DETROIT — Even with 10 years of major league experience, Rajai Davis has struggled, defensively. Being bounced around as a platoon player doesn't typically stabilize what is roughly sub-average level defensive ability. Last year and for most of the first half of 2015, it was a particular struggle, and he grew tired of the issue. So, rather than be a liability for the Detroit Tigers, Davis decided to improve.
Davis, 34, went to teammate Anthony Gose, 10 years his junior, for help. No one asked him to. But Davis, finally solidified in a center field platoon on the Tigers, was done being the weak link in the outfield. At least, to the degree that he's been. While he has significant speed, his defensive routes left much to be desired, and ability to read a ball off a bat were lacking. And you didn't need defensive metrics to tell you that; the eye test did just fine.
For Gose, having Davis come to him for advice was odd. Not that he didn't appreciate it, and he has been more than happy to help. It was just unexpected. Gose admitted at the time that he was unsure if he was truly helping Davis defensively, but he didn't shy away from the challenge.
"It's kind of awkward," Gose said. "I mean, awkward talking about it. Talking with him I don't feel uncomfortable at all but when someone asks me it's weird. It doesn't bother me. It just feels weird."
One of the problems Gose found was Davis was trying too hard. He was thinking about it too much. On deeper fly balls, Davis would lose sight of the ball, and once that happened, he was unable to pick a ball back up. Hits happened. Not errors. But you could see that his routes were bad. For Davis, it felt a lot like losing the ability to steal a base. The less he would practice and use the skill, the quicker he would lose it, and the worse his routes became.
It got frustrating, like he was losing a part of himself on the field. There have been times when Davis had to sub for either Yoenis Cespedes in left, or J.D. Martinez in right. Areas that he's less comfortable with because of the corners, and spots that he wouldn't give as much time to because he's now predominantly platooned in center. It's a discomfort that stems for a bad collision with a wall years ago. Not that it was an excuse, but the inadequacy was what led Davis to get Gose's help in the first place. He didn't want there to be any excuse.
When Gose goes after a ball, he first judges it by how it leaves the hitter's bat. He keeps the ball in front of him, and only after he's able to accurately determine where the ball is headed does he alter his direction. This, of course, all happens in a matter of split seconds, the result of natural instincts that come easily to Gose. But they're still basic enough that Davis should have been doing them. Except, he wasn't.
"One thing I said was you can take your eye off the ball, but you wanna make sure you know where you're running," Gose said. "Only thing I told him was you wanna keep the ball in front of you. The over-the-head catch, the amazing catch, that's the hardest catch in baseball. When you take your eye off the ball and then you go to look back, you always wanna make sure the ball's in front of you, so you can adjust to it."
But like everything, the adjustments came with trial and error. On July 1, during Alfredo Simon's last start before the MLB All-Star Game, Davis had what was one of his worst defensive games of the year. Maybe longer. It was bad and Davis acknowledged this. And the thing of it was, he wasn't charged with an error in the game, because he wasn't close enough for any of the misplays to be considered errors. But after that game, Davis improved defensively.
While Davis has started in just four games since July 1, as Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is remaining almost exclusively with a lefty-righty platoon situation, when he's on the field, he has shown improvement -- including as a late defensive replacement. His routes are more direct, he's keeping his eye on the baseball, and when ground balls careen off the wall, Davis is cutting them off, instead of chasing after them.
Monday night was a good example of this. Gose cut off a ball in the top of the second, limiting Mariners' Seth Smith to a double, in what would've formerly been a triple. After the game, Davis noted that he finally felt comfortable. There was a confidence there that hadn't been there all year. And he wasn't thinking as much, which was another thing that Gose had told Davis.
"The biggest thing that I told him was act like he was stealing a base," Gose said. "He doesn't ever think when he's stealing a base, don't ever try and force anything. So, I try and relate it to something that he's really passionate about and something that he's really good at. I think that will help him."
So far it has. Now it's up to Davis to fine tune what he and Gose have been working on. And the options are limited. Either during batting practice shagging fly balls, or during actual games. And lately, the games have been scarce to come by what with the platoon situation. So, Davis is working diligently to improve when he can.
That doesn't mean that Davis won't have an off day. Nor does it mean he'll suddenly become a Gold Glove defender. But at least Davis can eliminate some of the weakness that has previously been present when he starts.
"Gose is giving me some great advice with playing center field," Davis remarked. "I'm learning, too, on the fly, and I'm still learning. Sometimes you can't take your eye off the ball. I'm learning I can't do that, cause I've done it in the past and been OK with it. But it seems like now, I'm trying not to take my eyes off the ball, and just keep my eyes on the ball and I'll be able to see it better."