Detroit Tigers fans mostly had one of two reactions to the news that Alex Avila was coming back. They were either happy to have the fan favorite back, or they were mad because his dad is the GM and they think it’s a move in nepotism for a guy with a low batting average. This move is actually one of the more underrated of the offseason, and it could really help the Tigers, especially at $2 million, well below market value for a guy who had a WAR of 1.0 in just 57 games last season.
Avila is very good for the Tigers, as he’s worth about a half of a win on defense each year. Avila’s pitch framing isn’t very strong, but he’s familiar with the pitching staff and he has caught nearly 30 percent of attempted base stealers in his career. He will make a good platoon partner as James McCann continues to learn and improve his defense, and bringing back Avila, who has caught Justin Verlander hundreds of times, make a lot more sense than bringing in a catcher who will have to learn the pitchers this spring, especially when the other affordable options were not really much better.
Avila and McCann should platoon. Avila had a slightly higher OBP and SLG than McCann last season, but overall their numbers suggest that if they are platooned correctly they could be one of the best tandems in the AL at catcher. Avila deserves most of the starts against right-handed pitching, as he has a slash line of .247/.357/.418 against right-handers in his career and averages a home run every 32 plate appearances. McCann kills lefties, with over half of his career home runs coming against them despite having just 244 career plate appearances against them. He slashes .283/.335/.529 against lefties, compared to .228/.263/.307 against righties. If you combine that production and play to each hitter’s strength, your catcher position is better than what half of your league has. If these two platoon, the Tigers could easily have the top catching production on offense in their division, even better than Salvador Perez does with Kansas City.
Avila is an improvement over Jarrod Saltalamacchia too. Salty started off the 2016 season strong and showed power and clutch ability, but Avila is an overall better catcher. Avila is just as clutch as Saltalamacchia, as he’s had five walkoffs for the Tigers and numerous big home runs that ended up being the difference in the game, like his homer on August 5, 2013, against Cleveland for a huge divisional win. Aside from the clutch ability, Avila averages a home run in 2.5 percent of his plate appearances compared to Saltalamacchia’s 3.3 percent, but Avila also had an OPS that was over 100 points higher than Salty’s last season. Saltalamacchia only had 14 hits after the All-Star break last year, while Avila got on base 36 percent of the time. There’s a clear-cut better hitter, and at this point it’s the 30-year-old Avila. When it comes to defense, most metrics favor Avila too, and overall he had 1.2 (Avila was at 1.0 to Salty’s -0.2) more WAR than Saltalamacchia did and did so in nearly 100 fewer plate appearances.
Also, swapping out Avila for Cameron Maybin is more of an even trade than it seems. Maybin will probably not quite repeat his 2016 production. He’s more likely to hit more around .260, which will take his production back down. Averaging out the last three seasons actually has Avila as a slightly better player than Maybin. Maybin obviously is a different kind of player than Avila, but he normally will contribute about 1.1 WAR a season, whereas Avila has averaged 1.3. Avila grades out as a better defender and he he’s just as good a hitter.
Hitter A: .210/.337/.345, 96 RC+ (about league avg.), .134 Isolated Power
Hitter B: .275/.337/.376, 98 RC+ (about league avg.), .101 Isolated Power
The main giveaway is Maybin’s .275 batting average, but that’s also fueled by a .333 BABIP. We also know that things like OBP, SLG, and isolated power have a lot more importance over average. Essentially, though, the Tigers are likely getting the same hitter in Avila that they would’ve had in Maybin last season.
Avila also had a 25 percent line drive rate last season, and his hard contact percentage was around the median for catchers with at least 200 plate appearances. Catching isn’t an offensive position, but if you use Avila right and dig deeper than his lackluster batting average, you will find that the Tigers signed a useful player to an affordable contract at almost no risk. Avila basically brings back what the Tigers lost in Maybin production wise, and they can try out JaCoby Jones in center (or grab a cheap free agent). The Avila signing will probably be one of the offseason’s most underrated moves, but it seems to be a very good signing.