Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What's the Catch? Avila vs Martinez Broken Down

When the Tigers signed Victor Martinez, both the Manager Jim Leyland as well as GM Dave Dombrowski were adamant that Martinez wouldn't do the bulk of the catching. Leyland said he saw Martinez as someone who could DH and play first base some while Dombrowski said he envisioned Martinez catching "two or three days a week." Clearly it was never the plan for the defensively challenged Martinez to be the full-time backstop. Instead the job of primary catcher would belong to Alex Avila.

For his part, the 23 year old Avila is an incomplete product. As a defender Avila is more solid/good than great, but he picks balls fairly well and with pop times in the 1.85 range, he's capable at controlling the running game. As a hitter however he's not fully developed. Rushed to the Majors at just 21 years old, Avila never really developed the ability to hit lefties, and as such is almost strictly a platoon bat. Thankfully for lefties like Avila, 70% of the pitches thrown in Major League baseball still depart from the hand of a righty.

The conundrum the Tigers find themselves in - or perhaps, that fans find themselves in - is what is truly the most efficient way to utilize the two players? Measuring one player against another is frequently complex, with many factors that need to be considered, but when it comes to catchers, making objective observations becomes ever more complicated due to the lack of reliable defensive metrics. Thankfully to say, where advanced defensive metrics fail us, traditional scouting and traditional numbers can provide some degree of help.

Without getting into the effect of game calling (again, really tough to measure objectively) there are some subjective observations that can be made.


Notes: SBO (Stolen Base Opportunities) SBA (Stolen Base Attempts)  CS/C% (% of steal attempts caught by catcher)

One of those observations would be that Martinez is one of the most run on catchers in the game. Opposing teams have attempted a steal in nearly every game he's caught. On the surface, that might not sound like much, but when you consider the attempt rates against other poor catchers with poor defensive reputations, it's still very high. We can also see that he doesn't catch many of those base runners - and since we know his pop time is a subpar 1.95, we know why that is.

No huge shock there.

Avila, with a league average-ish pop time of 1.85 has a league average caught stealing rate. Again, the numbers simply bear out what our basic scouting knowledge tells us. Beyond the CS% however, we also see that teams simply run on Avila far less. But we also see that despite Martinez's reputation as a poor defender, he's been far better at preventing pitches from getting past or away from him.

Extrapolated out over 130 games (a reasonable number for a catcher playing a full season):


In this chart EBA (extra bases allowed) shows that for all intents and purposes, the two are pretty much equal in terms of how many extra bases they allow the opposition to take. Yes, Martinez is horrible at controlling the running game, but Avila has been equally bad in regards to allowing balls to get by him.

So in the end, it all comes down to offense, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who wins that discussion. When the Tigers signed Martinez this past off season I noted;
"his value to the Tigers will ultimately be defined by just how much time he can spend behind the plate as a capable option at catcher, because his bat is great at that position, but significantly less so as a DH."
If we can assume that Martinez and Avila are, for all intents and purposes, equal in terms of defense (something that flies in the face of convention, I know) then the Tigers are best served not by having Martinez catch just 2-3 games per week, but rather by ensuring that he catches 4-5 games a week while having Avila catch games for pitchers with good control (to minimize the PB/WP issues) and against hittable right-handed pitching - or when playing a team that can run and will run all day like the Royals. Obviously you won't find that perfect spot-start often but you can try and ensure that he catches games only where at least one of those is true. 

Again assuming a equal defense, the prospect of having a lineup consistently manned by Martinez at catcher and a league average bat at designated hitter for 130 games is far more appealing than having one in which Martinez is the DH with Avila catching 130 games. 

Avg. DH

As we see, that difference in offense could be pretty massive - just shy of 20 runs or an even 2.0 WAR. For comparisons sake, it's approximately the same value that the Tigers got from Ryan Raburn (2.1 WAR) in 2010.

I'm definitely no fan of Martinez behind the plate. There is no lie to the assertion that he's not a good defensive catcher, especially when it comes to stopping the opposing team from running like a thief from the scene of a robbery. But he is better than advertised (still not good) at keeping the ball in front of him, and a lot better than Avila (at least in his limited time).

If the Tigers intend to maximize their return, both in terms of WAR/dollar value, having Martinez behind the plate as much as possible is absolutely the right move. It ensures you're getting the most out of his bat while maximizing your lineups production.

Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both,, and He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.

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