Can Rajai Davis Hold Down Center Field?

Thursday’s trade deadline was easily the most exciting in recent memory, especially for the Tigers. They picked up Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez near the deadline in 2011 and 2012, but the Tigers hadn’t executed a blockbuster at the eleventh hour in many years. Acquiring David Price and losing Austin Jackson and Drew Smyly filled the headlines, but Rajai Davis’ new role is no less important.

With Austin Jackson heading to Seattle as part of the three team deal that involved the Rays and Mariners, the Tigers are left to play Rajai Davis in center field almost exclusively. The team called up Ezequiel Carrera to help out, but his lack of value in the box is going to limit him to defensive replacement duty and occasional starts against righties.

The team lacks any other real options in center, too. Don Kelly can certainly handle the position for several games a season without causing problems, but he’s not going to provide any kind of value there on a regular basis. Andy Dirks might be working back to the majors, but coming off a back injury and very little major league time at center over the last few seasons, the odds of the Tigers trying him regularly there are slim. The odds of seeing Hunter or Martinez there are slimmer still.

Which means it’s basically Davis in center, sink or swim. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but it’s not as if they have any real options to consider in house or on the waiver wire.

Davis’ bat is a known quantity. He handles lefties quite well but struggles against right handed pitching. Even in the midst of his best season, Davis isn’t a big time contributor at the plate. He boasts a .305/.344/.434 line in 318 PA that is held up by a BABIP that is likely to fall going forward, not to mention the hit he will take as he faces more right-handed pitchers over the season’s final two months.

He’s done fine work with the bat, and he’s been strong on the bases, but the Price trade is going to work or not work based on how well Davis can hold down center field.

His defense is important there for two reasons. First, the Tigers traded away two players from the major league roster to get Price and while Price replaces Smyly directly, Jackson is replaced by Davis and Davis is replaced by more at bats for Torii Hunter and J.D. Martinez and hopefully Dirks. If Davis is a disaster in center, the value of the Price-Smyly upgrade could wash out.

More importantly, the Tigers have four fly ball pitchers on their staff and they need someone who can prevent runs in the outfield. Rick Porcello can probably get by with a subpar defensive outfield, but Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and David Price will be inducing a lot of fly balls so whoever plays next to Hunter is pretty important.

Can Davis approximate Jackson’s defense? That’s the important question because you can have great pitchers coming out of your ears, but if the defense undoes all of their good work, the value the team is getting overall vanishes.

Remember that Jackson hasn’t been a standout defender in a couple of seasons. Depending on how you like to measure defense, Jackson now rates as an average or slightly below average center fielder. He used to be terrific, now he’s just solid. And if you don’t like defensive metrics, I’ve heard the same things from rival scouts on Jackson’s range.

So Davis needs to find a way to be something like -5 runs in center field over a full season in order to be in the game. He only has to do it for two months and hopefully October, but those are very important innings. And he might have to do it in 2015 as well depending on the offseason plan.

Davis hasn’t played regular center field since 2011, but in 2010 and 2011 he accumulated about a full season’s worth of chances and graded out very poorly (about -15 runs total). In 2008 and 2009 he was much better, but we’re now talking about data that is five and six years old (about +12 runs total). The last regular data we have on Davis suggests he’s not great out there.

Let’s move to more recent, but less equivalent data. Over his last three seasons in left field, he’s graded out somewhere between -3 and -12 runs depending on the method you prefer.

No one will tell you that these numbers are perfect, but let’s take them at face value for a moment. Presumably, Davis would be worse in center than he would be in left. On average, a defender will be about 10 runs worse in center than they would be in a corner over a full season, but that too is an estimate.

Basically, if we make every assumption go Davis’ way, he can probably handle center field as well as Jackson. If we make every assumption go against him, we’re in for a disaster. Reality is likely between the two, with Davis offering a significant downgrade, but not one that totally invalidates the trade.

I would caution you against talking yourself into Davis as good center fielder because he’s not a very good left fielder. Despite his elite speed, he gets poor reads off the bat and does not close on the ball well. His arm has never looked particularly great, but he’s made a few nice plays this year to hold or nail runners.

You look at Davis’ speed and want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but in more than 6,000 innings in one of the three outfield spots during his career, the best you could say about him is that he might be average. And that’s mostly in a corner with the knowledge that defense peaks early.

Davis might surprise us and put together a very nice stretch of games out in center. That’s all it takes and it’s very possible for a below average defender to shine for a few weeks, but the odds are against him.

David Price makes the Tigers better, but the upgrade would be much more significant if the Tigers had someone who could really go get it in center.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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