Oakland, Calif. – Purely in terms of numbers, there’s not much debate. If you’re selecting a Tigers starting catcher, it’s the guy batting .391 versus the supposed starter, who’s hitting .143.
If only it were that easy as Tigers manager Brad Ausmus weighs how much he can play his backup, Alex Avila, who was the hot-hitting choice Saturday as the Tigers got ready to play the Athletics at Oakland Coliseum (9:05 p.m.).
“Alex has forced my hand because of the way he’s swinging the bat,” said Ausmus, whose team was hoping Saturday to make it four victories in their last five games. “But I’ve got to be careful not to overplay Alex.”
The man in trouble at the moment is James McCann. He is 0-for-15 in his last five games and Friday night struck out three times against A’s pitchers in a 7-2 Tigers victory.
Thus, he sat Saturday. And there’s no guarantee he’ll be back Sunday against A’s starter and right-handed luminary Sonny Gray.
“I’d like to see Mac bust out of the funk he’s in right now,” said Ausmus, stating the obvious only because there aren’t a lot of great ways for a manager to talk about a slump that has seen McCann, despite his five home runs in 2017, tumble into a deep May dive.
McCann, of course, is 26 years old and is regarded as the Tigers’ starter. Avila is 30 and was signed as a pure backup. Avila has concussions as well as knee and neck injuries in his personal file, which is why Ausmus is being gentle in using a left-handed hitter who has been pulverizing the ball through the regular season’s first five weeks.
Avila, in 18 games, entered Saturday’s duel against A’s starter Jesse Hahn with not only his .391 batting average, but a stunning .491 on-base percentage. Throw in the .696 slugging percentage (four home runs, two doubles) and his OPS is 1.187 — nearly double McCann’s pale .648 mark.
“He’ll play against a lot of right-handers,” Ausmus said, indicating the move to the left-handed hitting Avila will be more than a platoon situation — at least until McCann gets rolling.
The Tigers were continuing their battle Saturday with the disabled list and training room. Second baseman Ian Kinsler was gone again from the starting lineup because of a sore hamstring. Ausmus made clear Kinsler could be shelved again Sunday and, because of Monday’s off-day, not play again until Tuesday’s series opener against the Diamondbacks at Phoenix.
Jordan Zimmermann was to get Saturday evening’s start. As with McCann and his early struggles, Ausmus was counting on Zimmermann to ease a bit more into his more traditional big-league routine following an up-and-down first month that has left Zimmermann with a 6.18 ERA.