When a Magician Loses Their Magic

When a Magician Loses Their Magic

By Matt Williams

April 17, 2024

After signing a hefty six-year, $140 million contract with the Detroit Tigers in December 2021, shortstop Javier Baez has experienced one of the sharpest and most widely scrutinized career declines in modern baseball history. But is the situation really as dire as Javy’s detractors believe?

El Mago: The Magician. Perhaps the most well-known nickname for the widely beloved and equally berated MLB player Javier Baez. Ask any Chicago Cubs fan about him, and you’ll likely find them reminiscing about the 31-year-old shortstop’s glory days at Wrigley Field and the undeniably impressive resume he built there: 2x All-Star, 2016 World Series champion, 2018 Silver Slugger Award-winner, 2020 Gold Glove winner and many more titles that distinguish him as a generational talent in the baseball world.

However, travel just 300 miles east, and the overall perception of Baez couldn’t be more disparate.

After Baez’s first game with the Detroit Tigers in early 2022, the superstar shortstop elicited a lukewarm reception from fans that quickly escalated to acrimonious distaste. Many attributed this to Baez’s haphazard approach at the plate, in which he swung at pitches that were two to three feet out of the strike zone.

Looking at his stats, it’s clear that swings like that aren’t just the product of a bad day at the office or even a prolonged slump. In 2022, Baez racked up 147 strikeouts and a chase rate of 47.5%. That means if a ball wasn’t a strike, he’d still be swinging at it almost half the time. While he did improve these numbers the following year, he didn’t by much. In 2023, he still struck out 125 times and recorded a 44% chase rate, well above the 31.9% league average.

His other stats were nothing to write home about either. In 2023, Baez finished with a .222 batting average, a .267 on-base percentage and a .325 slugging percentage. For those uninitiated in convoluted baseball statistics, those aren’t good numbers by any stretch. And when the person putting up those numbers is expected to receive $25 million this year, it’s not hard to understand why some fans aren’t happy.

So how did MLB’s most ruthless hitter, artful defenseman and flamboyant personality tumble into below-average limbo, where his own fans have been known to boo him when he underperforms? What changed between then and now?

The short answer is: Not much.

Even back in 2018, when Baez collected his first and only Silver Slugger Award, he still struck out 167 times; the most of his career. He’s always struggled to maintain discipline at the plate, yet the hits kept coming. In the same year Baez batted in a formidable 111 runs, earning him third place among qualified hitters in that category. This could feasibly explain why Baez’s hitting style never changed.

Unfortunately for Baez, pitchers eventually figured out his Achilles heel: Pitches no other professional hitter would even consider swinging at. Nowadays, anything out of the zone will suffice in dispatching the 11-year veteran. Despite having a small sample size to work with, there’s no evidence to suggest Baez has made any adjustments to combat this in 2024, at least not noticeable ones.

That’s not to say Baez is the same player he was in 2016 when he helped carry the Cubs to their first World Series victory in 108 years. For example, his OPS (on-base plus slugging) was 1.2x higher in 2016 than in 2023. That may not seem like much, but when you need a hit to keep the game alive for your team, it makes a world of a difference.

There’s no denying the plunge in Baez’s performance; his stats serve as an indelible reminder of that reality. But as much as he’s failed to live up to expectations, in many ways, Baez is still better than the alternative.

On the defensive side of things, even sworn enemies of Baez will acquiesce to his continued dominance at shortstop. From blink-and-you’ll-miss-it snags in the dirt to majestic, Superman-esque leaps, Baez still makes plays that little leaguers only dream of making. His offensive struggles are certainly hard to ignore at times, but as of 2024, he’s still playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.

It’d also be unfair to overlook Baez’s skill on the base paths. In 2023, he fell within the 71st percentile for sprint speed. This makes him a terrific runner in scoring position, and even a proficient stealer in the right situation. Whether those qualities alone are worth his eight-figure payday, though, is a question that will probably excite lengthy diatribes from Tigers fans for years to come.

Baez’s situation is undoubtedly a unique case within the realm of baseball. There are players who’ve gone through similar trajectories – Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers being a more successful example – but no baseball player has attracted the sheer volume of attention that Baez has for simply performing below standard. Then again, we’re talking about a fan base that hasn’t experienced the joy of watching a Tigers playoff game since 2014, so their patience is already worn thin.

In that regard, it’s easy to understand why fans developed such high expectations when news of Baez’s contract with Detroit first broke. By 2021, the Tigers had been reeling from a botched rebuild that only yielded mediocrity on the scoreboard and a consistently sub-.500 winning percentage over the past five years. Baez was marketed as the latest cure for that dreadful ailment; a fresh start for a young, up-and-coming Tigers team. And while Baez himself has promised a return to form in 2024, fans are still waiting to see it; offensively, anyway.

Despite Baez’s track record over the past couple of seasons, there are reasons to be optimistic about his remaining years in Detroit. Doing so may require some effort (and perhaps a bit of cognitive dissonance), but while the magician who brought a World Series to Chicago may never again reach his MVP heights, one thing is certain: Javier Baez is a Tiger. And he will be for the foreseeable future.

So eat ‘em up, Javy.

Matthew Williams is a junior studying digital storytelling with a minor in writing. He currently works as a multimedia reporter for The State News but hopes to one day write for film/television. When he’s not in class, working or writing his next screenplay, you can usually find him reading, watching old foreign movies or cheering on the Detroit Tigers.