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Al Avila has a steal to his credit in Mikie Mahtook

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Mahtook’s ongoing breakout looks like the real thing.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

When Detroit Tigers’ General Manager, Al Avila, traded for Mikie Mahtook in January, the news elicited little beyond a shrug from observers. In need of a center fielder, they instead got a 27 year old former prospect whose defensive abilities in center field were in question. The cost was only a decent relief prospect in Drew Smith. But here we are, in late August, and Mahtook is enjoying a very nice season as the Tigers’ regular center fielder. Score one for Avila.

The question is whether this is real and sustainable, or just a product of a fierce hot streak over the summer that appears to be cooling. Tigers’ fans know to keep expectations in check. But as a supremely frustrating season grinds toward conclusion, Mahtook has shined through as one of season’s best stories.

A key feature of Mahtook’s game is that he doesn’t do anything badly. He’s got a reasonably well rounded tool kit, a quality that will endear you to Tigers’ fans. He can run, though he’s not really a base stealing threat. He’ll hit for some power, and his arm is enough for center field. He’ll probably never wow out there, but in a very modest sample of innings with the Rays and Tigers, he appears to be a roughly average center fielder, which is an upgrade over Maybin’s defensive abilities at the position.

He’s already a solid guy to have around. For him to be more than that, his improvements with the bat will have to be proved out.

The basic indicators are in Mahtook’s favor to a modest degree. While a walk rate of 6.3 percent isn’t good, it’s bordering on respectable and represents the best rate of his three partial seasons in the majors. Likewise, he’s brought his strikeout rate to a manageable level at 21.3 percent, his lowest rate in the majors. Were Mahtook the type to hit you 25 home runs a year, you’d be very happy with all those numbers. And the thing is, across 615 plate appearances, roughly a full season, Mahtook has 21 home runs. That’ll work.

Mikie Mahtook Plate Discipline

Season O-Swing % Z- Swing % Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact % Contact % F-Strike % SwStr %
Season O-Swing % Z- Swing % Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact % Contact % F-Strike % SwStr %
2015 32.1 71.1 71.1 61.5 78.3 72.1 57.4 13.7
2016 32.3 63.9 63.9 60.1 84 74.9 61.7 11.7
2017 28.8 59 59 65.8 88.4 80 65.1 8.5

A deeper look at Mahtook’s plate discipline numbers indicates a more selective approach as well. He’s leaving the zone less often, but making substantially more contact when he does. In each of his three seasons he’s swung at less pitches and made contact more often when he did. Experience may be paying off, despite his limited playing time in the majors over the past few seasons.

Mahtook has picked up a lot of infield hits this season for a player without game changing speed. Our own Ashley MacClellan looked into that in her piece on Mahtook for FanGraphs today. His BABIP of .335 is probably as good as it gets with his contact profile. Considering that Mahtook has put the ball on the ground nearly 45 percent of the time, there’s pressure on his batted ball luck there as well. It’s sensible to suspect that Mahtook’s average—currently at .277—will regress next season, but in general the signs are pretty positive in arguing that Mahtook isn’t in for a steep fall either.

So, now we can tell ourselves a story if we wish.

Mikie Mahtook, former first rounder, broke into the majors with an explosive six weeks in 2015. He struggled through an injury plagued 2016, and now, having been picked up for little more than a song, has found a home in Detroit as modestly above average full-time center fielder. With a full-time gig, and a full season’s worth of plate appearances under his belt, Mahtook may still tap into latent power potential with a few more flyballs in the mix, hit 25 home runs next season, and prove quite a valuable player for the Tigers.

The story is improved by listening to Mahtook describe how the oblique injury early last season not only sapped his power, but forced a radical adjustment in his mechanics and approach. Protecting the injury, Mahtook couldn’t extend his arms with power and fell into a habit of keeping them in tight and trying to pull everything. His swing lost its plane, and became too rotational to keep the barrel in the zone for long. David Laurila of FanGraphs ran a great piece on Mahtook last week in which he broke down how his early season oblique injury in 2016 sabotaged his season.

“I was very rotational and basically cutting the plate in half. That’s obviously not good. There was really only one spot where I could get the extension I wanted. I wasn’t able to let my hands work. I wasn’t really free.”

Mahtook didn’t look good in March or April either. He and the Tigers’ hitting coaches spent a lot of time trying to sort out the mess he’d gotten into last season. Mahtook watched as Tyler Collins fell apart after a decent April. JaCoby Jones struggled and then dealt with the aftereffects of a pitch that nearly broke his jaw in May. Manager Brad Ausmus turned to Mahtook again as June opened, and suddenly Mahtook was on fire.

Since that point he’s cracked nine home runs in 241 appearances. He’s hitting .306, with an OPS of .850. His walk rate has been on a steady incline while his strikeouts have ticked down. Mahtook hasn’t hit the ball in the air as much as you’d like, and still isn’t fully capitalizing on his obvious physicality, but he’s sprayed a lot of hard contact around the diamond and been rewarded. The idea that you can write off the 2016 season, and view Mahtook as former high draft pick now blooming late, is an attractive one. There are quite a few nice signs pointing to a breakout here.

Three months of good production isn’t quite enough to convince me that Mikie Mahtook is now a radically better hitter. But perhaps he never really needed to be. The mechanical adjustments he’s made bode well for him, and recovered the swing that Rays’ fans were excited by in 2015. How well Mahtook sustains this production in September may tell us a little more, but it feels like he’s already proven plenty this season.

This year’s production may not hold up entirely, but Mahtook’s floor as a hitter now seems much closer to league average. He’s balanced his splits to a substantial degree, and shown improved plate discipline across the board. A league average hitter who can handle center field, is a very nice piece to have added so cheaply. He’s an aggressive, uptempo player with a little speed on the bases. Exactly the kind of player the Tigers need to turbo charge their offense. And if he really has leveled up? Al Avila will have flat out robbed the Rays.