DETROIT – When the Tigers traded their No. 1 prospect Devon Travis to the Toronto Blue Jays this offseason, many were shocked that they received just a lifetime .234 hitter in return.
Travis, considered a rare gem in the thin Tigers farm system, was swapped for center fielder Anthony Gose on Nov. 12. Fans were confused, not only that the Tigers sold their top prospect so cheaply, but that they did so for a part-time player.
What was Dave Dombrowski thinking?
Well, let's say Dombrowski traded Travis for a center fielder that started each of the team's first 37 games and batted .333 with an on-base-percentage of .396. What if he added 17 extra-base hits, 32 runs scored, 13 RBI and a .906 OPS? Would you take that player?
The answer is yes, you would take that player. And Travis' stat line (seven home runs, 26 RBI and .336 OBP) would be the last thing on your mind.
Okay, here's the kicker: The Tigers have that player. Or, more accurately, the equivalent of that player.
If you haven't guessed, those are the cumulative numbers of the Gose-Rajai Davis duo in center field. In splitting time almost evenly, the two have combined to give the Tigers top five production in hits, runs scored, total bases, OBP and slugging percentage in terms of MLB center fielders. They've stolen 12 bases in 15 attempts and rank fourth in OPS.
On Saturday, Jose Iglesias took center stage against the Cardinals with the game-winning hit in the top of the 10th inning. But it was Davis who led off the 3rd inning with a triple and scored the tying run after St. Louis took its first lead of the series; Davis, who threw out Matt Holliday trying to stretch a single into a double to lead off the bottom of the 10th.
That defensive play was just the latest example of the Tigers' vastly improved outfield. Gose and Davis rank 12th in MLB with two defensive runs saved in center field and have made two errors in 37 games.
How have the Tigers gotten this type of production? Matchups.
Though Gose has struggled offensively throughout his young MLB career, his numbers are historically serviceable against right-handed pitchers. In 520 career at-bats, Gose hits .262 with 39 extra-base hits (six homers), 46 walks and a .710 OPS against righties. Those numbers fall to a .214 batting average, seven XBH (no homers), eight walks and a .534 OPS in 131 at-bats against lefties.
Now, in addition to his favorable matchups, Gose is avoiding the hitless-nights-with-multiple-strikeout games that plagued him against left-handed pitchers in Toronto. As a result, the Tigers have seen a confident hitter who's yet to go hitless in back-to-back starts this season.
Much of Gose's credit goes to his partnership with Davis. In over 1,000 career plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, Davis hits .304 with an OPS of .810. He averages an XHB every 10 at-bats against lefties and only one every 15 at-bats against righties.
The career trends of Gose and Davis have proven true for the Tigers so far. Gose is hitting .364 with a .932 OPS against right-handed pitchers and Davis sits at .313 and .983 against left-handed pitchers. Detroit essentially took two mid-level players and combined the strengths of both to form one of the most productive center field situations in MLB.
Obviously, the big question is whether or not they can keep it up.
Gose certainly won't finish the season with a .354 batting average, even if he doesn't face another lefty all year. More than half of the balls he's put into play this season have fallen for base hits. Though that's partially due to the consistent, hard contact Gose is making at the dish, there's a fair amount of luck involved in an average that high.
For Davis, his early pace isn't far off his overall numbers from last season. The one glaring difference is his willingness to draw walks, as he's on pace to more than double his total from 2014. This suggests improved plate discipline from the 34-year-old and, if anything, will improve his all-around performance at the plate.
All the reasons above suggest it's very possible the Tigers' center field duo will remain among the most productive in MLB this season, though it's unlikely they'll continue to keep pace with AL MVP Mike Trout, who's WAR is only 0.1 higher than that of Gose and Davis in total.
For now, the two are pacing the Tigers on offense, defense and the base paths. To do so on a first-place team for nearly a quarter of the season is no fluke.