By: Will Burchfield
Mikie Mahtook plays with the vim and vigor the Tigers have lacked for so much of this bland season.
“He’s a catalyst. He’s high-energy,” said Ian Kinsler, a heart-and-hustle guy himself. “He’s a lot of fun to play with and he’s a lot of fun to watch play.”
The Tigers didn’t have this pleasure, not on an everyday basis, until the middle of July. It was then, coming out of the All-Star Break, that Brad Ausmus committed to Mahtook as the team’s starting center fielder.
Since then, Mahtook has hit .333 with a .920 OPS and the Tigers have played — well, they’ve played better. Maybe even more inspired. For a team that sleepwalked through the first half, that’s meaningful.
It’s also tantalizing, in a frustrating kind of way. Had Mahtook been the Tigers’ everyday center fielder from the start, maybe this team wouldn’t be playing out the string.
“That’s a question for Brad,” said Kinsler.
(Told Ausmus would soon be asked, Kinsler laughed and said, “Good.”)
Ausmus doesn’t regret his sporadic use of Mahtook through the first half of the season. (Mahtook started just 32 of the Tigers’ first 86 games.) He doesn’t wonder how things might be different today.
“No, because his swing kind of came along. He had been working on it in spring training, and it actually probably worked out perfectly for him,” said Ausmus.
An oblique injury that Mahtook suffered in 2016 forced him into some bad habits at the plate. These carried over into 2017, and Mahtook was still trying to iron out the kinks when this season began. That required a lot of time in the cage with hitting coaches Lloyd McClendon and Leon Durham.
“We really worked on being more linear, not as much rotational, and just being athletic and letting my hands work,” Mahtook said.
Because he wasn’t playing every day, then splitting time in the outfield with the likes of Andrew Romine, Tyler Collins and Jim Adduci, Mahtook was able to hone his swing without worrying about his numbers.
“I think the platoon-type role early on worked well in allowing him to get those mechanics solidified,” said Ausmus.
Mahtook, 27, admits he wasn’t quite comfortable at the plate when the season began.
“Early on, the bad habits were still kind of there,” he said.
And he agrees, if reluctantly so, that his limited playing time over the first couple months was for the best.
“Obviously you wanna play everyday no matter what. You feel like you can go out there and compete and battle and be productive,” he said. “But being able to come here and work on stuff and really focus in on that without having to deal with failure on the field right away, I think that helped out.”
Things could have snowballed for Mahtook otherwise. Uncomfortable with the adjustments he’d made at the plate, he could have fallen back into his old ways. He could have ground his season into the dirt before it had a chance to get going.
He may not be where he is today.
The knock on Mahtook entering 2017 was that he couldn’t hit righties. Indeed, through the first half of the season, he started almost exclusively against lefties. But the changes he adopted with McClendon and Durham — namely, staying through the ball — have paid dividends.
Against righties this season, Mahtook is hitting .305 with a .790 OPS.
“I kept working, I kept going with it and I got to the point where it became second nature. The confidence came from me actually feeling it and knowing that I’m at a spot where I need to be, and trusting that with more reps and more opportunity it’ll all come together,” Mahtook said. “And it has.”
It’s just a shame for the Tigers that it didn’t come together sooner. With Mahtook in the everyday lineup, they look like a more stouthearted bunch. They’re 38-35 in games he has started this season, 14-26 in the rest.
In some ways, Mahtook has filled the role that the lively Cameron Maybin left behind.
“Yeah, a little bit,” said Kinsler. “I think comparing players is unfair, but Mikie brings energy every day. He’s excited to play the game and he has fun doing it. He shows emotion. The more players that we have like that the better.”
Mahtook talks a lot about playing the game the right away. This isn’t in regard to baseball’s unwritten rule book and staid old-school culture. It’s not about putting your head down after hitting a home run and quietly rounding the bases. It’s about effort. It’s about competing. It’s about sacrifice.
It’s about statements like this: “You win games here because you wanna play for the guys in the clubhouse,” Mahtook said earlier this year after giving up his body to make a splendid catch in the outfield. “To be able to come up with a play like that and have the guys meet me in the dugout, it was great. It’s something that obviously I hope I can do a lot more of.
“The guys in here give you the motivation to go dive into walls.”
Every team could use more players like that — the stale, aging Tigers especially so. There’s noting artificial about Mahtook’s spirit.
“It’s all natural, man. If you watched me play in high school or college, I played that exact same way,” he said. “I always had fun playing the game. Once you make it feel like a job you start putting too much stress on yourself. If you’re having fun and you’re enjoying everything, it’s kind of infectious. That’s just my personality. I’m glad that I’m able to show it here and I’m glad (my teammates) enjoy it.”
Mahtook wasn’t ready to help the Tigers when the season began. Now that he is, the season’s all but lost. If it’s a shame, it’s no one’s fault, and there’s no recovering the past.
But the future can always be improved, and the Tigers may have found a significant piece of theirs.