USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Tigers’ Báez determined to continue success
ST. LOUIS – Nick Maton chased Javier Báez through the dugout immediately after the slugger returned from hitting a home run in the first inning of a May 5 series opener against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Báez, a 10-year MLB veteran, didn’t want to exchange his baseball helmet for the hockey helmet, part of the Detroit Tigers’ home run celebration. But thanks to Maton’s relentless chase, he eventually put the Red Wings helmet on his head. Everyone in the dugout, including Báez, smiled and laughed.
There’s no doubt he is having fun right now.
“We just got to keep it like that,” Báez, 30, said of the Tigers’ recent success, which has included winning 13 of their past 22 games. “We got to keep playing like that. We can surprise everyone and make everybody trust what they’re seeing here.”
In 2023, Báez was hitting .259 with three home runs, eight walks (6.4% walk rate) and 20 strikeouts (16% strikeout rate) in 31 games. His plate discipline, a product of his focus, is better than ever before in his career. For reference, he had a 4.4% walk rate and 24.9% strikeout rate last season. He’s on pace for 41 walks, which would be 11 more than his career high (30), set in 2017.
A significant change in the quality of his plate appearances occurred April 13 at Rogers Centre in Toronto. That’s when Tigers manager A.J. Hinch benched Báez – sending a message to every player on the team – for a mental mistake on the bases in the second inning.
Báez, nearly a month later, is determined to continue his personal success.
“There are going to be ups and downs,” Báez said, “but as long as I’m focused on the timing and the plate discipline and all this stuff, it really matters to me. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. I’m going to do good things, and I’m going to make
my mistakes, and I’m going to make adjustments. But it’s about staying on the same level of when you feel the best.
“I’m seeing the ball pretty well right now, but I think I can see it a little better, and I think I can stay focused a little longer so I can have more success. I’m just working on that. Everything is going good for me right now after a really slow start.”
Over a 20-game span from April 13 to May 7, Báez hit .347
(25-for-72) with three home runs, five walks and 12 strikeouts. His 1.2 fWAR (entering the week) ranked 10th among 159 players with at least 70 plate appearances during that span, while his 172 wRC+ ranked 14th and his .974 OPS ranked 17th.
Báez went 4-for-40 at the plate in his first 11 games.
“His (strike) zone control has gotten better,” Hinch said. “He’s locked in on where the plate is. He’s going to swing and miss
like every hitter does, but it’s way better if you take your shots at balls over the plate and not at anything that’s thrown towards the plate. I think his focus has been exceptionally good.”
The improvement started with plate discipline.
Then, Báez tapped into his power.
He hit three home runs over a four-game span in three days last week after not hitting a home run in his first 100 plate appearances to start the season.
He has hit safely in 17 of his past 19 games in which he has recorded at least one at-bat.
“I was saying to a few of the guys, ‘I’m hitting the ball hard, I just got to get it up (in the air) now,’ ” Báez said. “They said, ‘No, no, just stay there.’ I’m just happy with hitting the ball hard and getting a good hit.”
For the first time in his career, Báez played five complete games – a span of 22 plate appearances – without striking out. He extended the streak to six games, covering 26 plate appearances, by avoiding a strikeout in a 12-6 May 7 loss to the Cardinals in the series finale.
It was the Tigers’ first loss since April 30.
“We’ve got a lot of good talent here,” Báez said. “Everybody’s really young. You can’t say much about them. When everything clicks, and we do everything together, you guys see the talent out there.”
The Tigers started playing a cleaner brand of baseball April 13, and although there have been ups and downs at times, the offense deserves credit – as Báez does – for its production.
“I think he’s one of many guys who have really locked in on the strike zone,” Hinch said. “Generally, as a team approach, I think everybody influences everybody.
“It starts with (Zach) McKinstry at the top of the lineup against righties and (Matt) Vierling against lefties. When that guy puts up a really good at-bat and swings at strikes, it’s somehow contagious to the next guy and the next guy. If we can get the majority of hitters in our lineup to be locked in, that’s a good start to a better offense.”
As for Báez, he always wants to hit the ball hard.
That will never change. But Báez knows he needs to stay focused on maintaining the selective aggressive approach he has shown for the past 24 days.
“I’m going up there with a plan,” Báez said. “Hopefully, we just keep it going.”