aware, his hot streak quickly cooled off. He wrapped up June with an OPS of .807 but logged a .672 and .572 OPS in July and August respectively. He did find his groove in September as he closed out the season with a .876 OPS in the final month. Overall, he turned in a below-average offensive season, totaling only 17 HRs with a 90 wRC+ and an fWAR of 2.0, his lowest totals in a full season in his career.

Even his defense was merely average, according to Outs Above Average (OAA) on Statcast, again the lowest mark of his career. For many Tigers fans that were against the signing of Báez, their worst fears were realized.

So, what’s left for the Tigers’ $23.3 million shortstop? It’s unlikely that teams will be calling Scott Harris about his availability at this rate. It’s also extremely unlikely that he will exercise his opt-out at the end of this year. Barring a huge turnaround, he’ll be the Tigers’ starting shortstop for the foreseeable future. Are there any signs that last year was just an outlier and better days lie ahead?

Despite career lows in many traditional measuring stats of player performance, Báez did manage to improve in his plate discipline, despite his overall tendency to be a free-swinging hitter that regularly chases pitches out of the strike zone. His K% of 24.9% was his lowest since his first full MLB season in 2016. It put him more in line with his 2016-2019 years than his low 30% in 2020 and 2021. The Tigers wanted him to put the ball in play more, and he did. The problem was that he didn’t hit for his usual power marks in the process.

If there is a glimmer of hope in his 2022 campaign, it’s probably that Báez’s month of May was atrocious. First, after hitting his “wall-off” double on opening day, he hurt his thumb in the celebration and eventually injured it badly enough he needed to go on the IL for a time. When he came back, he clearly wasn’t right, as evidenced by his slash line of .159/.202/.230/.432 through May. He’s a streaky hitter, but he’s not usually THAT cold. When you remove his May numbers, it brings his season slash line up to .258/.297/.434/.732, which is pretty close to his career line. That’s probably where expectations should line up for Báez this season.

It’s also worth noting that a star player struggling in their first year with a new team isn’t a new phenomenon. For example, current Mets shortstop, and close friend of Báez, Francisco Lindor put up rather average numbers in his first season with the Mets in 2021, hitting an even 100 OPS+. But his bat roared back to life last year, hitting his way to a 125 OPS+. Manny Machado also saw a similar dip in his production in his first year in San Diego, hitting 110 OPS+ in 2019, then putting up 131 and 159 OPS+ years in 2021 and 2022, respectively. So with these facts, plus looking at the circumstances of his May struggles, plus his slightly improved plate discipline, and bringing in the walls at Comerica Park, there’s a reasonable chance Báez can get back to his usual slugging levels in 2023.

On the defensive side, “El Mago” turned in a pretty rough season at a premium defensive position, well below his usual career standards. He committed a career-high 26 errors, just topping his 24 errors in 2021 between his time with the Cubs and Mets. And while the errors were balanced out by plenty of excellent plays, Statcast didn’t really love his performance either. He was graded as worth 1 OOA last year, matching his similarly disappointing 2021 season. Now with back-to-back years committing 25 errors and being roughly average in the field, one has to wonder if El Mago has any tricks left up his sleeve.

If there’s a saving grace, it’s that his skills haven’t really diminished. His reflexes, hands, arm strength, coordination and tagging ability, all remain good. We did see the real Báez magic on occasion as well. The problem remains a tendency to get sloppy with his footwork and force throws when he doesn’t need to, with too many throws off the mark. He showed some signs of cleaning that up later in the season as he and the coaching staff focused on the problem, but there’s a long history of undercutting great play with poor play in Báez’s past.

Simply put, Báez is likely going to be the same player he always has been, and with a bit more luck, he could turn in a season at the dish more in line with his career numbers. ZiPS has him pegged at a 3.4 fWAR for 2023, which seems about right and maybe a bit bullish after his 2.0 season last year. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a 4+ fWAR year coming up. His overall profile and age say this is as good as it’s likely to get, with a steady decline likely from his early to mid-30s.

And that was an item of particular concern upon his signing, as his bat speed and penchant for making contact made up for an overall poor plate approach. The decline of this profile comes very fast and there were no glaring outliers in his advanced numbers to point to something outside his general profile to explain his poor season. He is who he is at this point, and he’s just going to have to keep his cold streaks shorter than his hot streaks if he wants to rebound this year. If you want a reason to hope, put your faith in the second-year rebound star players have after acclimating to a new team. Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy the El Mago show, for better or worse.