The Javy Báez Experience Is Always Full Of Surprises
12:48 PM EDT on June 12, 2022
I used to envy the Javy Báez experience from afar. As a Tiger fan watching him play for the Cubs, I loved the spark of unpredictability that he brought to the Wrigley infield, how any moment the ball was hit to him held the potential for something magical. I loved his daring bravery on the basepaths, too, and his aggressiveness at the plate, and for a while he became my favorite MLB player, home teams excluded. I was a night blogger in the summer of 2018, which is still Báez's best season yet, and the highlights he created regularly brought excitement to an isolated gig during the otherwise slow sports months. Here he is stealing home on a beautiful slide, robbing Bryce Harper with a dramatic dive, firing a throw across the diamond to catch a baserunner who wandered off the bag, and spilling a fan's beer as he makes a tumbling catch in foul territory.
But the flip side of this bold artistry is how Báez looks when fate isn't on his side. While he's so often able to cause embarrassment and frustration in the other team, the Báez experience means he'll do the same to his own fans on occasion as well. Almost as easily as you can pull up his unreal athleticism, you can also find his goofy blunders. He could unexpectedly lose his grip on that beautiful defensive play, get thrown out because he forgot how many outs there are, or perhaps most infuriatingly, swing at every single goddang pitch no matter how far away it is from the plate.
Those low points are easy to ignore when Báez isn't playing for a team you actually like, and even easier when he's playing like an all-star overall. But Báez's start to this year has invalidated both those points for me. Last season, the one they call El Mago recovered nicely from a concerning COVID-shortened 2020, particularly as he slashed .299/.371/.515 with an OPS+ of 140 after the Mets acquired him at the trade deadline. That showing helped him get a six-year, $140 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, but so far Báez has looked far more like his 2020 self than his most endearing form. He's batting .200 with just three home runs (after 31 last year), and while he still has defensive wizardry within him, his at-bats have become deeply uncomfortable to watch. Not only does Báez have a walk rate of just 4.7 percent—tenth-worst among qualified hitters—but he also seems to be almost actively fighting against steps that could improve his contributions. He has swung at a league-high 48 percent of pitches he's seen out of the zone.
This attacking mindset has always been an aspect of the Báez approach, but it used to work. Lately, it feels like he's trying to force something that used to seem to effortless, and much like Báez at the plate, Detroit's patience is quickly running out. As the Tigers fell 10-1 in a despicable Friday night showing against the Blue Jays, Báez heard boos from the crowd when he went 0-for-4.
"We've got to focus on solutions," his manager A.J. Hinch said after the loss. "We've got to put our arms around him and get him in a better place, because we are not going anywhere without the production of Javier Báez, whether it's this series or the season or in the coming years."
Báez proved him right on Saturday afternoon, looking like a changed man at the plate as the Tigers struck back with a 3-1 victory. After all his struggles with discipline, the Tigers shortstop was 1-for-1 with ... wait for it ... three walks! Per The Athletic's Cody Stavenhagen, this was only Báez's second multi-walk game since the start of 2020, and his first-ever three-walk game with none of them coming intentionally. Most crucially of all his plays on Saturday, Báez had one to lead off the 4th and eventually came around on a two-out triple. Check out the defiant bat chuck when he pulled it off, too. It's almost as if he's saying Yeah, screw you, I can watch pitches go by.
You could see his satisfaction even more clearly after he got the hat trick in the eighth.
"I was proud of Javy for staying with it, including the last at-bat," Hinch said. "Once he had two walks and a hit, it's very easy for a player to go back to old ways and try to pull the ball for a homer. He got that third walk in. He should be happy tonight."
Perhaps this is the true Javy Báez experience—neither the breathtaking courage nor the maddening hard-headedness, but something more elusive if just as compelling: As soon as you think you've got your finger on what to expect from Javy Báez, he finds some new way to surprise you.