By Will Burchfield
The Tigers had a question mark in center field throughout the offseason and they still have one today, nearly 40 games into the 2017 campaign.
“We’re gonna pull names out of a hat every day and we’ll see who’s out there,” Brad Ausmus said on Tuesday afternoon.
He was kidding, of course, but his joke was indicative of the team’s lack of talent at one of the most important positions on the ball field.
The Tigers began the season with the uber-athletic JaCoby Jones in center, but he was sent to Triple-A Toledo on a rehab assignment in April and hasn’t been back since. The depth chart now consists of the lefty-hitting Tyler Collins, the righty-hitting Mikie Mahtook and the switch-hitting Andrew Romine.
“We’re just gonna mix and match,” Ausmus said. “Mahtook’s probably gonna get the bulk (of starts) against left-handers and then maybe some combination of Romine and Collins against right-handers. We’ll mix and match, we’ll see who’s swinging the bat well, we’ll see who’s defending well. It’ll be a day by day.”
None of the aforementioned players have been all that good offensively this season, Jones included. Collins is hitting .226 with a .617 OPS over 102 plate appearances, Romine is hitting .230 with a .693 OPS over 97 plate appearances and Mahtook is hitting .184 with a .578 OPS over 42 plate appearances. Jones, over 45 plate appearances before being sent down, was hitting .150 with a .544 OPS.
What’s more, the righty-lefty splits don’t favor any of them to a considerable degree. (Mahtook, in fact, is hitting more than 120 percentage points lower against lefties than righties.) Whoever the Tigers pencil in as their center fielder, offense is going to be in low supply.
Aren’t they best served, then, by playing their strongest defensive option, the offensive ramifications be damned?
“It’s not always cut and dried. If there’s a big gap in ability defensively it might be cut and dried, but I don’t there there’s a huge gap between those guys as defenders,” Ausmus said, referring to Romine, Collins and Mahtook. “If you had a premium defender in center field you might put him out there regardless of right-handed or left-handed starter, but I don’t know if there’s that much of a gap defensively between those three guys.”
He’s right. There isn’t. (The advanced stats say Mahtook is the best of the three, but Tuesday night’s game versus Baltimore represents his first start in center of the season.) But there is a big gap between those three and Jones, whose UZR/150 rating of 28.3 leads all American League center fielders who have logged at least 100 innings. (In effect, Jones saves more run per game on defense than any of his A.L. counterparts.)
“He’s probably our best defender in center field, but I think Romine is a very good defender as well. I think out of the guys we have right now Romine’s probably the better defender but it’s not a huge gap between the best of the three and the worst of three,” said Ausmus.
Jones is more than the Tigers’ best defender in center field; he may well be the best in the league. Yes, there are issues of sample size this early in the season, but Jones’ high defensive rating is based primarily on his range. That’s not a fluke. If the Tigers’ new emphasis on analytics is for real and if they’re looking for “a premium defender in center field” before committing to someone everyday, then what’s Jones doing in Toledo?
“He needs to get some at-bats,” Ausmus said.
Since beginning a rehab assignment with the Mud Hens on April 29, Jones is hitting .250 with a .705 OPS over 60 at-bats. Those are hardly numbers to write home about, but consider what the trio of Romine, Collins and Mahtook has provided in the same time frame.
Romine: .200 AVG, .717 OPS (42 PAs)
Collins: .091 AVG, .413 OPS (39 PAs)
Mahtook: .200 AVG, .500 OPS (10 PAs)
The Tigers aren’t going to get much offense from their center fielders, no matter how much they mix and match based on the opposing pitcher. To make up for that, they need to make gains on defense. Jones is the answer — it’s cut and dried.
Unfortunately, he’s stuck in Toledo.