The Detroit Tigers currently find themselves in such a state that one could make any series of sweeping declarations and have them land close to the truth. Have they constructed the worst offense in recent memory? Maybe. Are the Oakland Athletics the only reason they aren’t the worst team in baseball right now? Perhaps. Is their rebuild in legitimate peril? Well, yeah. Are they going to have to sell at the trade deadline and start all over again? It’s not so far-fetched. Was Javier Báez the worst free-agent signing of the offseason? Well.
Again, any of those can be, at worst, rooted in truth. Is their offense historically bad? Using the word “historic” in June seems risky. But they are trailing the A’s in team wRC+ (75) and are ISO’ing .102. That also trails Oakland, but by a startling 17 points. Are they the worst team in baseball? Probably not. Maybe not even in their own division. But their -109 run differential would indicate that they’re close. Is their rebuild in legitimate peril? Yes, despite overtures from ownership that it was, in fact, done. But it’s the Javier Báez question that brings us here today.
And it’s not so much litigating the signing as it is examining the risk you undertake when signing the player to begin with. Javier Báez has always been an enigma. I’ve been writing about baseball for the better of one-third of my life. No other player has had more words emanate from these fingers than El Mago.* That’s for a few different reasons, all of which I will gladly dive into here. Because as interesting as Báez has always been, he’s got perhaps as noticeable an erratic streak as anybody in the game over the last several years.
That susceptibility to streakiness is seen both at the plate and in the field. For every majestic home run ball we see off his bat, there are three or four brutal punchouts. For every flash of wizardry in the field, there’s a handful of throwing errors to balance it out. It makes him an obscenely difficult player to read, project, and, quite frankly, enjoy.
Despite that, we largely know what Báez is. He’s high on strikeouts, low on walks, with a ton of power and a high IQ on the basepaths to supplement those tendencies. That’s all reflected in his 28.9 percent strikeout rate against a BB% of just 4.8. Of course, he’s got the .208 career ISO, along with a cumulative 15.1 Base running runs above average (BsR), to really drive home the point as well. Similarly, in the field he’s committed 61 throwing errors, but has also gone for a Defensive Runs Saved total of 73 and 69 Outs Above Average in the middle infield for his career.
You take the good with the bad. Sure, you hope for more consistency, but the way in which Báez plays the game makes it impossible that that element will ever be present in his game. Nonetheless, what he’s turned in during his first season in Detroit has been nothing short of shocking. Even by his own standards.
Of 158 qualifying position players in 2022, Báez’s wRC+ of 76 sits 145th. His 4.7 percent walk rate ranks 149th. His 0.4 fWAR is 126th and has him on track for his lowest mark that didn’t come from an injury or pandemic-shortened season. More frightening is the fact that he’s 28th percentile in HardHit% (36.0 percent), 23rd percentile in xBA (.237), and second percentile in whiff rate (38.7 percent). The whiffs have always been, there, but the absence of power (.151 ISO) combined with the lowest hard contact rate of his career leaves you to wonder exactly what’s going on with this guy. And we’ve wondered that so many times over the course of his career.
It only enhances the puzzling nature of the player that Báez’s strikeout rate (23.7 percent) is actually the lowest of his career. He has the second-lowest Swing% in the last six years and has his highest Contact% since 2019. But even with those small victories, there’s an underlying mess. Like the fact that Báez features an O-Swing% of 47.1 percent (the highest of his career). His Contact% on those pitches outside of the zone is just 51.3 percent (his lowest since 2015). His CStr%, at 13.0, is his highest since 2016. So in a simple sense, it sure looks as if Báez is looking at a whole lot of pitches inside of the strike zone (his Z-Swing% of 70.2 is also his lowest since ’16), while whiffing a ton on more pitches outside of it.
It’s no wonder opposing pitchers have cut their percentage of fastballs to Báez by almost 10 percent (43.1), according to Baseball Savant, while leaning heavily on the breaking stuff (42.9 percent is about an eight percent bump). Not that that comes as a shock. The book on Báez has always featured something to the tune of a front door breaking pitch. But what 2022 has done is continue to show us that this guy remains impossible to get a read on.
There is one note worth mentioning here, as well, and that is that manager A.J. Hinch mentioned his displeasure with the mental preparation of Javier Báez. We didn’t really get a full story on what that meant, and we might not know. But it could certainly speak to much of what we’ve seen from Báez thus far in 2022. After all, having watched his career very closely, he’s capable of making adjustments for a spell. And while the same ol’ high-K, low-BB tendency is there, we haven’t seen the same type of energy, flash, and power that we’ve grown accustomed to from Báez.
Maybe it’s a matter of adjusting to a new city and a new contract. That’s not at all an unfamiliar story. Maybe there’s something within his mental approach, as Hinch alluded to. Or maybe it’s just another layer in the deepening enigma that Javier Báez has always been. Either way, he’s always been among the streakiest players of this generation. Peaks and valleys. It’s been a lot of the latter this year, but the nature of a player like Báez indicates that the other side of it could emerge at any day. We just can’t ever expect to know what that day looks like before it arrives.
*Author’s Note: It’s actually really, really close. I won’t be proud of what you find if you search my name with Jake Lamb next to it. It was a good bit, though.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)