As a Tiger fan that attends many games and follows the team very closely, you hear a lot of things. I’ve recently heard a call out for the Tigers to use James McCann full-time because Alex Avila hasn’t done much since 2011. I wanted to share my thoughts on that idea.
James McCann has had a successful rookie season and exceeded my expectations for him. He’s great throwing out guys, he has some pop, and has been able to maintain a high average. So, on the surface, I can’t say I blame fans for wanting to start to him, but you have to dig deeper to get the whole story. The best idea is platoon between Avila and McCann. This is because Avila hits well against righties in his career, to the tune of a .255/.360/.432 batting line with power, which is above average offense for a catcher.
Avila’s Achilles heel has always been left-handed pitching, where he only hits .210 and gets on base only about 29.6% of the time, with almost no power. McCann has he opposite split, where he hits .300/.352/.500 against lefties, but only .271/.305/.400 against righties, and that number was even worse in the minors, so with the expected regression, McCann basically will struggle against righties. Oakland successfully ran a platoon at catcher between John Jaso and Derek Norris last year that worked wonders. Another point is that McCann has struggled without a few days off per week. From May 25-June 25, McCann hit just .187/.244/.280. That hurt the offense. Since June 25th, in an every-other-day role, he’s hit .464/.500/.786, proving that a little rest mentally and physically could go a long way for McCann.
There’s also the defensive side of this. Both are good defenders, but one guy has an edge in different aspect of catching. McCann has rightfully earned the nickname “McCannon” in Detroit because of his league-leading 45% caught stealing percentage. Avila catches a respectable 29% of runners based on his career numbers. Avila holds the advantage in handling and game calling and pitch framing, however. Avila has caught some of the best rotations in Tigers history and, even though the rotation has made a huge nose dive in 2015, Avila still has a 3.57 catcher’s ERA, compared to McCann’s 4.33 catcher’s ERA. Also, McCann ranks dead last among all catchers in baseball for pitch framing while Avila is in the middle of the pack according to Stat Corner’s RAA. So by using a platoon you get the best of both worlds on defense. Maybe since Avila should start against righties, and an MLB team faces more righties you could even use McCann as a defensive replacement late in some games so no runners will move into position to score.
The Tigers have the perfect platoon situation in their lap and it’s important they don’t overwork or overexpose McCann. McCann is talented but for now he’s a platoon catcher. Starting him everyday exposes his weaknesses as we saw in the above month sample. Also, Avila gets a bad rep in Detroit because he strikes out a lot and hits for a low average, on top of his dad being the assistant GM (which means nothing, but he still gets silly comments for it). Avila gets on base and walks a lot — he has a .343 OBP this year and had an OBP better than Ian Kinsler last season — so hitting him second wouldn’t be a bad idea. Then when JD, Yoenis or Victor hit a home run, as they all do often, there’s an extra man on base.
Avila is a pretty valuable piece, as he had a WAR of 2.1 last season and has shown his ability to get on base, walking seven times in his eight games back and showing off his pop with a homer is Seattle. I know you look at the batting average and see a guy hitting .195, but I’ll take a guy like Carlos Santana who hits .220 with 100 walks and 20 homers over a guy who has a .290 average but only a .310 OBP. Avila can be that first guy and though he doesn’t have Santana’s power, he has some power and a defensive ability that would make Santana blush. With the way Avila has gotten on, if he gets a few more extra-base hits, you could even squeeze both McCann and Avila in some days until Miggy comes back. But Avila’s defensive numbers as a catcher are valuable and his offense is a tick above average catcher, and could be even better if he faces fewer lefties. Detroit fans should just be happy they aren’t stuck with a guy like Mike Zunino.