Minneapolis — If you were told before the season that the slash-line of the Tigers’ center fielder would be .255/.318/.425/.743, with 12 home runs and 46 RBIs, would you take it?
If you were told before the season that the Tigers’ center fielder(s) would have better numbers at this stage of the year than Kevin Kiermaier, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Gomez, Kevin Piller and Cameron Maybin, would you even believe it?
The Tigers may have had to mix and match more than most teams in center field, but the combined efforts of Mikie Mahtook, Alex Presley, Andrew Romine, Tyler Collins and JaCoby Jones have exceeded early offensive expectations.
“Mikie is a big part of that,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Mikie has really started to swing the bat well the last five or six weeks.”
Mahtook has indeed seized the center field job, starting 17 of the last 22 games going back to June 25. Since June 21, he’s hit .368 (25 for 68), with three doubles, two triples, two home runs, 10 RBIs and 11 runs scored in 20 games.
"Between Lloyd McClendon and Bull Durham (Tigers hitting coaches), and Mikie, they’ve been working on his swing since spring training — getting him to stay through the ball and use the whole field,” Ausmus said. “We’ve really started to reap the rewards from that. You can see the results on the field, but we see it in batting practice.
“From Day One of spring training to now, his swing is so much better.”
Mahtook, who went into the game Saturday hitting .289 and slugging .478, said he didn’t learn a new swing. He worked his way back to his old swing.
“It was just being able to consistently get my (swing) path right,” he said. “I had it at one point. I didn’t always swing like I did last year — pulling off everything. I was swinging more like I am now in 2015 than last year.”
Mahtook battled a lingering oblique strain last season and he developed the bad habit of pulling off the ball on his swing as compensation against the pain. It hurt to stay through the ball.
“Sometimes when you go so long doing something wrong, you can’t really feel it,” he said. “Getting a new set of eyes on me really helped. I was able to say, ‘Hey, this is what we need to be able to do.’”
To McClendon and Durham, who have collectively spent decades in the Tigers’ system, getting Mahtook — who had been developed in the Rays system — was like getting a fresh mound of clay.
“They saw it right away and they stayed on me and helped me,” Mahtook said. “They made sure I stayed with the same approach and the same path. The more you do it, the better it feels. And once you start to feel the right way, you work to keep that feeling.”
What McClendon and Durham were preaching, it wasn’t a hard sell for Mahtook to buy in.
“I knew (his swing) wasn’t right,” he said. “I had felt it right and I had felt it then and I knew it wasn’t right … Those guys did a great job with me. They didn’t know me at all coming in here and that was probably the best thing. Having a new set of eyes on me.”
Harder than the swing change, perhaps, was convincing Ausmus that he could hit right-handed pitching. The book on Mahtook coming in was that he has to be platooned and play predominantly against left-handed pitching. He's rewriting that book.
“You don’t make it to the big leagues just hitting on one side of the plate,” Mahtook said. “I knew I could hit right-handers. It was just a matter of fighting that stigma.”
He’s beating that stigma – hitting .294 with a .762 OPS against righties and .284 with a .816 OPS against lefties.
He’s not only solidified the center field position, he also enabled the Tigers to stick to the plan with Jones and give him another full year of seasoning at the Triple-A level.
A win-win for the Tigers.