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Rajai Davis could be a valuable part-time outfielder in 2015

With Yoenis Cespedes in one corner and J.D. Martinez in the other, Rajai Davis could be scrambling for playing time in 2015.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

When the Tigers signed Rajai Davis as a free agent before the 2014 season, the plan was to platoon him with Andy Dirks in left field. Injuries left Dirks on the disabled list for the entire season, and Davis immediately became a full-time starter. Even the emergence of J.D. Martinez as one of the better hitters in the Tigers’ lineup couldn't prevent Davis from logging nearly 500 plate appearances for the season, more than any Tigers outfielder not named Torii Hunter.

The trade that sent Austin Jackson to the Mariners opened the door for Davis to get regular playing time in center field. Defensively, he was actually better in center than he was in left, but that's not saying much. Despite his great speed, he was a liability in the outfield, posting a -8.9 UZR overall. He was also worth -11 defensive runs saved. In center field, he was only a bit below league average, where he is about average over his career.

Fast forward to the present, where J.D. Martinez is entrenched in right field and Yoenis Cespedes in left. Anthony Gose is being touted as the starting centerfielder. This configuration would leave Davis as the odd man out, or at best the lesser part of a platoon partner for Gose. However, Davis does have some extreme platoon splits that hold up over time.

Against left-handed pitchers, Davis is a very productive hitter who needs to be in the lineup. Davis mashed the ball even better against southpaws in 2014 relative to his career numbers, posting an average of .356 and a wOBA of .408, which was ninth in the league against left-handers. Here are their platoon splits.

Career vs left handed pitchers
Player PA Avg OBP Slg OPS wOBA wRC+* UZR/150**
Davis 1039 .304 .358 .408 .727 .353 120 0.0 (CF)
Gose 133 .208 .246 .267 .513 .230 38 +13.6

* Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) measures the weighted run production of a player calibrated to a scale where 100 is league average.
** Ultimate Zone rating per 150 games projects the number of runs that a player will save or cost his team vs the average defensive player at his position over the course of 150 games played. Only center field numbers are used for Rajai Davis.

Career vs Right handed pitchers
Player PA Avg OBP Slg OPS wOBA wRC+ UZR/150
Davis 2095 .254 .296 .349 .645 .286 74 0.0 (CF)
Gose 483 .241 .316 .350 .666 .299 85 +13.6

The main attribute that Gose brings to the team is his defense. Davis could even be removed for a defensive replacement when he does start. It is difficult to justify starting Davis in center field against right-handed pitchers. Gose improved on his career on-base numbers in 2014 with a .329 on-base percentage against right-handers. Maybe he's not the ideal leadoff man, but Gose's superior offensive and defensive numbers easily make him the better option of the two players against right-handers.

The main asset that Davis brings to the team — along with the ability to hit left handed pitchers — is his speed. His 36 stolen bases ranked third in the American League in 2014, and were more than the entire Tigers roster recorded in 2013. Gose also has speed to burn, with 15 steals of his own in 20 attempts in a part-time role in 2014. On days when Davis is in the lineup, the Tigers will still have a valuable pinch-runner available to insert as needed.

Where does that leave Davis? If manager Brad Ausmus uses the platoon to maximize production, Davis would start in center field against left-handed pitchers and be removed for a defensive replacement when the Tigers have a lead in the late innings. He would not start against right-handed pitchers, but would be available as a pinch hitter or runner, which could generate some instant offense on the bases in a critical situation.