The Detroit Tigers' trade for Cameron Maybin was met with a collective shrug by much of the fanbase. While Maybin is a solid option defensively and will steal a few bases, there were equivalent options like Rajai Davis and Austin Jackson, also former Tigers, available on the free agent market. At first glance, there's little to recommend Maybin over the other two. In fact, Jackson and Maybin appear identical in overall value at this point. So what tipped this decision for the Tigers' front office?
The first reason may simply involve long-term roster construction. After the Atlanta Braves kick in $2.5 million in 2016, Maybin will cost a very reasonable $5.5 million next season. While he is due to make a cool $9 million in 2017, his contract has a buyout option for just $1 million should Anthony Gose show improvement, or if a prospect like Wynton Bernard proves himself a capable replacement over the course of the 2016 season. Signing Davis or Jackson may not have cost much more, but the Tigers would be locked into a multi-year deal for a very marginal player. For a franchise pushing the upper reaches of its budget, these are the minor concerns the numbers themselves appear to represent.
Another benefit to adding Maybin is his flexibility. Davis has struggled mightily at times in left field, and his plummeting stolen base totals the past two seasons may speak to him finally losing some of his notorious speed. Neither Jackson nor Maybin has seen much time in left field, but the Tigers may believe Maybin is the more versatile of the two, and better suited to move between the two positions depending on how well others are handling their responsibilities, both defensively and at the plate. While the defensive stats we have don't support this, Statcast (or other statistical measures not available to the public) may be making those metrics obsolete.
Possibly the most damning factor in this trade, among those who aren't feeling it, rests in Maybin's inability to mash left-handed pitching. As a potential platoon partner for either Gose or Tyler Collins, a player who doesn't hit lefties well seems like a very peculiar choice. For his career, Maybin has an 80 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, compared to a 93 wRC+ against right-handers. By contrast, Jackson and Davis have a long track record of above-average hitting against left-handed pitching.
Thus far, you may be preparing a stiff drink, wondering if there's a silver lining in here somewhere. Perhaps there is. Maybin's 2015 was his best offensive season since 2011. After several injury-plagued years in San Diego, Maybin came out and posted some of the better numbers of his career from April to June. His strikeout and walk rates took a huge jump in the right directions, and by mid-season it appeared as though he was on his way to a modest breakout at the plate. This didn't come out of nowhere, but instead was the result of a substantial swing change and an altered approach at the plate.
The Braves hired Kevin Seitzer to become their new hitting coach heading into the 2015 season. Maybin, a compulsive note-taker, made real changes implementing Seitzer's philsophy into his swing. Seitzer is a big advocate of spraying the ball and basing one's approach around driving the ball back up the middle. In batting practice, he went so far as to make each hitter drive five balls off the protection screen on the mound before completing their sessions.
The changes went beyond approach to the core of Maybin's swing. Knox Mardeen of FOX Sports had these quotes from Maybin in May of 2015.
"I'm long," said Maybin. "I've got long limbs and long arms and one of the things they've really, really tried to focus on me with is making sure I keep my arms; keep my levers short. I had a tendency to arm bar at times, I still do it, but [I'm working now] to really keep my arms close to my body, being short, continue to be athletic."
For the 6'3 Maybin, that meant reining in the long limbs that sometimes make his swing too long. Maybin and Seitzer worked on a more compact approach, keeping Maybin's upper arms close to his body, allowing him to take the ball up the middle and to the opposite field with leverage much more effectively than before. In that first few months, there were promising results, particularly as these changes were being made with the season already underway.
The problem with a half season of data is that it's a very small sample to base any judgement on. You need very strong peripheral numbers to argue that an actual change has occurred in a player's abilities. Too often, a player looks on the verge of a taking a step forward, only to collapse back to Earth. This happened to Maybin, who began to struggle even before he suffered a scratched cornea in late August. He tried to play through it, but eventually missed time and cratered in his production in September. Still, a look at his batted ball profile does show some distinct changes.
Maybin posted the highest line drive rate and lowest fly ball rate of his career, along with a distinct uptick in balls hit to the opposite field. These are good things. He made better contact within the strike zone as well.
These changes fit well with the Tigers' philosophy under hitting coach Wally Joyner, who preaches a similar approach. Joyner also advocates spraying the ball to all fields, particularly for speedy baserunners who aren't there to hit for a ton of power. It seems likely that the Tigers like the fit between Maybin's attempts to evolve his approach and the instruction Joyner is best at providing.
The question is whether we'll see more tangible results in 2016. Thus far Maybin had very meager success in cashing in on his swing changes and refined approach. During the first half of the 2015 season, it looked like he may be well on his way. Whether or not it was all a mirage may depend on how much he was hampered by the eye injury and perhaps the grind of playing through another miserable season from a team perspective.