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Is Alex Avila Elite?


A while back, I authored an article at my old home, Detroit Baseball Page, that Alex Avila was quickly approaching the status of best catcher in baseball, currently held in my belief by Brian McCann of the Atlanta Braves. I remember offering that opinion to some Braves fans on one of their message boards, and needless to say, if they could’ve hit me with some rotten fruit, I am sure they would of.

Now, I am not claiming to be some sort of modern day Nostradamus. If I was, I would be predicting lottery numbers and living large someplace warmer right now. But reviewing the season that Alex Avila had, I am pretty comfortable in saying that he had the best season for any catcher in baseball in 2011, making me want to go back and stick it to some of those Braves fans. That doesn’t mean anything for 2012, except we have some raised expectations of Alex Avila.

Avila performed well all around in 2011. Defensively, there was some early mishaps, and he still needs to get better at blocking baseballs, allowing a whopping 56 wild pitches in 2011. He has however improved in calling games and looks to be gaining more and more confidence in handling pitching staffs. More importantly, the pitching staff seems to be gaining faith in him. Avila controls the running game well, throwing out 32% of base stealers in 2011, and I don’t see why that can’t continue, especially considering he is relatively new to the position. The learning curve is still there.

Offensively, the numbers are eye popping for a catcher. Avila dominated two of the most important production statistics for hitters at the catching position in the saber-world in 2011, wOBA and wRC+. Avila posted a wOBA of .383 in 2011, with his next closest competitor at the position being Miguel Montero at .351. His wRC+ number of 140 easily topped the list, with Yadier Molina surprisingly coming in 2nd with 123.

Overall, Avila posted a fWAR of 5.5 on the season, beating both Matt Wieters and Molina by a full win, with both guys posting 4.3 WAR last season. The guy who I still consider the best catcher in baseball, McCann, finished 2011 with 3.7 WAR.

Clearly, Avila is part of the discussion when talking about elite catchers in baseball. Another youngster in the A.L. Central, Carlos Santana of the Cleveland Indians is in this discussion as well. Santana does spend time at 1st base, so defensively he doesn’t get the credit that Avila, or guys like Yadier Molina would get in my opinion. Santana has tremendous power though, and offensively, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his production numbers leave everyone in the dust as soon as 2012.

I guess it would be important to define elite for everyone, if I am going to answer the question in the title of this article. Elite to me is being a part of the top 10 percentile. So in this case, I am talking the top 3 catchers in all of baseball, given that there are 30 baseball teams.

One spot I have clearly given to McCann. McCann might not have posted the best stats in 2011, however, he has consistently been a masher at the plate for 6 years now, and in those 6 seasons he has posted over 24 fWAR. It’s not like McCann has been awkward wearing the tools of ignorance either. While he isn’t a plus defender, he has been solid more often than not. I also have to give him credit for posting these numbers consistently over a pretty long period of time. McCann still isn’t old either, turning 28 in about a week and half, so I don’t think he is going to fall off this list anytime soon.

The rest of the catchers are up for debate, and there is only 2 spots left in the “elite” club. Matt Wieters, Yadier Molina, Carlos Santana, and Alex Avila all have arguments that they could make. I took Montero out of there simply because I just don’t think his offensive profile can stack up with Santana and Avila. Maybe not even Wieters. I have to discount Santana until he puts in more time defensively behind the dish, and less time at 1B. So I am down to Molina, Wieters, and Avila.

Here are the positives of the 3 candidates:

Molina- Solid offensive contributor. Plus defensive catcher consistently. Has performed at an average or above level for five straight years.

Wieters- Defensively the best catcher in the American League. Improving offensive numbers.

Avila- Relative inexperience leaves room for growth. Superior offensive numbers.

The negatives:

Molina- Wear and tear on body. Not athletic. Could deteriorate quickly. Older than other 2 by 4-5 years.

Wieters- Not as patient as he could be with a bat in his hands. One solid season. One above average year.

Avila- Strikeouts. BABIP beneficiary. One excellent season.

Looking at the positives and negatives of all of these guys, it’s hard to not put Molina in the elite category. That is a surprising conclusion that I didn’t think that I would be reaching when I started this article. In fact, I didn’t even think of him as being in the discussion. While he is older than Avila and Wieters, technically, he is what most people consider in the prime of his career at age 30. 2011 was his best offensive season as well, so maybe he has developed a little in that arena.

So now the last “elite” spot is down to Wieters and Avila.

This isn’t going to be a popular choice here, but right now before the 2012 season, I would put Wieters slightly ahead of Avila. While I acknowledge that the offensive numbers were eye popping for Avila and superior to Wieters with relative ease, Wieters’ two consecutive quality defensive seasons, along with his improving offensive prowess, gives him the nod.

The good thing with Avila is that he still has untapped potential defensively, giving him room for improvement.  He did more than anyone expected in 2011, and it isn’t out of the realm of possibility he does it again. I want to see it though before I put him into the elite category. It’s too difficult for me to put a guy into elite status on the basis of one, albeit spectacular, season. I’m aware Wieters didn’t exactly light the world on fire in 2010, but he did post 2.4 bWAR two years ago, so there is more than one year of quality performance.

Whether Alex Avila is elite or not is up for debate, and the fact that he is even in the discussion is amazing. Either way, the Tigers certainly got themselves one of the best catchers in the game of baseball. I don’t even think that I would trade Avila straight up for Wieters at this point, because I do believe that Avila could consistently live in the 4+ WAR area for the next 5 or 6 years. Wieters probably will as well, but I can’t help but think Avila’s inexperience leaves him a little more room to grow.

Either way, these two young men, along with Carlos Santana, are going to provide the fans of their respective teams some joy for quite a while.