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Mensching: Tigers need Davis, but he has to earn playing time

By Kurt Mensching, Special to The Detroit News
Rajai Davis

Detroit -- Rajai Davis may not write out the Tigers' lineup every day, but what he does at the plate could sure make it easier for manager Brad Ausmus to put his name on it more often.

"It's a good problem to have," Ausmus said of finding lineup room for everyone, including left-handed hitting Anthony Gose and Tyler Collins.

Indeed it is, because Davis is a player the Tigers need to find room for as often as possible for what he does on the basepaths. But only if he earns it at the plate.

Davis' problem throughout his career has been hitting right-handed pitching. As a right-handed batter, you expect a bit of a difference.

Against lefties, he's a .300 hitter. Against righties, .250. Against lefties, he gets on base and has a little bit of power. Against righties, not so much of either.

So with an offseason trade for Gose, a left-handed batter who is having no problems finding his way on base, the Tigers found a way to limit Davis' liability to the batting order.

And when designated hitter Victor Martinez went on the disabled list, the Tigers doubled down with another left-handed bat in Collins, who has exclusively faced right-handed pitching since arriving and will likely continue to do so. That is, assuming he does better than the 2-for-13 start he's made in limited appearances, though.

All of that makes Davis' path to regular playing time an issue, but one that the 34-year-old doesn't let himself dwell on.

"We're here to win ballgames," Davis said. "It's not my decision. I don't make the lineup card. I just go out there and play when I'm called to play."

Davis showed a bit of everything Sunday. He legged out an infield single in his first at-bat against Astros right-hander Roberto Hernandez, diving headfirst into the bag to beat the throw, before scoring on a double by Bryan Holaday a batter later.

But he went 0-for in his next three at-bats, struggling to get the ball out of the infield, to finish the day 1-for-4.

He's still not hitting for a lot of average, but he's finding his way on base anyway. And when you're the best baserunner on the team, sometimes those walks are going to turn into doubles, and that's going to turn into runs.

Davis' on-base percentage of .338 against righties is up from a .297 career OBP and an even worse .290 in 2014, his first season in Detroit.

It's not a statistical fluke, either.

"Just making a conscious effort to swing at balls in the strike zone," Davis said of this year's difference.

Davis has offered at the lowest percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone in his career, 27 percent, according to PitchF/X data at Fangraphs. When he does swing at pitches outside the zone, he's making contact at a career-high 83 percent, up from a career-average of 64 percent.

As a result, he's seeing his most pitches per plate appearance since 2008.

"He's getting a little more patient," Ausmus said. "He's letting the ball travel a little more."

Davis' problem Sunday is that he wasn't that patient. In two of the at-bats, he grounded out on the first pitch once and grounded out on the second pitch another time. He saw 12 pitches all day.

That lack of patience did neither Davis nor the Tigers any favors, because they need him on the basepaths to get the most of his game.

What Davis has done so far there in 2015 speaks for itself. He's already stolen 11 bases in 12 attempts for a stellar 92-percent success rate, and he's taken an extra base on hits in nearly half of his opportunities, above the 39-percent league average.

Put it together and Davis ranks ninth in baseball -- third in the American League -- in Fangraphs' Base Running (BsR) stat, which attempts to measure all the positives and negatives a runner does. That includes stealing bases, advancing, avoiding double plays and the like.

A team that has consistently been among the worst baserunning teams in the league, and which still rates below average this year, can use the help anywhere it can get.

Davis may never be a great hitter against right-handers, but if he keeps finding ways to get on bases through other means, the Tigers should keep putting him in the lineup.

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