By: Will Burchfield
Somewhere Cameron Maybin is laughing — at the Tigers, at the analytics, at the people like me who said his 2016 season was a fluke.
Meanwhile, out in Seattle, Brad Ausmus is likely scratching his head, wrestling with what’s become a daily dilemma for his floundering team. Who should start tonight in center field? Andrew Romine? Mikie Mahtook? Alex Presley? Tyler Collins has already been voted off the island. JaCoby Jones, for the time being, has been too.
Don’t think Maybin hasn’t noticed. When asked a couple weeks ago if a small part of him is taking satisfaction in the team’s struggles at his former position, a small grin formed at the corners of his mouth. It quickly faded, but the implication remained.
“I mean, the grass isn’t always greener like we tend to think in this game sometimes,” said Maybin.
This wasn’t something he said in spite. Maybin had nothing but praise for his former team, nothing but love for his former teammates.
“It’s one of those things where I wish whoever they give the opportunity to the best,” Maybin said.
But his indulgence in the Tigers’ inability to replace him is easily understood. They dismissed his career year in 2016 as a one-off stroke of luck. Slowly but surely he’s proving them wrong.
Let’s back up, all the way to November of 2015. The Tigers grabbed Maybin in a trade with the Braves. He had one year and $8 million remaining on his contract, with a $9 million option for 2017. At the time, he was a career .251 hitter.
Said Tigers GM Al Avila this past offseason, “With Cameron Maybin it was very simple. When we acquired him we always felt it was gonna be a one-year deal and we were gonna move on with another center fielder.”
Then Maybin arrived in Detroit and became a spark plug in the Tigers everyday lineup. He was hitting the cover off the ball. He was energizing his teammates. Offense might not always be contagious, but enthusiasm most certainly is. Maybin was providing both in spades.
By season’s end, he had earned career-bests in both batting average (.315) and OPS (.801) — not to mention the affection of those around him. But the Tigers didn’t think his numbers were sustainable. They didn’t think his breakout was for real.
To be fair, it was hard to blame them. Maybin had a BABIP of .383 in 2016, well above league average and well above his career norm. His hard-contact rate was down, his soft-contact rate was up.
On top of those red flags, he was predictably dogged by injuries. Maybin’s always had a hard time staying healthy, and wrist and thumb issues limited him to just 94 games in 2016. (Even still, he produced the sixth-highest WAR on the team.)
Said Avila, “Granted he had a great year, probably the best year that he’s had in his entire career, but if you look at his entire career, those (were) one-year numbers. Based on the injury history and the risk of the contract, we felt that we would pass on him at this point.”
The Tigers shipped Maybin to the Angels early in the offseason, saving themselves money and opening the door for a defensive upgrade. That seemed to arrive when they acquired Mahtook a few months later.
“We feel from a defensive perspective, Mahtook is actually better,” said Avila. “If you look at the defensive metrics, and I’ve got my analytical staff here, they will tell you that (Maybin’s) defense is not great and that with Mahtook obviously the defense will be upgraded. That’s one aspect to look at.”
Again, the numbers backed the Tigers up. Maybin provided below-average defense in 2016, exposed in Comerica Park’s vast center field. His Ultimate Zone Rating of minus-6.9 was the fifth worst mark among center fielders with at least 700 innings played.
The metrics said much better things of Mahtook. What the Tigers were prepared to lose in Maybin’s offense, they figured to gain in his replacement’s defense. They’d chalk it up as a wash, and make gains elsewhere. It wasn’t a bad plan.
Here’s where things have gone awry.
Through the Tigers’ first 70 games, over which they are 32-38, Mahtook has started eight games in center field. The issue isn’t that Jones got the bulk of the playing time to start the year — he’s by far the team’s best defensive center fielder. And the issue isn’t really that the Tigers later sent him down to Triple-A in the name of his long-term development. The problem is who they’ve turned to instead.
Collins started 19 games in center before getting DFA’d last month. Romine has started 15. Presley has started 11. Then there’s Mahtook. If the Tigers trusted so heavily in the analytics in ditching Maybin, why haven’t they applied them in his wake?
In fairness, Mahtook has graded out poorly in center field in his first season as a Tiger. Maybe he’s not cut out for the sprawling Comerica Park. But his defensive numbers were favorable over his first two seasons in the majors, and the Tigers haven’t given him much of a chance to back them up.
Now back to Maybin.
Since a slow start to the season, including a stint on the 10-day D.L., he’s been every part the player he was in 2016 — and more. His average is up to .279 and his OPS is up to .813, the latter buoyed by 32 walks. He had 36 walks all of last season.
“That’s kind of how it has to be sometimes, you just grind until you get going,” Maybin said. “With that said, was still having quality at-bats, still managing to score a lot of runs and still drawing a lot of walks. Was doing a lot of little things right, just looking for balls to fall. Then they started falling, and everything looks right.”
That grin from before spread further across his face. It was defiant – I told you so – but also somewhat devious. On the Angels, Maybin seems to be playing baseball the way he loves it. Unshackled. Unapologetic. Havoc-wreakingly bold.
He has 21 stolen bases, which leads the American League, after swiping just 15 bags last year with the Tigers. Unsurprisingly, he’s already scored 43 runs, tops on his team. Angels manager Mike Scioscia has maximized Maybin’s talents in a way Ausmus never did. He already has a higher WAR this season (2.1) than last (2.0), despite having played 40 fewer games.
Had the Tigers given him more room to shine, it may not have been such an easy decision to let him go.
It should be noted the Angels were playing Maybin mostly in left field prior to losing Mike Trout, a luxury the Tigers wouldn’t have been able to afford. And Trout likely propped him up defensively when he was healthy. (“I like to think I’ve made his job easier too,” said Maybin.) If the Angels have smartly maximized his strengths, so have they been fortunate to minimize his weaknesses.
But maybe the Tigers overlooked something else with Maybin. Maybe their numbers-heavy evaluation discounted something intangible. Maybin is a fire-starter, his personality the spark, and boy if the Tigers don’t look sleepy without him.
“Those guys became my brothers last year and I’m still tight with most of them. I went over there and saw them (when the Angels were in Detroit earlier this month) and they let me know — even throughout this year, they miss my energy in the clubhouse,” Maybin said.
That’s the danger in taking players strictly for their numbers. That’s the fallacy in sabermetrics itself. It’s impossible to quantify the impact of Maybin’s personality, but it’s clear to see the Tigers are lacking without it.
If only they had let him prove his full value. If only they had given him more room to succeed. That’s the real shame in the situation at large.
If the Tigers had just loosened the reins on Maybin, maybe they wouldn’t have set him free.