December 11, 2013
Getting Detroit Running Again
When the Tigers traded Doug Fister, the widespread assumption was they'd use the savings to upgrade in left field, likely by signing Shin-Soo Choo. But Choo didn't arrive in Detroit the next day, or the day after that, and the addition of Davis all but closes the door on him ever arriving. Expecting an All-Star center fielder and getting a fourth outfielder instead is a surefire way to dampen excitement but, with careful managing, Davis can help the Tigers in their quest to reach a fourth consecutive ALCS.
Known primarily for his baserunning, Davis averaged 42 stolen bases per season, and succeeded on 80 percent of his attempts during his time in Toronto. Even at age 33, he should serve as a near-elite stolen base threat on a Detroit team that hasn't had one in a while. In 2013, the Tigers were the team least likely to take the extra base (33 percent; next-closest team: 35 percent) or attempt a steal (55 tries; next-closest: 67). But basestealing has been on the outs in Motown for longer than that: the Tigers haven't had a players steal more than 30 bases since Alex Sanchez in 2003. In fact, only the Giants and Cardinals have had fewer 30-plus stolen base efforts over the past 14 seasons than the Tigers.
Were Austin Jackson allowed to run at will, he likely would have joined the ranks by now. However, his attempts have declined with time, presumably to ensure Miguel Cabrera bats with a runner on board when the opportunity presented itself. Given Detroit's offseason additions—mostly Ian Kinsler and Davis—one must wonder if leveraging the running game could be a key difference between Jim Leyland and Brad Ausmus. Yet, as good as Davis is at stealing bags, his impact is likely to be overstated. Sam Miller estimated Billy Hamilton would add 0.11 wins over a month as a pinch runner—or about 0.70 wins over a full season—and that assumed optimal usage.
The good news is a well-used Davis can add value beyond baserunning. Though he's not an effective hitter against right-handed pitchers due to his tendency to step in the bucket—leaving him vulnerable to breaking balls and outside pitches—he has produced well against southpaws in recent years. Defensively, he doesn't use his speed to great effect. Still, Davis makes sense in a left-field platoon with Andy Dirks, which would enable him to sit against righties and enter the game in obvious pinch-running situations.
Detroit's (Likely) Left-Field Platoon, 2011-2013
While Detroit fans are understandably disappointed, Davis is a decent fourth outfielder with more late-inning utility than most. He's not going to shift the tide in the way Choo or Ellsbury would have, and he's not an everyday player. He is someone who can steal bases and hit lefties enough to merit the roster spot. How Tigers fans come to feel about Davis over the next two seasons will be a reflection of how well Ausmus deploys him. With the right touch, Davis could give the Tigers something they haven't had in a while. —R.J. Anderson
Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Rajai Davis was the 39th-best outfielder in standard leagues last season. He swiped 45 bags and scored 49 runs in just 360 PA, and put up a respectable-enough .260 average to not kill your team in that category in the process.
I entered the offseason really hoping Davis would end up with someone like the Mets or the Orioles or the Cubs, where he’d probably have a chance to play every day. He’d have a shot at 60-plus steals over the course of 500 PA. Unfortunately, his splits have relegated him to another part-time role, this time in Detroit, where he’ll serve as the short end of a platoon with Andy Dirks. Davis is still somewhat of a fantasy sleeper, especially since it will be easy to tell when you should start him, but this is far from the best-case scenario for him. Keep Davis on watch lists incase there’s an injury in Detroit’s outfield. —Ben Carsley
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson