Maybin who? Mahtook gives Tigers jolt in center

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Mikie Mahtook enters Tuesday's game on a nine-game hitting streak.

Detroit — It took Tigers fans a while, a long while, to get over their Cameron Maybin crush.

And a broken romance wasn’t helped when his center-field replacement was a man most in these parts had never heard of. 

Mikie Mahtook was in for a rough time.

Until now.

Although he made a humiliating baserunning mistake in the eighth inning of Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Royals at Comerica Park, Mahtook had — at least until Tuesday’s waning innings — been winning rooters at Comerica Park, and within the Tigers' general galaxy.

It has to do with some sudden status. Michael Anthony Mahtook has settled in as a guy who can play center field with considerable range and a fair amount of finesse. At the same time he is swinging a bat that’s steadily changing games not only because his average was .294 heading into Tuesday evening’s Tigers-Royals game at Comerica Park, but also because he can drive a ball up an alley or 400-feet-plus and over a fence.

Brad Ausmus was asked Tuesday if Mahtook qualified as one of a team’s genuine 2017 surprises.

“I would say so,” the Tigers manager said, sitting in the Tigers dugout, where he sometimes holds his pregame press briefings. “He brings good energy every day, too. Energy on the field, and energy in the clubhouse. The guys like him.”

That was evident a few minutes earlier when Mahtook sat at a table in the Tigers dressing room buried in a crossword puzzle he was working in concert with Alex Wilson and Ian Kinsler.

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“Kills some time and keeps you away from the cell phone,” Mahtook explained, adding that he isn’t among the team’s elites in crossword conquests.

“(Alex) Presley’s a lot better,” Mahtook said.

Less of a puzzle is why Mahtook has become progressively Ausmus’ choice in center field.

This was a region subject to mystery and anxiety heading into 2017. Maybin had been dealt to the Angels as part of the Tigers’ simple declaration they didn’t believe Maybin’s $9-million salary (potentially $13 million with luxury-tax fines) could be justified.

The Tigers had few good options apart from trusting a rookie, JaCoby Jones, who had shown the front office he likely needed more seasoning at Triple A.

Al Avila and his staff knew of a former first-round draft pick from Louisiana State who had shown some aptitude during stints with Tampa Bay. Kevin Kiermaier was going to be the Rays’ everyday answer in center, which made Mahtook available. Avila, the Tigers general manager, grabbed Mahtook in a January trade that brought Tampa Bay a player to be named later, which became reliever prospect, Drew Smith.

Mahtook was 27, had played 101 games for the Rays, and had so-so stats: .231 batting average and .685 OPS. It was apparent why he was considered a reserve.

But there were other factors to mull. Mahtook was a favorite of LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who gave the Tigers a gold-plated review on an outfielder’s assorted skills and makeup.

Mahtook had also shown pop, slamming nine home runs in only 41 games with the Rays in 2015.

He got hit by a pitch in the left hand last year and the subsequent fracture ruined his 2016 season. That moved him closer to disposable status with the Rays. The Tigers thought he could help.

And he has, with each month adding luster to his numbers. June was his breakthrough, when he batted .333, with two home runs, two doubles, and a triple, good for an .879 OPS.

This month he has turned searing: .400, with two homers, three doubles, and a triple worth a .950 OPS.

Moreover, the old knock against Mahtook — that he was somebody who could be trusted to hit only against left-handers — has dissolved.

Hours before Tuesday night’s game, Mahtook’s OPS against left-handers was .795. Against right-handers: .793. 

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“I don’t know why people talk about splits,” Mahtook said, snorting at ideas there was any great disparity in how he hit against pitchers from either side. “My whole life, I’ve hit righties.”

In fact, his big-league numbers say differently: .836 career OPS against lefties vs. .633.

But it’s a small sample size, as they say, spanning 166 games, which in Mahtook’s mind ignores his years in college and in the minors.

Ausmus believes Mahtook helped his stats in all respects with swing tinkering he initiated during spring camp. Tigers hitting coaches Lloyd McClendon and Bull Durham went to work on one particular battle plan.

“More linear than being rotational,” Mahtook said, explaining that the trick was to drive more forward, more up-the-middle, with a swing rather than swinging horizontally.

“They stayed on me all spring training,” he said, “and this season.”

The result is a two-party gain. The Tigers, at least for now, have found a regular man in center. Mahtook is happy with daily work he never doubted he could handle.

“That was my goal,” said a man of Lebanese descent who grew up in Louisiana’s Cajun country. “It wasn’t just to play a little bit, or play as a backup.”

Of course, when you’re batting .412 in the season’s second half, you’re not sitting on a bench. Nor will he be as long as an increasingly pleasing pattern continues for a team craving a steady center fielder.