While there were not many changes between 2015 and 2016 in the Detroit Tigers’ infield, the outfield was not nearly as familiar. Gone were both Yoenis Cespedes and Rajai Davis, and in their place came Justin Upton and Cameron Maybin. The 2015 season saw the Tigers’ outfield rank in the top 10 in wRC+, DRS, UZR, and fWAR, but with a new cast, question marks were carried into the start of the season. Could the Tigers maintain this level of production from the outfield?
One season later, the answer is not so clear cut. The Tigers’ outfielders did do very well offensively, ranking in the top five in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and fourth overall with a 105 wRC+. However, the defense took a major step back and fell into the bottom 10 in both Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). As a result, the unit ranked 12th with 20.2 fWAR.
Fittingly, all three starters had individual successes and struggles as well. Two had significant injury woes, and the other had an extremely up-and-down season. Though the numbers ultimately looked good at the end of the day, the Tigers’ outfield was far from steady in 2016.
From the moment Upton was signed last offseason, the new left fielder had large expectations in front of him. He was tasked with following an excellent season by Cespedes on both sides of the ball, and his signing pushed the Tigers over the luxury tax line which they were assumed to stay south of. Naturally, Upton experienced the worst two-month stretch imaginable to begin his tenure.
There is no way around just how bad Upton was during April and May. His .217 average, .264 OBP, and 54 wRC+ were hard to fully comprehend, and his 36.5 percent strikeout rate was beyond frustrating. Thankfully, he was able to turn the corner and actually have a productive rest of the season. Upton wound up tying a career high in homers, added nine stolen bases, and he was hitting at a 128 wRC+ pace during the last four months.
One big change during the year was in Upton’s plate discipline. During a tear from August onward, his strikeout rate was down to 25.7 percent, compared to a 10.3 percent walk rate. With 18 homers and a 144 wRC+ during the last two months, Upton showed promising signs for next season. His contract will cause the bar to be set high again, but all arrows are pointing up entering 2017.
For a player bothered by injuries his whole career, 2016 was far too similar for Maybin. The Tigers center fielder played in just 94 games and missed time due to a whole host of injuries. When he was healthy, Maybin was excellent. He spent most of his time at the top of the lineup and excelled in this role, posting a .315 average and .383 on-base percentage. With four homers and 15 steals, he had a strong overall offensive numbers that culminated in a 120 wRC+.
Maybin logged career highs in many areas, although his .383 BABIP implies that some of his success was a bit out of the ordinary. But either way, he was badly missed by the Tigers when hurt, and the team posted a record under .500 without him. Like Upton, Maybin was not great defensively, but he was good enough at the plate for a positive fWAR that would have been higher without all of his injuries.
The offseason had barely started before Maybin was traded, and the Tigers will look elsewhere to fill his spot in 2017. Maybin had a solid season with Detroit, but his health was just too much of a liability to justify his contract going forward. Still, it is unlikely that any internal options will be able to match his production next season.
Since joining the Tigers, J.D. Martinez has been absolutely ridiculous. He has hit a total of 83 home runs over three seasons with a .299 batting average and a 143 wRC+. 2016 was nothing different for the right fielder, and if it was not for injury, his numbers would be even more impressive. While he had a small dip early on in the season, it is hard to nitpick anything that he did at the plate.
Martinez was once again lethal with his bat, and his 142 wRC+ ranked 12th among all qualified batters and fourth among outfielders. His 9.5 percent walk rate was the best in his career, as was his .373 on-base percentage. However, his defensive regression was alarming. A year after posting good DRS and UZR figures, Martinez basically fell off of a cliff in 2016. He was the second-worst defender out of 54 qualified outfielders in both metrics, causing his fWAR to sit at just 1.8.
Regardless of his defense, Martinez is an extremely valuable corner outfielder, and the Tigers could very well trade him before they must ink him to a large deal. Whether or not it happens during this offseason remains to be seen, but it sure would be fun to watch Martinez for at least one more season in Detroit.
Because of the injuries to Maybin and Martinez, a few other Tigers found some time in the outfield in 2016. Tyler Collins played in 56 games, but did not jump off of the page offensively. His 8.6 percent walk rate helped him maintain a .305 on-base percentage, and he tallied four homers on the season. Fans might not be too thrilled with him because of his April on-field outburst, but Collins could wind up seeing a good chunk of playing time in 2017.
The clock is quickly winding down on Steven Moya, and the Tigers will need to make a decision on his future. No one will ever doubt his power — Moya hit five homers in 31 games in 2016 — but his inability to get on base is troubling. His 38 percent strikeout rate is too hard to hide and his defense is even worse than the other outfielders on the roster. Moya’s 106 wRC+ was good, but he will have to do a lot more to earn a permanent spot.
The 2016 season was one to forget for Anthony Gose. During 30 games in April and May, he hit just .209 with a .287 on-base percentage and a 69 wRC+. He was sent down to Triple-A Toledo where he ended up fighting with management and was demoted to Double-A Erie. Gose will get a shot at the center field job in 2017, and he has the talent and the experience to take spot, but he has a lot to prove both on the field and in the clubhouse.