On Friday, Alex Avila and the Detroit Tigers avoided arbitration by agreeing to a 1-year $4.35 million deal with $5.4 million option that activates if Avila makes the all-star team, wins a Silver Slugger, or is top 15 in the MVP race. Avila has wanted an extension this offseason to stay with the Tigers past 2014, but it looks like an extension will have to either be signed during the season or next offseason.
If Avila wants a long-term extension, he is going to have to play better in 2014. Avila’s career has been defined by one season: 2011. This was the season where Avila hit at a .295/.380/.506 split with 19 HR and a WAR of 5.2. This was also the season where Avila played in a career high 141 games, which is very high for a catcher. In 2013, Matt Wieters played in 140 games to lead all catchers.
Outside of 2011, in the 3 full seasons Avila has played (2010, ’12 and ’13), he has not had a batting average over .250 (.228, .243, and .227), an OBP over .355 (.315, .352, and .317), home run numbers above 11 (7, 9, 11), and a WAR above 2.5 (0.1, 2.5, and 0.7). Now, people may argue that the catcher’s position is not one based on offense, but the Tigers are relying on Avila to be a source of offense more in 2014.
The Tigers traded away their best left handed power bat in Prince Fielder and need Avila to help fill this void. The Tigers also let Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta walk in free agency who provided about a combined 15-25 home runs on a year to year basis. The power drop that left the team in Fielder and Peralta (sorry Omar) will have to be filled in by Ian Kinsler and Alex Avila. Anything that Nick Castellanos provides this season is a bonus because he is mostly an unknown. Everyone has their hopes, but the expectation for Castellanos is to be a solid 3rd baseman and not be an offensive liability. If Castellanos has some problems adjusting to the Major League level, Avila will especially need to step up.
People argue that one of the reasons that Avila may not be able to perform as well as he did in 2011 is the beatings that he takes on a nightly basis behind the plate. This may be true to a point, but I have a hard time believing that Avila gets hit as often as he does just by dumb luck. In all of the baseball I have watched, I can count the number of times that a catcher has been hit by a backswing of a batter on one hand. Avila also seems to get hit with a lot more foul balls than opposing catchers. The number of times that this happens to Avila may be lower than other catchers, but there is no statistic that keeps track of foul balls to the face or number of times hit with a backswing.
The reasons that I believe that he gets hit as much as he does, especially with a backswing, has to do with his positioning behind the plate. It may be as simple as a lean forward with the head too far or just creeping up from his catching position to receive the pitch. If manager Brad Ausmus, who was a catcher in his day, sees a problem which leads to Avila getting hit, could fix some of Avila’s mechanics so he can avoid getting hurt, Avila could play more games and have a better 2014 season.
If Avila does not work out this season, we may see James McCann on the Tigers’ roster in 2015. He could compete for and maybe even win the starting catching job.