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July 21, 2011

Overthinking It

The Avila Advantage

by Ben Lindbergh

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Miguel Cabrera gets most of the accolades in the Tigers’ historically top-heavy lineup, and not without reason—the first baseman’s .349 True Average (TAv) trails only Jose Bautista’s among American League batters. However, Cabrera hasn’t been the most valuable position player in Detroit this season. That title belongs to Alex Avila, a 24-year-old catcher who came up through the Tigers’ system before making his major-league debut in late 2009.

Avila acquitted himself well in his initial exposure to the majors, but his bat crashed back to earth last season, when he hit .228/.316/.340 while splitting catching duties with Gerald Laird. This season, however, he’s hit well enough to take over the team lead in Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), posting a 3.4 figure to Cabrera’s 3.1.

There’s still plenty of time for Avila to be overtaken by another Tiger, but if he maintains his productive pace, he’ll achieve a distinction that few catchers can claim. Since 1950, 44 catchers have combined to lead their teams' position players in WARP 85 times, an average of one-two per season. Brian McCann is the only other backstop in line for the honor this year; McCann, Joe Mauer, and Geovany Soto pulled off the feat in 2010. 

Prior research has shown that catchers tend to take longer to become established than players at other positions, and they also tend to decline more quickly after reaching their peak. From 2005-2009, the average debut age among catchers was 24.8, over a year older than their more athletic counterparts at shortstop and over two years older than Avila was as a rookie. As rare as it is for catchers to earn starting gigs at Avila’s age, it’s even rarer for them to excel in that role. If Avila could sustain his .317 TAv over at least 400 plate appearances, he’d finish with the 11th-best figure since 1950 among catchers in their age-25-and-under seasons. Most of the marks above his on that list belong either to Hall-of-Famers like Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk or to borderline candidates like Joe Torre and Ted Simmons.

There are a number of reasons why backstops take so long to develop and have such short shelf lives. Catching demands a different skill set than any other position, including a mental dexterity not required of players elsewhere on the field, whose tests of intelligence are generally limited to aiming throws toward the correct base. That learned component leads to longer apprenticeships and later starts to careers. On the other end of the arc, the years of squatting, blocking, and being foul tipped take their toll, forcing many players—such as Avila’s occasional co-catcher, Victor Martinez, who was once an offense-first backstop but now spends most of his days at DH—to relocate to less grueling positions or continue catching in a diminished state.

Since the ranks of possible catchers are restricted to the relatively small pool of players capable of meeting the position’s lofty minimum defensive requirements (as opposed to the larger pool of players capable of standing on the first-base bag and receiving mostly routine throws from other infielders, which includes immobile sluggers in the Jason Giambi mold), bats worth boasting about are in short supply behind the plate. The few valuable hitters that do make it through the minor-league gauntlet with their tools of ignorance intact often fade early, becoming Kendall-like shadows of their former selves. Even Ivan Rodriguez, whose longevity at the position has allowed him to approach 3000 hits—a milestone no catcher has ever endured long enough to reach—had his last hurrah as an above-average offensive player at age 32.

Early success at bat bodes well for Avila’s bank account, but it’s even better news for the Tigers, who hold one of baseball’s few golden tickets to offensive excellence at catcher. Consider the league-wide breakdown of TAv by position (excluding pitchers and pinch-hitters) since 2008, with .260 constituting league average:

Position

TAv

C

.250

SS

.251

2B

.260

3B

.263

CF

.264

LF

.272

DH

.272

RF

.277

1B

.283

Because backstops are a weak bunch of hitters on the whole, the few teams that employ something better than yet another catch-and-throw type enjoy a competitive advantage. Over the last few seasons, the Tigers have witnessed the potential of employing an offensive catcher firsthand; Twins catcher Joe Mauer has led Minnesota position players in WARP for three straight seasons, during which time the Twins have won two division titles and finished one win away from tying for a third.

There was more to the Twins’ slow start in 2011—which has reduced their playoff odds to roughly five percent, despite a hot June and July—than Mauer’s absence due to bilateral leg weakness, but having to make do with the likes of Drew Butera, Steve Holm, and Rene Rivera stripped the Twins of a strength that had previously set them apart, transforming them into just another team fruitlessly looking for lumber behind the plate.

Mauer has regained some semblance of his stroke in July, though he has yet to hit for any power—only six of his 39 hits have gone for extra bases, and he has yet to go yard. Regardless, the damage to the Twins’ playoff hopes is already done, and Mauer’s repeated lower-body ailments and subsequent flirtations with first base suggest that his days of giving the Twins a big bat at a position where such sights are scarce might soon be behind him.

Elsewhere in the AL Central, A.J. Pierzynski has given the White Sox a performance in line with that of a league-average catcher; while 25-year-old backstop Tyler Flowers, currently hitting .261/.390/.500 in the International League, might give Chicago a higher-upside bat next season, the division’s best young hope for another offense-first catcher is the Indians’ Carlos Santana, who gave every indication of rivaling the position’s top batters out of the gate before injuring his knee last season and whose commendable patience and pop have helped offset his low average in 2011.

The Tigers hold a clear catching edge over the other AL playoff frontrunners: Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been the best of the bunch, but his .273 TAv can’t compare to Avila’s; the Yankees’ Russell Martin has hit .188/.297/.279 since April 23rd; and Texas has suffered from an acute case of Yorvit Torrealba. (The Rangers also have Mike Napoli, who has hit .276/.379/.586 as a catcher this season, but like the Angels before them, they’ve chosen to avoid playing him anywhere but first base or DH whenever possible.) The Tigers owe much of their success to bigger names like Cabrera and Justin Verlander, but a substantial portion of their better-than-even October odds can be traced to Alex Avila’s outsized impact at a position where hot hitting is the exception rather than the rule.

Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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