Mensching: Tigers’ Alex Avila isn’t an All-Star — yet

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

There’s always a player who divides fans. A player that some will love and others will hate for reason of that love alone.

It isn’t rational, though claims are made and evidence presented to back either opinion. But that’s fandom.

In years past the divisive player was Brandon Inge, who was elected to the 2009 All-Star Game when Tigers and Phillies fans teamed up to vote for “BranTorino” — Inge and Shane Victorino —in the final vote.

Just the thought of All-Star Brandon Inge has probably brought smiles to some and annoyance with the fan base to others.

I think it’s fair to say Alex Avila later carried that mantle. Early in his career he was dubbed a “savior” —jokingly, I hope — by fans. In his second full MLB season he was named to the All-Star Game. He finished the year 12th in MVP voting and with a Silver Slugger award for a batting line of .295 average, .389 on-base percentage and .506 slugging. That year he took 73 walks. He also struck out 131 times. One-hundred of those strikeouts were swinging.

You don’t need to be told to pay attention to those walks and strikeouts, because you definitely were.

Tigers' Avila standing tall at first base, plate

By the time Avila played his final season as a Tiger before becoming a free agent, 2015, he had developed a reputation as a player who would work the count deep only to end his at-bat with a strikeout. He walked a career-best 18.3 percent of the time that season and had a healthy .339 on-base percentage. He also struck out 30 percent of the time, and had a .191 batting average.

Those stats were pretty much a Rorschach test of fanhood. Do you like the “bubblegum card” stats or the ones that tell you a little more about how the game operates?

Some would point out he batted under the Mendoza line and only played because of “nepotism,” a claim you still can readily find online. Others would point out a catcher getting on base 34 percent of the time while also leading in runners caught stealing is a pretty good thing, so what exactly are they complaining about?

Avila is back with the Tigers after a year away in Chicago, and he’s still dividing fans. Which is rather mind-boggling if you paid any attention to anything this year.

Yes, he’s still striking out nearly a quarter of the time. However, entering play Monday he was batting .380 with .494 OBP and .690 slugging. He had five home runs, tying him with Miguel Cabrera and three behind team leader Justin Upton, and 18 RBIs, all the while playing in just over 60 percent of the team’s games.

Depending where you get your WAR from, Avila is either having the best season by a Tigers position player (Fangraphs) or the second best (Baseball Reference). He’s already worth 1.4 WAR less than two months into the season, making his $2 million salary a bargain.

So while some cry nepotism, others ask whether Avila is an All-Star this year.

The answer to that question is an unassailable, “Well, it depends.”

If you just want to look at a few numbers, yes, he is probably an All-Star. He has the highest WAR among AL catchers at Fangraphs (tied with Baltimore’s Welington Castillo at B-Ref), the highest average, and the best on-base and slugging percentages. He’s having the kind of two months that make you think a trip to the All-Star Game is a nice reward.

On the other hand, Avila is rather lacking in an area you generally associate with the All-Star Game: being a starter.

This season as backup to James McCann, Avila has started just 12 games as a catcher. He also filled in admirably for Miguel Cabrera at first base and has 11 starts there.

It just seems like it’s a stretch to call him an All-Star right now. Check back in a month. If he keeps playing routinely while putting up those numbers, it’ll be hard to argue against him.

So in the end I think you can say he has been contributing greatly to helping the Tigers stay afloat and rewarding the fans who stayed loyal and continued to cheer for him even when he played in Chicago.

Avila should never have been that divisive of a player — but he has carried the burden well. His haters really need to up their game.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.