Rajai Davis gave the Tigers the speed they needed in 2014. Davis finished the season with 36 stolen bases, one more than the collective total for the Tigers in 2013. He provided the club with an X factor on the basepaths, creating offense and wreaking havoc where ordinarily there was none. Yet his stolen base count was also the lowest since 2009 with 100-or-more games played.
Davis played for four teams prior to joining the Tigers. He split time between two teams in single seasons with every team except the Blue Jays, whom he was with for three seasons. It wasn't until he was traded to the Oakland Athletics from the San Francisco Giants in 2008 that Davis logged more than 100 games in a single season.
Since 2008, Davis had played in less than 100 games just once, in 2011 when he appeared for 95 with the Blue Jays, stealing 34 bases. Every other season, Davis not only played more than 100 games as an outfielder, but he also stole more than 40 bases. Regardless of what team he played for, Davis has been consistent on the basepaths.
Going into the 2014 season, Davis' personal goal was to steal 50 bases. He'd finished the 2013 season with 45 stolen bases and had 46 in 2012 for the Blue Jays. Finishing well shy of his goal in 2014, Davis reflected late in the season on why he thought his numbers were down.
"Different dynamics of the team, we got a lot more guys who are driving in runs on this team so I'm not having as many opportunities," Davis said at the end of August. "Then, when I get the opportunities, we have really good hitters behind us. So the risk and reward, the risk is kind of a little too much compared to the reward."
While it didn't necessarily prevent Davis from being aggressive on the bases, it did mean more factors needed to be taken into consideration before he could steal a base. That included the dynamics of his new team, one that wasn't used to stealing bases so liberally as they finished dead last in the majors for stolen bases in 2013.
By coming to the Tigers, Davis transitioned from the American League East Division to the AL Central. That may not seem unique by itself but Davis said there was still a difference, noticing that teams were paying attention to him more in the AL Central than when he was in the AL East.
"They're (pitchers) not as willing to be so deliberately slow," Davis said. "Slower going to the plate — as opposed to, they were in the past years."
Overall, the game had a different feel in 2014 for Davis. His mindset didn't change offensively, but the decisions he made required more thought and "wisdom," where before Davis said he didn't have to put as much thought into stealing a base.
As a result of that hesitancy, Davis was caught stealing 11 times, although a 23 percent caught stealing rate in 134 games isn't awful. The league average success rate for stealing bases was 74 percent in 2014.
The season was a success when looking at the league average and what the Tigers had neglected to accomplish before, but it wasn't enough for Davis. While his stolen base counts were down this season, however, the time he spent in the outfield, specifically center field, gave him the chance to work on increasing his speed.
"I'm only getting faster because I'm running more," Davis said at the time. "And I thank (God) for allowing me to run more. That's always nice. Also, getting good sleep because I'm tired after I run."
How that will play into the 2015 season has yet to be determined, but Davis will continue to lead the outfield (and the team) as a threat to opposing teams on the basepaths. Yoenis Cespedes is seen as an above-average base runner but had just seven stolen bases to show for it in 2014. Despite his defensive speed, Anthony Gose finished with 15 stolen bases for the Blue Jays last season, and J.D. Martinez was equally cemented, with only six to his name.
The Tigers' defense no longer looks like a gaping hole in the outfield on paper, but there will be times where manager Brad Ausmus may need to balance that with offensive speed. With Davis and Gose likely splitting time in center field, where Davis feels most comfortable, Davis' numbers shouldn't drastically decrease. For Davis to remain a threat, however, he will need to capitalize on opportunities in 2015, even if there isn't as much playing time to go around.