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Better know a Tiger: Rajai Davis

The Tigers signed Rajai Davis to platoon in left field and add speed on the bases. Will he now become the regular left fielder?

Rajai Davis dons the Tigers' uniform for 2014 and changes the look of the team
Rajai Davis dons the Tigers' uniform for 2014 and changes the look of the team
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Rajai Davis is beginning his ninth year in the major leagues but his first with Detroit.  He is the poster boy for the new look offense, de-emphasizing power and diversifying the offense with speed.

Baseball goes through swings in offensive output - the deadball era, the high offense of the 1930's, the pitching dominated 1960's.  As we emerge from the steroid era, where runs were plentiful and outs precious, we are returning to a more historically normal level of run production.  The Tigers were second in runs scored last year with 796 runs and scored ten or more runs 18 times.  But they were shutout 12 times, above the American League average of 10.5. Such was the peril of an all-or-nothing offense.

In the regular season the Tigers averaged 4.9 runs per game but dropped to 3.2 runs per game in the postseason.  When runs are at a premium, it makes sense to take more chances and give up some outs.

In the playoffs, they too often could not score one run when needed.  They lost four postseason games by one run, and two of those were 1-0 games that Verlander dominated.  The Tigers saw their need to improve at manufacturing a run.  Rather than develop a speedster like the Reds have with Billy Hamilton, or bring Quintin Berry back, the Tigers signed Rajai Davis.

Rajai Davis' background is all Connecticut baseball.  He began with Little League in Willimantic, and high school and summer ball in New London.  He played college ball at University of Connecticut at Avery Point, and summer ball with the Middletown Giants of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.  The Pirates selected him in the 38th round of the 2001 draft.

Rajai began his minor league career at age 20 and took a long path to the majors.  He was typically old for his level, had a batting average around .300, and not much power.  After six years the Pirates promoted him to the majors.  He has since bounced around with stops in San Francisco, Oakland, and Toronto.

The Tigers won the 1935 World Series with Gee Walker and Jo Jo White in a platoon.  The 2013 Boston Red Sox frequently platooned Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava in left field.  The platoon was invented for players like Rajai Davis, whose past three years platoon splits are dramatic.

Versus left-handed pitching:

2011 38 90 .288 .367 .463 167
2012 69 165 .285 .345 .437 127
2013 55 128 .319 .383 .474 149

Versus right-handed pitching:

2011 75 248 .221 .239 .313 77
2012 111 322 .243 .290 .348 86
2013 88 232 .228 .273 .321 73

His performance against left-handed pitching is worthy of a corner outfield spot.  Davis can also swipe a base, with 268 career stolen bases and a reasonable 80% success rate.  He had only ten infield hits and one bunt hit last year, so this is not another (healthy) Jose Iglesias-style hitter.  He can hit lefties, run, and play some defense.  He just cannot hit righties to save his life.

For comparison, Don Kelly's career line against righties is a superior .235 / .295 / .362. Quintin Berry's is .277 / .357 / .372, which puts both to shame.

Contract Status

Davis is signed for two years at $5 million per year.  He turns 35 in October of next year.  If used appropriately he should earn his money this year.  With speed being a significant part of his game, age may catch up with him before the contract expires.

Keys to Success

Rajai needs to play against left-handed pitching.  The Tigers are likely to push it further by evaluating which right-handers he stands a chance with.  Does he do better against fastballs or breaking balls?  Does he hit ground ball pitchers or fly ball pitchers better?  The Tigers faced a starting southpaw in 31% of the games last year, and in 32% of plate appearances.  They will be tempted to play Davis more often, as have his previous employers, but he should be restricted to starting against lefties and pinch running in late innings of other close games.

Odd Numbers

1:  Rajai Davis ranked first among leftfielders in errors in 2012, and third among centerfielders in 2009.  He has also ranked high in range factor and assists.  He uses his speed to get to a lot of balls, but it can be an adventure when he arrives.  He adds to the Tigers' collection of outfielders who have played center field, typically the sign of a good defensive corner outfielder.  Pending Dirks' replacement, the Tigers' have shed all of the Brennan Boesch and Dmitri Young types who lacked range.

2014 Outlook

Rajai will help change the character of the Tigers' offense and win some close games.  But with Dirks out with injury, and Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter likely to need a break, Davis will play more than 100 games.