Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Alex Avila Looking Solid Defensively

Tigers catcher Alex Avila has been battling injuries all year which has limited his playing time and hampered his offense compared to last year. After batting .295/.389/.506 in 551 plate appearances in 2011, Avila is down to .248/359/.389 in 2012.  This is drawing a lot of criticism from Tigers fans who had high expectations coming into the season, but he is actually performing better than the average American League catcher this year (.242./.310/.398) especially in terms of on-base percentage.

Along with his more than acceptable offense for a catcher, Avila has looked quite capable behind the plate in 2012.  In  this post, I will take a close look at the defensive numbers.

The system used to evaluate catchers is complex and I'm not going to rehash the whole thing here.  If you want to see the details, you can read my earlier article.  I do want to give credit to others who inspired me with similar work in the past:  Sean Smith, Justin Inaz, Matt Klaasen and Mike Rogers.

First, a near full year of defensive data is still a relatively small sample size so you should use caution in interpreting the results.  Also keep in mind that these numbers do not capture everything that a catcher does.  For example, they say nothing about game calling, pitch framing or understanding of pitcher abilities and tendencies. I am only going to evaluate catchers based on what we can most easily measure - controlling the running game, pitch blocking and avoiding errors.

Table 1 contains data for all catchers with at least 550 innings through September 24 which covers most of the MLB starters.  The CSRuns column gives us an estimation of how many runs each catcher saved/cost his team compared to the average catcher by controlling the running game.  It is based on stolen bases against and caught stealing.  Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is the MLB leader with an estimated nine (9.4) runs saved over an average catcher.  Avila is 9th out of 31 catchers with 3.1 runs saved.  A negative sign before a number indicates that a catcher cost his team runs.  The worst receiver in this category is Kurt Suzuki who has cost the the Athletics and Nationals an estimated 12 (-11.9) runs. 

The next column (WPPBRuns) tells us how many runs catchers saved/cost their teams with pitch blocking or preventing passed balls and wild pitches.  Number one is Orioles backstop Matt Wieters with about five (4.9) runs saved. On the other hand, Wil Rosario has cost the White Sox about 12 runs (-11.9).  Avila is about average (-0.2) on this statistic which is an improvement over last year when he cost the Tigers an estimated four runs with his pitch blocking.

The TERuns column tells us about throwing errors.  There is not a lot of variation between catchers here, but Braves receiver Brian McCann leads with 1.3 runs saved.  Conversely, Rosario has cost the Rockies -2.3 runs on throwing errors.  Avila is right around average (-0.2). 

The FERuns column indicates how many runs catchers have saved/cost their teams with fielding errors.  Again, there is not a of of variation.  The leader is Molina with 0.8 runs saved.  The worst is Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz (-1.4).  Avila is in the top five in the majors on this measure saving the Tigers 0.6 runs.

The final column (CatchRuns) is the sum of the previous four columns.  It tells us how many runs catchers saved/cost their teams on the above items combined.  The leader is catcher Ryan Hanigan who has saved Cincinnati about 14 runs (14.1).  The worst is Barajas who has cost the Pirates about 11 runs (-10.7).  Avila has saved the Tigers between three and four runs (3.3) with his defense according to this measure.  That ranks him 10th in the majors.

In summary, Avila has been good at controlling the running game and avoiding fielding errors and right around average at pitch blocking and throwing errors.  Overall, he is in the top third among major league catchers defensively.  Combine that with slightly above average offense for the position and you've got a pretty solid catcher. 

Table 1: Catcher Runs Saved/Cost through September 24, 2012

Data source: Baseball-Reference

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