By: Will Burchfield
Draw a line between Mikie Mahtook’s two MLB seasons, and you’ll find two different players.
There was the rookie in 2015 who posted a .295 average, .970 OPS and popped nine home runs in 41 games. And there was the sophomore in 2016 who, hampered by injuries, slumped to a .195 average and .523 OPS over 65 games.
After an offseason trade from the Rays to the Tigers, Mahtook is fully healthy and confident in the player he can be.
“The 2015 version is definitely more me than the 2016 version,” Mahtook told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket. “I had a really good camp in 2016, I started the season off playing well and then obviously all the injuries hit. But the 2015 version is way, way closer to me than 2016 — so expect that one.”
Acquired by the Tigers in January, Mahtook is part of a four-horse race for the starting job in center field. His competition consists of Tyler Collins, JaCoby Jones and Anthony Gose. Mahtook, given his terrific defense and offensive upside, feels like the early favorite.
“We really like Mikie Mathook,” said GM Al Avila heading into spring training. “We feel like he still has a lot of potential in his game.”
“Still” indicates promise, but it also suggests something has been lost. A first-team All-American out of LSU, Mahtook was one of the highest-regarded outfielders in the 2011 draft. The Rays selected him in the first round, 31st overall.
He steadily ascended the minor league ranks and made his big-league debut in 2015. After a couple demotions to Triple-A, he was called up for good in September and hit .353 over the Rays’ final 27 games. Mahtook, who LSU coach Paul Mainieri considers “maybe the most electric player” he’s ever had in Baton Rouge, was living up to the hype.
Then 2016 struck.
Mahtook began the season in Triple-A, hitting well, before an oblique injury in mid-April sidelined him for about a month.
“And I probably should have been out a little longer,” he admitted. “But obviously as an athlete, you want to recover and play as soon as you can.”
So he rushed back into action, figuring he could fight through the pain and find his groove. He never did.
“What it led to was me overcompensating and getting into some bad habits and basically having to rework my swing to get out of those habits,” Mahtook explained, “because I was trying to baby my oblique.”
Then, a month later, he broke his hand when he was hit by a pitch versus the Indians. He was shelved until August. When Mahtook returned, both he and the last-place Rays were playing out the string.
“So it was a very weird year for me,” he said. “I’ve never been hurt playing baseball, but it’s something that I’ll learn from and something that I’ll grow from. Obviously baseball’s a mental battle throughout the course of the year, and I had never faced as much mental adversity as I did last year.”
But the storm has passed. With a fresh start on a new ballclub, Mahtook has a sunny outlook.
“Everything’s great, I love the guys on the team, love the vibe that everybody is giving out,” he said. “It’s obviously a veteran-laden team but there’s also a bunch of young guys that are filling in the gaps. It’s a great group of guys and everybody has the same mindset and the same goals and it’s just an exciting clubhouse to be in right now.”
He has enjoyed getting to know the Tigers’ many star players, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander in particular. Coming from a team comprised mainly of no-names and cast-offs – quick, list three Tampa Bay Rays – Mahtook admits Detroit’s star-studded clubhouse has made for a fun change of scenery.
“Sometimes you kind of take a step back and think, ‘Wow, it’s pretty cool to play with guys that I grew up watching.’ I think the coolest part about being around those guys, especially if you don’t know them, is just to see their personalities and see what they’re like off the field,” Mahtook said. “You know how good of athletes and how good of baseball players they are, but you don’t really know how they are as people because you’re never around them.
“So for me, to see how down-to-earth and approachable they all are has been awesome.”
But Mahtook isn’t one to be awed — he’s used to awing others. Likewise, he isn’t one to back down from a challenge — he’d just as soon conquer it. So the idea of manning the vast outfield at Comerica Park certainly isn’t something he finds daunting.
“I think it’s exciting, to be honest with you. Growing up, every time we’ve played on a bigger field – bigger dimensions, bigger gaps – I’ve been more excited just because you have more room to run around and you don’t have to worry about running into the wall or running into the left fielder or the right fielder,” Mahtook said.
“I’m not intimidated by the big center field in Comerica. I’m excited for it.”