Who plays center field for the Tigers? If you’re not from Detroit, chances are you’re drawing a blank.
And why not? For three years, the Tigers’ center field situation has been nothing but trial and error.
But mostly error.
Just minutes before 2014 trade deadline, Tigers’ beloved center fielder Austin Jackson trotted off the field as apart of a three-team trade that gave the Tigers star pitcher David Price.
The long-term effect of this deal probably tipped in Detroit’s favor, not because Price panned out in a Tiger uniform, but because he was dealt the following year in return for young starters Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris. Still, the gap in center was always noted, but never fixed.
Anthony Gose, Jacoby Jones and even utility man Andrew Romine received opportunities at that position, yet each came up short. Cameron Maybin was a short-term solution following a phenomenal 2016 campaign, but was traded over the offseason.
So who’s left? Center field is not a position just anyone can play. After all, John Fogerty never said, “put me in coach, I’m ready to play today. Look at me, I can be right field.”
Jones was expected to embrace center throughout 2017. But in spite of his speed and fielding ability, consistent failures at the plate made him difficult to keep around.
A 90 mph fastball straight to noggin was the only justification Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus needed to put Jones on the DL and eventually ship him back to AAA Toledo where he would remain for nearly the rest of the season.
So who could secure center field now that another one bit the dust? That’s where Mikie what’s-his-face came in.
Few recognized his name, and even fewer expected him to do anything this year. At best, he was anticipated to add depth in the outfield and occasionally pinch run. This is what makes Mahtook’s emergence all the more impressive.
He’s hitting a steady .295 on the year. He also racked up 26 RBI’s and seven dingers. Since June, his average soared to a mighty .320 with 18 RBI’s and four homers. He also impresses as a fielder and makes made dynamic catches on a regular basis.
But Mahtook’s role in Detroit goes far beyond the analytics. One huge side effect of Maybin’s departure was the loss of his character. Maybin was a ball of energy. His dynamic and upbeat personality sent shockwaves through the roster, and was an instrumental piece of a late September surge in 2016 that nearly gave the Tigers a Wild Card berth.
This type of passion is what Mahtook brings to the table. Few players have the visible appetite Mahtook displays on a daily basis. He doesn’t particularly have power, but he swings the bat hard and with a purpose. He yearns for the spotlight and excels when the pressure is on.
If Mahtook sees a call he doesn’t like, he makes it known. He’s feisty, but no thug. When he was hit by a pitch for the second time in a game against the New York Yankees, the latter of which hit him in the helmet, Mahtook’s reaction was as expected.
He was angry. He yelled and screamed and cussed out the pitcher. But he did not charge the mound. He didn’t start a fight and did not get ejected. He went off and stopped himself at the right time. But his display of raw emotion gave the Tigers exactly what they needed—a reason to get fired up.
This is why Mahtook is so valuable. He can make players around him better. This is arguably more important in baseball than any other sport. In football, a good quarterback alone can make a mediocre team playoff worthy. In basketball, a standout point guard can carry an entire offense into the postseason. In hockey, an outstanding goalie can hand even the lousiest of clubs an overtime point. But in baseball, it’s just not that easy.
You can put Aaron Judge and Clayton Kershaw on the worst team in all of baseball. Yet they would only do so much good. Judge’s power hitting can only help in one of nine at bats while Kershaw’s good for only in one five starts. In baseball, you can’t ignore your weakest links.
A quality baseball team needs talent from top to bottom. Luckily for the Tigers, Mahtook’s love for winning can rub off on his teammates, and give life to the entire lineup even during the dog days of summer.
If I told you at the beginning of the year that some guy named Mikie Mahtook would have a better year than Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler, you would’ve thought I was crazy.
But this is exactly what happened. His breakout season combined with sheer passion and emotion gives the Tigers something they have lacked for the past few years—a purpose.
That all said, even with Mahtook’s personality, the Tigers are a rebuilding team in no condition to compete for a World Series. The Tigers have the third worst record in the American League, and it’s not getting any prettier. Mahtook’s splash only goes so far.
Still, at 27 years of age, Mahtook’s 2017 campaign proves that wherever he plays, he has the ingredients both on and off the field to make for an excellent career in the big leagues.