There’s always something magical about the 24th or 25th man on a baseball roster. Those end of the bench guys are an endless source of hope. Like a backup quarterback, the utility guys always have some kind of following because they never have a chance to disappoint enough for us to remember it. Usually, anyway. Some even forge places for themselves in the lore of the team by coming up big in vital moments. Such is the tale of Rajai Davis as an Indian. In a perfect world he’d stay in that role - showing up rarely, limiting exposure and only giving us reason to pine for him. But for so many odd reasons, he finds himself in places that make one question the sanity of the coaching staff. For so much he’s done, and does each time he finds himself on the field, there’s so much to love and hate about Rajai Davis.
Davis will always be loved in Cleveland for what he did in 2016. He led the league in steals, he was a vital cog in a patchwork outfield that had to deal with injuries, and he hit that home run in Game Seven that is up there with the most perfect moments in my life watching baseball.
Unfortunately, he’s a terrible offensive player. There’s a magic to Rajai, that’s why he’s played for more than a decade in the majors. That magic isn’t always in the batters’ box. That home run was dazzling, amazing, and obviously unlikely. But the last time he rated as a league average hitter was 2015. The ability on the basepaths certainly helps, but with the ever-sinking OBP the last few years, that’s getting harder and harder. Like I said, finding more time as a pinch runner and defensive replacement in the corners is where he shold find the bulk of his playing time.
I love what a spark plug he can be. It seems like once Davis starts hitting, the Indians offense lights up. Between his sometimes surprising power and his devilry on the base paths, it’s amazing what he can do to an opponent’s psyche. Of course any time a player at the bottom of the lineup is hitting it makes everything seem better, but Davis in particular, I don’t know. There’s a verve to him, his enthusiasm (and probably headache-inducing baserunning) just bleeds into other guys and excites their bats.
I hate how the Indians use him though. That whole 2016 season when he batted lead-off constantly (really just 70 games, but even that’s too much), I’d love to know how many runs he cost the Indians because he was just plain not a good hitter. And then in the opening series for some reason he bats cleanup because he has “good numbers” against James Paxton? I know baseball moves glacially, but is this still a thing we’re doing? He’s got a .348 OPS against Edinson Volquez. I wouldn’t think they’d bench him if Volquez made it back to the minors. it’s like something about Davis has infected Tito’s brain.
I love watching Davis play the outfield. He has a smoothness out there, the Willy Mays way he catches the ball especially on easy can-o-corn fly balls, it’s relaxing, it lets you know everything is all right, that this out at least is taken care of. He covers a lot of ground out there with a liquid grace that some more herky-jerky, incredibly leggy younger men simply can’t replicate. Whether a diving catch or a simple jog over to a lazy fly ball, it’s a pleasure to watch.
I just hate that he takes playing time from Bradley Zimmer. It is a waste, plain and simple. Zimmer is one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball by any measure. He’s faster than Davis (which is surprising how Davis’ own speed has kept up), his arm is stronger, he’s taller, and he’s got a whole career of getting better ahead of him. As bad as Davis is at the plate at this point, it’s not like they’re losing anything putting Zimmer out there. He at least is supposed to hit eventually. Oh, and early returns suggest he might be better at stealing bases, too. He’s 18-for-19 in his young career, which is too small a sample for us to judge, but that raw speed of his makes up for any wiles that Davis brings to the table.
At the end of the day, I do love having Davis on the team. He’s fun, he’s got an attitude that the team seemed to be lacking a bit last year, and he’s still really, really fast. His base stealing ability alone means having him on the bench is a major boon for the team. And I’d be lying if there wasn’t a bit of sentimentality to wanting him around. He’s a useful piece, but whenever he gets treated as more than a cog in the greater machine, it’s a cause for worry.