April 28, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Kurt Mensching

Kurt Mensching: Tigers' surging Rajai Davis might steal full-time job

Rajai Davis leads the Tigers in hitting (.353) and on-base percentage (.416). (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Just try to imagine where this Tigers team would be without signing Rajai Davis during the offseason.

At the time, he appeared to be at best a platoon partner to Andy Dirks in left field, a right-handed batter who struggled against right-handed pitching in the past but who could add a bit of late-inning speed to the base paths in the right situation.

A nice complementary player, though you could question whether $5 million was the right price to pay for that role.

Talk about money well invested.

Davis has been the best free agent addition Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski made this offseason.

When Andy Dirks had back surgery in early March, left field appeared to become a huge issue for Detroit. The internal options were not impressive. The external options came with shiny names and gaudy stats, such as Nelson Cruz, but seemed to be a bit of a reach.

“If Rajai plays well, he may be the only guy that we need,” manager Brad Ausmus said at the time.

So far, he’s been right.

Davis has hit .353 with a .416 on-base percentage, both team-leading figures. He also has as many stolen bases in the first month of this season as Austin Jackson accumulated in all of 2013.

In terms of offensive wins above replacement, Davis has been the most valuable player in the lineup.

No one should expect Davis to continue batting those figures for the entirety of the season, and players like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter will likely surpass his offensive accomplishments by the end of the year.

At least the Tigers should hope so.

But in a season that began with Cabrera struggling mightily at the plate and huge offensive holes at shortstop and catcher, the Tigers would not be sitting atop the American League Central at this point without Davis’ help.

Just how is Davis doing it?

Right now it’s a combination of luck and plate discipline.

The luck part can be found in Davis’ batting average for balls put into play. For his career, Davis has gotten on base 32 percent of the time when he puts the ball in play -- that is, when you remove home runs and strikeouts from his at bats. In his best season to date the figure was a bit over 36 percent.

This year Davis has managed to get on base more than 39 percent of the time he put the ball in play, despite putting up career norms for his line drive, groundball and flyball rates.

That success will probably not continue, though it’s impossible to say just how close to his career average he’ll finish.

A change in discretion at the plate may account for some of his success as well. According to Fangraphs’ PitchF/X statistics, Davis has both swung at fewer pitches and made contact more often with the ones he’s offered at. In fact, his contact rate is a career-high 85 percent, nearly five percent above his norm.

Couple that early success at the plate with an 80 percent success rate on stolen bases and average defense in left field and you’ve got a pretty useful ballplayer -- certainly a bargain.

Even with an expected drop in his offensive performance, Davis is going to give Ausmus plenty to think about when Dirks is healthy and ready to return to the team.

And if he’s batting anything near what he is today, Davis makes the decision even easier -- he’s the starter, period.

During a first month filled with a couple of disappointing starts by free-agent acquisitions, Davis has been a bright spot in Detroit.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

More Kurt Mensching