Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Alex Avila's Awesome Season

In his his first season as the Tigers full-time catcher, Alex Avila did much more than hold his own.  The left-handed batting receiver put up numbers which compared favorably to any backstop in franchise history.  He batted .295 with 19 homers and 33 doubles and finished fifth in the American League with a .389 on-base percentage (OBP).  Additionally, his .895 OPS was eighth in the league and tops among catchers.

The 24-year-old catcher proved to be a workhorse leading the league with 133 games caught.  In fact, he may have caught too many games.  By the end of the season, he had tendonitis in both knees and was generally beat up.  While Avila handled his post-season catching duties admirably, he batted just .073 with one homer in 11 games.  However, his difficult post season does nothing to take away from his fabulous regular season.

Earlier in the year, I used the OPS+ statistic to compare Avila's season to past Tigers catchers.  Remember that 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.  So, Avila's OPS+ of 143 was really good especially for a catcher.

Table 1 below shows that Avila finished fourth all time among Tigers catchers on the OPS+ statistic.  Only Rudy York (151 in 1937) and Bill Freehan (145 in 1968, 144 in 1967) finished ahead of him.  Interestingly, Freehan also struggled in his first post-season batting .083 in the 1968 World Series.

Table 1: Single-Season OPS+ Leaders Among Tigers Catchers

Player
Year
OPS+
Rudy York
1937
151
Bill Freehan
1968
145
Bill Freehan
1967
144
Alex Avila
2011
143
Mickey Tettleton
1991
140
Rudy York
1938
140
Mickey Cochrane
1935
138
Pudge Rodriguez
2004
136
Mickey Tettleton
1992
136
Lance Parrish
1982
13
Source:Baseball-Reference

One problem with OPS and OPS+ is that they weight OBP as equal to slugging average (SLG) when OBP actually contributes about 80% more to run scoring than SLG.  Another issue is that OPS/OPS+ fail to take playing time into consideration. A better measure of overall batting is Batting Runs or BtRuns, first introduced in the Hidden Game of Baseball by Pete Palmer and John Thorn in 1984.

In the BtRuns system, weights are assigned to each batting event based on the statistical probability that the event contributes to a run. Based on the results of thousands of games, we know that the average single is worth 0.47 runs.  In other words, if one single is added to a team’s hit total in each game for 100 games, that team would be expected to add 47 runs to their season total.  Other events are weighted as follows:

1B 0.47
2B 0.77
3B 1.04
HR 1.40
BB 0.31
IBB 0.17
HBP 0.33
outs (AB-H) -0.27 (varies from year to year)

Adjustments can also be made to reflect the effect of the player's home park.

According to Baseball-Reference, Avila finished 10th in the AL with 31.2 BtRuns.  This means that he contributed an estimated 31 runs to the Tigers offense beyond what you would expect from an average hitter in the same number of plate appearances.

Table 2 shows that Avila finished fourth among Tigers catchers in BtRuns.  He is in great company.  Only Bill Freehan (33.0 in 1967 and 32.0 in 1968) and Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane (31.7 in 1935) finished ahead of him.  Others on the list include Mickey Tettleton, Rudy York, Pudge Rodriguez and Lance Parrish.

Table 1: Single-Season Batting Runs Leaders Among Tigers Catchers

Player
Year
Bt Runs
Bill Freehan
1967
33.0
Bill Freehan
1968
32.0
Mickey Cochrane
1935
31.7
Alex Avila
2011
31.2
Mickey Tettleton
1992
30.2
Mickey Tettleton
1991
30.2
Rudy York
1938
30.2
Pudge Rodriguez
2004
27.9
Rudy York
1937
26.1
Lance Parrish
1982
20.8
 Source: Baseball-Reference

What lies ahead for Avila?   Consider that that only five catchers have ever accumulated more BtRuns in a single season before the age of 25.  They are Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, Joe Mauer, Carlton Fisk and Joe Torre.  So, he is in great company. 

As seen by the beating Avila took this year, catching is a very tough position and it's very difficult for any catcher to put up great seasons on a regular basis.  However, Avila's future is sure looking very bright.

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