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Cameron Maybin's evolution is exactly what the Tigers needed

With Gose scuffling, and Maybin on fire, the trade looks better than ever.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Maybin never became the player the Tigers' hoped when they drafted him with the tenth overall pick in the 2015 draft. A solid MLB regular, sure. But not one of the top centerfielders in the game, as once seemed possible. Yet eleven years later, he's become the player they need, and right in the nick of time.

With Anthony Gose mired in a disastrous start to the season offensively, the Tigers' offense limped through a 1-9 road trip that appeared to have the season on the brink by mid-May. The Tigers called up Maybin on May 16 as they began a homestand against the Minnesota Twins. In the 26 games since, Maybin has done nothing but hit and run wild on the bases. The Tigers have responded by going 16-10, propelling themselves right back into the race for the Central division title.

In short, right when the Tigers were mired in a terrible slump and getting no production from the bottom half of batting order, Cameron Maybin saved the day. At very least he provided a lift to the team offensively that seemed to spark a modest turnaround. Now we're left to wonder just how long he can keep it going.

★ ★ ★

Season LD GB FB IFFB HR/FB Pull Center Oppo Soft Med Hard BABIP
2012 16.1 55.5 28.4 8.1 7.2 36.7 39.5 23.8 17.6 51.1 31.3 ..293
2014 17.0 57.2 25.8 16.0 2.0 37.8 38.8 23.5 23.5 47.4 29.1 ..297
2015 22.0 57.9 20.0 12.3 12.3 38.1 33.4 28.5 20.9 57.7 21.4 ..316
2016 20.3 59.5 20.3 6.7 6.7 35.9 30.8 33.3 25.6 52.6 21.8 ..421

Maybin has put together a thoroughly unreasonable line of .375/.433/.432 with a wRC+ of 142, with five stolen bases and a home run. He's already been worth 0.9 fWAR in three weeks of playing time. Anthony Gose is scuffling badly in Toledo, the Tigers are carrying 8 relievers, and Cameron Maybin is the Tigers full-time centerfielder, at least for the foreseeable future.

Maybin's production so far has been fueled by some serious good fortune on balls in play. He's a career .255 hitter who has never posted an average better than .267. His changes have been substantially less radical than his ludicrous batting average on balls in play, as well. By year's end you can expect his numbers to be far more pedestrian. But within the noise of his luck factor, is the evidence of real change a year in the making.

Simply put, Maybin is putting the ball on the ground more, and popping up less. He's giving up a lot less easy outs. Instead he's reduced his strikeouts, and at the same time is maximizing the type of contact most likely to leave him standing on base. So far this has come at the expense of the modest home run power he's typically possessed.

Maybin is red hot, but with only slight improvement in his swing rates both in and out of the strike zone. The real fairy dust is located in his zone contact, where he's connecting a cool 97.4 percent of the time. Something closer to 90 percent seems to be a more realistic target going forward. And he's getting about 10 percent more ground balls to go for hits that you'd expect.

Yet this isn't entirely a fluke.

As detailed in this piece from November, Maybin worked hard early in the 2015 season, making serious changes to his swing. He focused on staying inside the ball in order to keep his bat in the hitting zone longer. In addition he tried to make his swing more compact, reining in the long arms that too often left him reaching at pitches in pursuit of leverage and power. The result of this was one of the best stretches of Maybin's career before he faded out down the stretch.

To accomplish this, Atlanta Braves' hitting coach Kevin Seitzer had Maybin focus on driving the ball back up the middle and to right field. The purpose was to spray the ball on a line more consistently, avoiding over-extending his arms, and generally make more contact. Tigers' hitting coach Wally Joyner features a similar methodology, and as Maybin looks to ingrain those changes, he and Joyner should mesh well philosophically.

Maybin detailed the changes in an interview with Knox Bardeen of Foxsports.

"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."

The crux of this change, and where Maybin appears to have really figured it out, is in shortening his swing. He's no longer selling out for power at times, or trying to drive the ball in the air generally. Instead, Maybin has really leveled out his swing path, and is flashing a quick, compact stroke that allows him time to see the ball a bit longer and stay on it.

The Tigers are reaping the results of Maybin putting the ball in play more. While it would nice to see a little more power, the Tigers have plenty to spare. Anyone able to get on base and run is more than welcome to. The Tigers have the bats to drive them in.

Meanwhile, Tigers GM, Al Avila, is looking pretty shrewd at the moment for a trade that cost the Tigers very little, and has produced a lot. We're only a month into Maybin's second tenure in a Tigers uniform, and he already feels like an indispensable element of the team.

That's where the Tigers need to be careful.

There are reasons to buy into a legitimate improvement in the contact Maybin is making. Yet there isn't the added component of exit velocity to support it. Maybin is actually hitting the ball a little softer overall than is normal for him. Perhaps that will change, but right now he's basically a walking pain in the butt for opposing pitchers. Everything he hits on the ground finds a hole. His bloopers fall in. The bleeders cause performances of the Keystone Cops to break out among defenders. It won't last.

Maybin is going to come down to Earth. And when he does, a sharper eye is going to be fixed on his defense. So far, Maybin has made it a moot point, but he stills appears to be the below average defender they saw in Atlanta last season. He also has a lengthy injury history that should concern a Tigers organization that currently has just one answer in centerfield. At some point this season, that position is going to become a concern again. Count on that.

But right now? Enjoy the ride. Maybin is playing a different style of baseball than he used to, and the Tigers are loving every minute of it.