So far this season, not enough attention has been paid to the outfield’s collective subpar performance. Part of that is because of Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan’s disappointing seasons. Part of that is also because of J.D. Martinez’s recent hot streak. Still, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Rajai Davis have not been performing as well as the Tigers need them to if they are going to accomplish their goals this season.
Jackson, two seasons removed from 5 wins above replacement, per Fangraphs, is hitting .249 with three home runs, good for a wRC+ of 88 (league average is 100). Some were hoping that this year Jackson — who is slotted lower in the order and therefore without the pressure to get on base in front of Cabrera — would come into his own as a complete hitter. That hasn't happened, and manager Brad Ausmus has recently attempted to switch things up by slotting Jackson in the two-hole. What’s worse? Fangraphs isn't a fan of Jackson’s defense in center, putting him at three runs below average, the worst mark of his career.
Hunter, also two years removed from 5 WAR, has been a bigger part of the problem. Despite an on-base percentage of .290, Hunter’s highest isolated power since 2010 has buoyed his wRC+ to 99. Hunter’s problem has been his defense which Fangraphs pegs at 16.6 runs below average, the worst mark in the major leagues regardless of position. To put that in perspective, Alex Gordon leads the majors with 15.6 defensive runs above average; Hunter is worse defensively than Gordon is good.
Davis has probably been the best of the three despite coming into the season with the lowest expectations. He’s hitting .279 and has muscled out five home runs despite having a career high of just eight and has put up a wRC+ 105. Davis’s above average wRC+ has been sustained mainly from an impressive April where he slashed .348/.410/.464 AVG/OBP/SLG, but so far in June he’s fallen back to Earth hitting .224/.255/347. Unfortunately, Davis has also had a problem defensively as he’s currently 6.8 runs below average per Fangraphs, and unlike Jackson and Hunter, defensive ineptitude is not a new thing for him.
The three of them have combined for a minus 0.1 WAR so far this year. Unfortunately, the Tigers don’t have many other options.
Of course, J.D. Martinez has certainly earned his recent playing time. His 156 wRC+ is second on the team behind Victor Martinez, and he’s been close to league average defensively. Yet, as much of a surprise as J.D. Martinez has been this season, his peripherals raise some concerns. Martinez has collected close to 1,100 plate appearances in his career, and this year his batting average on balls in play is up 56 points above his career average, and his isolated power is 132 points above his career average. Martinez is walking 5.1 percent of the time while striking out 26.5 percent of the time. Martinez, however, has certainly won playing time for the time being. Rob Rogacki recently wrote an article looking at Martinez’s minor league numbers and concluded that Martinez may be here to stay. But even if he does, he only fills one of three outfield spots. There’s still a chance that by August Martinez’s stat line will be closer to his 2013 performance of a 73 wRC+ and 11.4 defensive runs below average across 310 plate appearances.
Even the most ardent Don Kelly supporters likely won’t suggest Kelly as a full-time option in the outfield. He hit .316 in April, but so far in April he’s slugged .190. His 73 wRC+ and 1.1 defensive runs below average make him the most likely candidate to be removed from the 25-man roster when Andy Dirks returns.
It is, however, impossible to know exactly when Dirks will return or whether or not he will be effective when he does. As long as Dirks is OK with the bat, he’ll be a strong candidate for playing time due to his glove. He was 5.3 defensive runs above average last year. If Dirks posted the same numbers at the plate as Hunter, he’d be worth more than 2 WAR above Hunter because of his defensive contributions.
In the minors, Ezequiel Carrera is the best candidate for playing time in Detroit. His 12 percent walk rate has his on-base percentage over .400. Unfortunately, he doesn't offer much power. Simply put, the Tigers will not be calling Carrera up to take playing time away from Jackson, Hunter, or Davis.
The trade market doesn’t have many options either. Limiting the Tigers search to just teams with a 10 percent chance or less of making the playoffs according to Fangraphs, the best options are names like Josh Willingham of the Twins or Seth Smith of the Padres. Neither are good defenders, and while both would be upgrades, neither would be real game changers in Detroit.
It’s hard to paint a picture in which the Tigers can make a World Series run without Jackson, Hunter and Davis picking it up. Detroit has rookies on the left side of the infield replacing veteran names like Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, and Miguel Cabrera isn’t having the year he had last year. These three outfielders, especially Jackson and Hunter, have the capability to give this Detroit offense the firepower it so desperately needs.