This is the second in a series of pieces addressing some overlooked glaring deficiencies on the 2014 Tigers roster – and offering some potential solutions.
Alex Avila is, of course, a left-handed batter – one of the Tigers few left-handed batters. He has been mostly platooned over the past few seasons, first with Gerald Laird and then Brayan Pena. In 2014 he will be mostly platooned with (we presume) Brian Holaday – who may or may not be able to hit his weight. The problem is that mostly-platooning doesn’t seem to be enough.
Oct 17, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila (13) reacts as he after he was hit in the face mask by a foul ball during the top of the fourth inning in game five of the American League Championship Series baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. Avila would leave the game in the bottom of the fourth inning. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Last season Avila made only 16 starts against left-handed pitchers as compared to 80 starts against right-handed pitchers. That isn’t the “pure” platoon that I’d like to see – but clearly he was sitting more often against lefties. Unfortunately, Avila was still forced to endure 88 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers in 2013 – with probably about 50 coming against left-handed relievers. In those 88 plate appearances Avila put up a .139/.227/.228 slash line while striking out more than 36 percent of the time.
Though Avila has always had big splits it’s looking – from numbers alone – like those splits may be growing. That may well be – and that is cause for concern. I suspect, however, that something else is at work: Avila looks to have a much harder time with LOOGY-types than he does with left-handed starters. BR has two measures for L-R splits, one compares numbers vs. left-handed and right-handed pitchers, the other compares numbers in games started by a left-handed or right-handed pitcher. Over his career, Avila’s OPS in games started by righties and lefties is pretty similar (.774 vs. .748) while his OPS against left and right-handed pitchers diverges wildly (.809 to .629). I’d imagine that part of that would be that the mix of relievers that he sees in games started by righties and lefties is fairly similar but I don’t think he’s getting that elevated OPS in games started by lefties by simply mashing right-handed relief pitchers. What he struggles to do, no matter the starter, is to deal with left-handed relievers.
If you cut down Avila’s starts against left-handed starters, that means that more of his PAs against lefties come against relievers. If those are the guys he cannot hit, that makes his splits widen. That’s really neither here nor there aside from drawing attention to the simple fact that picking and choosing starts is not doing the trick as far as keeping Avila from hitting in situations in which he’s about as productive as Justin Verlander.
The inescapable conclusion, as far as I’m concerned, is that the Tigers MUST be more willing to pinch-hit for Avila in the late innings – before rosters expand to make it easier to squeeze another catcher in. Teams in general (and maybe Jim Leyland in particular) have been reluctant to do that, preferring always to hold a catcher on the bench in case of injury or other emergency. I think that in this case the reward from pulling Avila in the 8th so that he does not get struck out by someone like Boone Logan with men in scoring position is so great that it’s worth the tiny risk that Bryan Holaday might be injured in the 9th. The Tigers would need a backup plan, of course, and preferably one that did not require the inclusion of a dedicated emergency catcher on the 25-man roster. In addition to the immensely flexible Don Kelly (the team’s normal “emergency catcher” the past few seasons) Victor Martinez can catch even if he does not do it well. He donned the tools last season three times in interleague play and didn’t injure himself or cost the team any wins, this season is another year removed from the leg injury as well. The only drawback to Martinez as an emergency catcher – and this would only be in the very rare circumstance of a late-inning, in-game injury to Holaday or whoever else is Avila’s platoon partner – is that the Tigers’ pitcher would be forced to hit after VMart switch positions. Being that we are talking about the late innings of the game, pinch-hitting for that pitcher shouldn’t be too big of a deal. It’s not an irrelevant consideration, but I should reiterate that against a LOOGY Alex Avila hits like a pitcher himself.
Holaday is an unknown quantity and probably wouldn’t be a very good option to pinch hit himself, even if it was always against lefties. However, in games in which Avila started chances are good that Rajai Davis would be on the bench waiting to pound a lefty here as would switch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi. The same case might be made for Holaday himself, though he doesn’t have much of a major league track record on which to base assumptions, should his numbers against right-handed relief sink to a level that was simply unacceptable.