The Alex Avila Effect Beyond The Numbers

Baseball is a game of numbers. We revel in them as fans. We use them to compare the greats of the game against each other, even when history can’t be compared to the present because of changes to the game. We use numbers to determine how many wins a player is going to give a team. Fans, teams, analysts, writers, all use numbers to justify their arguments in determining a players value. Numbers are an inescapable part of our baseball lives in our every day efforts to explain outcomes that sometimes just can’t be explained.

But what about those things in baseball that can’t be measured? What about the so called intangibles? Things like mound presence, leadership, and in the case of a catcher, the ability to control a pitchers staff. How in fact do we measure the immeasurable? How do we give credit to a player  who takes out a shortstop to avoid a double play, that eventually leads to Miguel Cabrera getting an at bat that wins the game?

Aug 3, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila (13) and relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit (53) celebrate after the game against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park. Detroit won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As precious as numbers are to baseball, they don’t always tell the whole story, especially about catchers. Catchers effect baseball games in more subtle ways than anyone on the diamond. They are involved in every pitch defensively, as well as getting time on the offensive side of things. This, the offensive side, is often where fans and analysts spend much of their focus, because numbers are tangible. We can see them, analyze them, and measure them.

But do  numbers matter when it comes to a catcher? How do we go about judging the effectiveness of a player like Alex Avila? Is it about ERA?

Well, I don’t exactly think that is the complete answer, though I do believe ERA shows a comfort level between the pitchers and catcher when there is discrepancy between the starter and the back up.

Ultimately, the game of baseball boils down to wins and losses. That’s what teams are judged on. It is about whether or not teams win the big prize of taking home a World Series title.

Let me do some background here before I get to my end.

Tigers catcher Alex Avila has been under a tremendous amount of fire from Tigers fans this year. At least until recently when his second half offensive surge has begun to get Avila out of Tigers fans’ doghouse. It is no surprise that offense has been the catalyst to the fans beginning to respect Avila once again. After all, in 2011, Avila was one of, if not the best offensive catcher in the game for a year. He likely played at a level above what he is capable of in 2011, but still, the drop off in the past two years offensively has been immense. Every major offensive statistic has seen a drastic drop, and ultimately has affected his overall value.

Despite Avila’s recent offensive surge, .273 batting average in the second half with an OPS of .831, his overall line is still atrocious at a .198 batting average and an OPS of .628. Couple that with back up Brayan Pena‘s really good offensive season, and you get a lot of fans suggesting that Brayan Pena should receive more time, or maybe even share time with Avila.

That assertion seems completely fair, especially considering when all of the numbers would support such a theory. Pena’s offensive output this season has completely dwarfed Avila’s. Pena in contrast to Avila is hitting .306 this season with an OPS of .753. Pena’s wOBA average would be 7th in all of baseball ahead of respected guys like Matt Wieters and Salvador Perez. His fWAR is 0.5 on the season. Avila’s is zero. Baseball reference is a bit nicer to Avila, his WAR is 0.1 on that site, while Pena once again tops Avila with 0.2 bWAR.

In the case of Alex Avila, the numbers couldn’t be more wrong. His contribution to the Tigers clearly can’t be seen in numbers. It can be seen in the Tigers win/loss record. Overall on the season, the Tigers stand atop the American League Central with a 70-49 record. The Tigers record when Alex Avila doesn’t start the game? It is 23-25. It is 47-24 when he does.

Now, that is a number I can get behind.

We bend numbers every which way in an effort to find out truths about performance on the baseball diamond. And often, we accept them at face value. This isn’t an attack on WAR, or advanced metrics by any means. I often use them myself in articles, and evaluating the performance of players. But sometimes we have to step a take back and remember, baseball is a great game that is more than just numbers. Those intangibles? They really do matter. And they matter more at the catching position than anything else. How else can we explain a catcher who has less WAR, and far less offensive output, having a substantially better win/loss record?

We can’t, because baseball isn’t as simple as we want it to be…and some things just won’t be answered.

The Tigers head into a weekend series with the surging Kansas City Royals without their starting catcher, and make no mistake, despite Brayan Pena and his capability to fill in when needed (this is no knock on him), the Tigers are going to miss Alex Avila.

You know how I know? The wins and losses tell me so.

And in the end, isn’t that all that matters?

Topics: Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers

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  • chrisHannum

    Since Avila never plays against left-handed starters, that might have something to do with it.

  • Sparkfist

    There’s no doubt that the numbers support the fact that the pitchers perform better with Avila behind the plate, and as they say- good pitching beats good hitting…

    If you head over to b-ref and look at the league pitching splits, they have the splits by catchers. There you’ll see a column called ‘tOPS+’, which is a fun stat that not many people know about. In OPS+, league average is 100, above is better and below is worse. tOPS+ compares the OPS of batters with a certain catcher behind the plate to the average overall OPS given up by the league’s pitching staff.

    The lower the number, the worse batters do with a catcher behind the plate. Avila’s tOPS+ is 74, which is the lowest in the entire league among starting catchers. Which means batters put up an OPS 26% worse than average when Avila is behind the plate. The only player lower is Jeff Mathis, who has started 49 games and has a 72 tOPS+. (Brayan Pena is a 103, which means batters do slightly better with Pena behind the plate than league average). The next best starting catcher is McCann and Ellis at 82, and Martin at 85.

    You can also do this split by team, where you’re narrowing the comparison to just the Tigers pitching staff, wherein Avila’s tOPS+ 85 and Pena is at 116 (Holaday at 152).

    On a funny note (or not funny), Bryan Holaday’s league tOPS+ is 138, which is the second worse in the entire league behind Omir Santos, who caught in 1 game and his is 286, lol.

    Just the batting line alone with Avila behind the plate is nuts: .225/.283/.337/.620. You can win a lot of games with that, considering our offense.

    • John Verburg

      Thanks for the numbers breakdown. I knew that the pitching numbers were significantly better with Avila behind the dish, so there was some number support there, but I wanted to just hint at that and present that overall our advanced numbers like WAR suggest that Pena contributes to winning more, which clearly isn’t the case. I think fans often get too lost in the offensive numbers and forget that there are many aspects that affect the game, especially at the catching position. Hopefully it was an enjoyable read.