There’s no need to adjust your television set.
The image you see–night after night–scurrying around the bases, sporting the Olde English “D” on his baseball cap, is not an imposter.
It is in fact a real, live Detroit Tiger having a ball.
Or in this case, a base.
His name is Rajai Davis, and he is helping to re-define offensive baseball in Detroit.
It’s been a long time since the Tigers have had a true base stealer in their dugout. Their exposure to the disruptive role speed plays in the modern game has largely been limited to watching helplessly as opponents have wreaked havoc on the bases.
But that changed abruptly in the offseason when Detroit signed left fielder Davis for two-years at $10 million. It was by far the most lucrative contract the 33 year-old Davis had ever signed, and seemed to many an excessive price for a base-stealing specialist who had struggled throughout his career against right-hand pitching.
To date, though, general manager Dave Dombrowski’s decision to reel in Davis has been entirely vindicated.
A 5’9″, 195-pounder, the Connecticut native Davis has been a major leaguer since 2006. In nine seasons he has played for five teams while posting an undistinguished career slash line of .269/.317/.378.
This year Davis has gotten off to a strong start with the bat, nicely compensating for the loss of last year’s starter, Andy Dirks, to injury. Hitting at the extremes of the batting order (either first, eighth, or ninth), he is hitting .295/.333/.406.
While his bat work has been a welcome addition to the Tiger attack, he becomes an elite offensive force upon reaching base.
At that point he more closely resembles the comic super-hero “Flash” than a typical major league ballplayer. In his career he has stolen 284 bases in 355 attempts, for an enviable success rate of 80%.
This rate compares favorably to two legendary base thieves, Rickey Henderson (81%) and Maury Wills (74%). This year, Davis has exceeded his impressive career average by swiping 16 bases in 19 attempts (84%), which projected over the full season would net him over 50 steals.
Perhaps Rajai Davis’s finest moment during the current campaign arrived on Tuesday night in Oakland against the Athletics. In the eighth inning of a tie game, Davis pinch ran for J.D. Martinez at first with one out.
He quickly advanced to second on a passed ball, at which point he drew upon his considerable cunning and experience to execute a play rarely seen at the major league level. With Nick Castellanos at the plate, Oakland catcher Derek Norris casually returned a pitch to left-hander Fernando Abad.
On the preceding pitch, Davis had alertly noticed Norris’s tendency to lob the ball back to Abad. In a – dare we say “Flash”?– Davis perfectly timed the catcher’s return throw to Abad and was in full gallop towards third base as he caught the ball.
Since he is left-handed, Abad had his back to third base and was blissfully unaware of the proceedings until Davis was safely ensconced at third base. In one risk-laden sequence, he had stolen third base in a critical situation without a throw.
The capstone of all this skullduggery? Davis later scored the go-ahead run on an infield ground ball and the Tigers held on to secure a much-needed victory, 6–5.
The Bottom Line
There are two venerable baseball sayings in play with regards to Rajai Davis.
The first is “you can’t steal first base.”
Of course this is true. If you can’t get on base often enough, all the speed and base-stealing instinct in the world is of little use.
Fortunately for the Tigers, though Davis is not a high OBP guy, he gets on base enough to justify his place in the lineup.The second saying is “speed never slumps.”
Once on base, Davis swaps his Clark Kent business suit for Superman’s cape and automatically becomes a relentless force.
His approach to base running extends beyond mere opportunism to the realm of greed. Like teammate Ian Kinsler, he’s simply not satisfied with taking the extra base under typical conditions.
There are occasions, such as Tuesday night, when Rajai Davis bends the circumstances to his will, and claims a base he had no earthly right to pillage.
Now that, friends, is boundless greed.
And if we can invoke the words of fictional Wall Street icon Gordon Gekko, at least as they apply to the art of the base running, “Greed is good.”