Only three Tigers have a better on-base percentage than Alex Avila. (Detroit News / Robin Buckson)
What if someone told you Alex Avila is one of the top catchers in baseball? You’d think they were crazy, right?
Avila went 0-for-2 Sunday against the Rangers, causing his average to fall to .229. That doesn’t have a good look to it, does it?
For that reason, the suggestion has risen more than once that the Tigers need to not only find another shortstop, but another starting catcher as well.
That’s just not true.
If all you see is Avila’s average, you’re missing everything else he does to help the team. For instance, he actually did reach base twice by walk in that game. His on-base percentage improved to .359, which trails Victor Martinez (.389), Miguel Cabrera (.369) and Ian Kinsler (.360), but leads everyone else with the Tigers.
That’s why you can’t let batting average or strikeouts sway your view of a player too much. Avila may be striking out too much, but he’s still finding a way to work pitchers, get on base and extend innings. That’s pretty important.
Avila’s also hitting the ball with some power, giving him his highest slugging average and isolated power since 2011, his Silver Slugger season.
We could look at other advanced stats, with names like weighted on-base average or runs created, and they’d tell a similar story. Among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances this year, Avila ranks in the upper third. Contrary to belief, Avila’s helping his team at the plate.
He’s helping in the field, too, which is truly where a catcher’s focus most needs to be.
On Sunday Avila threw out would-be base stealer No. 18 of the season. That’s more than he had in all of 2013 (15).
That stat can be misleading, too. For one, throwing a runner out shouldn’t always be credited or blamed on the catcher. The pitcher plays a role in keeping runners near the bag and by having a quick delivery to the plate. Catchers also receive caught stealing (CS) credit for pickoffs without even touching the ball.
But the eye test agrees with the statistics in this case. Runners are challenging the Detroit battery and Avila is making them pay for the decision.
Then you’ve got pitch framing. A study by Baseball Prospectus last year showed Avila to be among the best catchers at helping sway umpires to calls strikes, which saves runs.
You’ve got to consider Avila’s work behind the scenes and chemistry with his staff, too. During the past three season, the Tigers’ pitching staff has found more success with Avila behind the plate than any other catcher. His catcher’s ERA has been a third- to a half-run better than his teammates during that time.
Add Avila’s offense and defense up and you’ll find he’s one of the top catchers in the game right now. He ranks sixth overall and third in the American League in WAR, per Baseball-Reference’s version of the statistic.
It’s not easy to replace a player like that, so stop trying, because you’re not going to be able to do it. You might find a catcher who’s a little better at the plate, but you’re probably not going to find a more balanced player. And why give up prospects to fix a problem that doesn’t exist when the Tigers have other, more obvious problems to fix first?
No doubt Avila would be a better catcher if he struck out less often and managed to find a few more hits along the way. But what he’s doing is already more than enough. The Tigers are just fine at the catcher position.
Kurt Mensching is editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.