Mikie Mahtook’s Surprise Season

This is Ashley MacLennan’s fifth piece as part of her August residency at FanGraphs. Ashley is a staff writer for Bless You Boys, the SB Nation blog dedicated to the Detroit Tigers, and runs her own site at 90 Feet From Home. She can also be found on Twitter. She’ll be contributing regularly here over the next month. Read the work of all our residents here.

When the Detroit Tigers acquired Mikie Mahtook from the Tampa Bay Rays in January for a player to be named later – a player who would be Drew Smith – there wasn’t a lot of expectation for the role he would play on the team. Mahtook, 27, had spent the bulk of his career to that point in the Rays’ minor-league system, seeing only limited major-league reps in 2015 and 2016.

The Tigers, who had traded everyday center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels during the offseason, needed some outfield depth and were looking for a player whom they could partner with Tyler Collins and potentially JaCoby Jones, the latter of whom had shown promise in spring training. Mahtook was never intended to become a full-time center fielder. Thanks to a subpar 2016, during which he posted a grim .195/.231/.292 in 65 games, expectations for his performance were low.

The new recruit did little to defy those expectation early in the season. His April was uninspiring, his May even worse. (He recorded a line of just .179/.179/.321 over 28 plate appearances in May.) Then, in June, everything started to change. His playing time doubled and he began hitting. He produced a .333/.333/.529 slash line that month; in July, he hit an even better .346/.422/.538.

Mahtook’s role with Detroit has changed dramatically since Opening Day. After beginning as merely a bench player, he’s become the club’s everyday center fielder, hitting second in the batting order behind Ian Kinsler. His role has expanded in no small part due to the departures (by trade) of Alex Avila and J.D. Martinez, creating both a need for reliable defense in the outfield and a hole in the Tigers lineup.

Over the course of 700 career innings in center, Mahtook has recorded a UZR slightly better than average and DRS slightly worse than average. Overall, he’s produced +4.0 defensive runs (which includes both the WAR positional adjustment and UZR) in about a season’s worth of play, including his time in left and right field. An average center fielder would have produced roughly +2.5 defensive runs over that same period. The publicly available fielding numbers, in other words, suggest that he’s a major-league center fielder.

The Statcast data supports that notion. Mahtook’s catch probabilities indicate above-average fielding ability. And in terms of sprint speed, Mahtook has produced almost the precise median figure among center fielders.

So Mahtook’s center-field credentials seem well established. But it’s not his defense that has distinguished his 2017 season from earlier ones. Rather, it’s his offense. Mahtook entered play Monday with a 109 wRC+ in 304 plate appearances this year. In 2015 and -16, meanwhile, he produced a combined 87 wRC+ in 311 plate appearances.

One interesting factor of Mahtook’s success has been his infield-hit rate. He currently owns the third-highest IFH% in the majors (15.8%) among the 317 batters with 200 or more plate appearances.

As with any hitter, some of those infield hits are the product of luck. Like this one, against an infield playing back:

And this one, on a play that could have possibly been called an error:

And this one, on a ball that lands between two fielders:

But Mahtook has also used his speed to get aboard. Here he is, for example, beating out a hard grounder after Manny Machado appears to misjudge his ability to get down the line.

Mahtook might actually have some real infield-hit ability. In 311 plate appearances between 2015 and -16, he produced a 13.0% infield-hit rate, a mark that would currently rank 10th of the 317 batters with 200-plus plate appearances.

So what’s the difference this year? Mahtook seems to be taking better advantage of this skill. His ground-ball numbers have taken a real jump, from 36.1% over his first two years to 44.4% this season. Mahtook might be one of the few players in the league who’s actually benefiting from hitting the ball on the ground more often.

Of course, the infield hit is a precarious thing on which to rely for getting on base, since it depends not only on the batter himself but also the positioning of the infielders. There’s a finesse needed to really use an infield hit well, something mastered by Ichiro Suzuki and something Mahtook has been using to maximize the results of his at-bats this year. Mahtook isn’t in the same category as Suzuki, of course — few will equal him — but the approach is clearly paying dividends for both Mahtook and the Tigers.

When FanGraphs’ own David Laurila interviewed Mahtook recently, the latter noted how his improved health this year has played a big part in improving his swing. He also mentioned he doesn’t try to hit for ground balls. “The swing I have now is my natural swing. I’m not consciously trying to lift the ball, nor am I consciously trying to hit the ball on the ground. All I’m trying to do is stay within my approach and let my athleticism work, and if my natural swing allows me to get underneath the ball and drive it… that’s the way it is.”

Not surprisingly (in light of his infield-hit totals), Mahtook’s BABIP has taken a huge jump this year, from a below-average .287 in 2016 to his current .335 mark. It’s quite possible that he Mahtook has real batted-ball skill. The projection systems regard it as a possibility, too. Both Steamer and ZiPS forecast Mahtook for a BABIP of .320 or better over the rest of the season. Mahtook, it seems, has found his groove in Detroit.

Another area in which Mahtook excelled in 2015, and continues to show progress in 2017, is his plate discipline. Much like the departed Alex Avila, who was having one of his best seasons since 2011, Mahtook is a case study in the art of patience. His Contact% is up from 72.1% in 2015 to 79.9% and his swinging-strike rate has dropped considerably, from 13.7% in 2015 to 8.5% in 2017. His strikeouts are down from 34.7% last season to 21.4% this season. As a result, he’s collecting hits with a lot more frequency.

It’s hard to say how this performance will transition into long-term success. He posted good numbers during a short stint with the Rays in 2015, then came back the next year and was terrible. As a result, he saw minimal use early in the season with the Tigers, and has only been given regular opportunities to perform since June. But in that time he has been nothing short of impressive, and provides the Tigers some much needed reliability in their lineup.

On a team that has little to cheer about this year, even when things were down, Mahtook has been a constant force. What Mahtook offers the Tigers now is a solid center fielder under club control until at least 2019 but likely well beyond until he achieves free agency in 2022. Where the team was previously at a loss for how to man the field, they have found themselves a reliable defensive player who just happens to be proving himself more than capable offensively as well. For a team about to go into a rebuild, he’s precisely the kind of inexpensive and useful player that will help keep them competitive even if they aren’t collecting trophies.

We hoped you liked reading Mikie Mahtook’s Surprise Season by Ashley MacLennan!

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Ashley MacLennan is a writer and editor for the Detroit Tigers blog Bless You Boys, and deputy manager for the Tampa Bay Rays blog DRaysBay. Her writing has been featured at FanGraphs, and the Hardball Times, as well as on her own website 90 Feet From Home. Find her on Twitter @90feetfromhome

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Maybe somebody should write an article on Adam Engel, who has all of 35 hits in 222 PAs this year, 10 of which are infield hits.