Sunday, June 26, 2011

Avila on Pace for Historic Season

There have been many outstanding catchers in the long storied history of the Detroit Tigers.  Player/manager Mickey Cochrane led the Tigers to a pennant in 1934 and a world championship in 1935.  Bill Freehan was an important cog of the great teams of the 1960's including the 1968 championship club.

Big Lance Parrish was a key figure on the dominant 1984 team.  The underrated Mickey Tettleton put up some great numbers for the power-hitting teams of the early 1990s. Finally, Pudge Rodriguez had a big year in 2004 and contributed significantly to the 2006 pennant winner.    

In the first half of this season, Alex Avila's numbers match up quite well with any of the above catchers.  The 25-year-old receiver is currently batting .304/.373/.545 with 10 home runs in 64 games as the Tigers primary catcher.  He leads all major league catchers in slugging (.548), OPS (.918) and wOBA (.395).

While his offensive contribution is obvious, he has also been solid defensively.  He has thrown out 39% of opposing base stealers which compares favorably to the MLB average of 28%.  He is fifth in the majors with a Total Zone of +4 meaning that he has saved the Tigers an estimated four runs over the average catcher by throwing out base runners and pitch blocking (avoiding passed balls, wild pitches).  Catcher defense will be discussed in more detail in a later post.

Avila is clearly having a fantastic season this year, but it might surprise some people how well his season stacks up to past Tigers catchers.  Now, we can't use a statistic such as OPS to compare players from different eras.  Otherwise a hitter like Freehan, who played in 1968, the year of the pitcher, would be at a disadvantage against Cochrane who played in a period of high-octane offense.

So, we will look across years using OPS+.  OPS+ is a batter's OPS adjusted for ballpark and league average.  The league average hitter has an OPS+ of 100.  Anything better than 100 is above average.  Anything less than 100 is below average.   Only about 10% of batters have an OPS+ of 135 or higher.  The left-handed batting Avila has an OPS+ of 156, which is really really good.  In fact, it places him sixth among American League batters regardless of position.

The table below shows that Avila currently has a better OPS+ than any Tigers catcher has ever put up in a full season.  Next on the list is York, who had a 151 OPS+ in his rookie year in 1937.  He was not a very good defensive catcher though and was only playing the position because he was blocked by future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg at first base.  Freehan took the third and fourth spots on the list with 145 and 144 in 1968 and 1967.  Tettleton, Cochrane, Rodriguez and Parrish also made the list. 


Table 1: Best offensive seasons for Detroit Tigers Catchers.  


Player
Year
PA
OPS
OPS+
Alex Avila
2011
246
.918
156
Rudy York
1937
417
1.026
151
Bill Freehan
1968
635
.821
145
Bill Freehan
1967
618
.839
144
Mickey Tettleton
1991
608
.880
140
Rudy York
1938
557
.995
140
Mickey Cochrane
1935
522
.902
138
Ivan Rodriguez
2004
575
.893
136
Mickey Tettleton
1992
654
.851
136
Lance Parrish
1982
529
.868
135

Now, most sabermetric writers would point out that Alex has an elevated BABIP and that he may be playing over his head. I'm not going to dwell on that here, but I will say that it's a long season especially at the demanding catching position. Avila is catching a lot and sometimes plays designated hitter when he's not behind the plate. So, it will not be easy for him to keep his numbers quite as high as they are now.

So far though, he is on pace for a historic Tigers season. 

Note: Some data for this post were extracted from Baseball-Reference.  

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