Best catcher of 2011? Alex Avila
September, 12, 2011
By Steve Berthiaume | ESPN.com
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireAlex Avila leads all regular major league catchers in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.Hypothetical: There's a major league catcher draft and you have the No. 1 pick; which catcher should you take? For the sake of this discussion, let's say you're drafting a team of current big league players and will draft only one position per round to field a team for the next five years. You have the first pick in the catchers' round. The guy you should take is Detroit's Alex Avila.
Avila has been the best catcher in baseball this season. Among the game's everyday catchers -- let's say those who have started more than 100 games behind the plate -- Avila leads the majors with a .300 batting average, .391 on-base percentage, .522 slugging percentage and .913 OPS. He's No. 1 across the board. Remember, this hypothetical applies to catching actual games, not your fantasy league team, so forget about Victor Martinez or Mike Napoli -- the guy you draft has to actually crouch down and catch for you every day. Avila has done exactly that for the Tigers.
Avila has started 117 games behind the plate and has been remarkably durable. From July 3 through last Saturday, Avila started 57 of 61 games with Detroit going 37-20 in those Avila starts. Only the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero and the Marlins' John Buck have caught more innings than Avila's 1,043. The fact that Avila has been at his best while the Tigers have pulled away from the AL Central field is not a coincidence. Avila has hit safely in 28 of his past 35 games, batting .358 with 11 doubles, eight home runs and 24 RBIs. He's reached base safely in 33 of those 35 games. Somehow, the daily grind of catching nearly every day seems to have fueled Avila's offensive production rather than drained it.
Avila is only 24 years old and turns 25 in January. He's nearly one year younger than Baltimore's Matt Wieters and has arguably moved ahead of Wieters among baseball's young catchers, although Wieters has quietly put together a promising season. Yes, there are other good candidates to consider with your top pick in the catchers draft and the offensive numbers say Avila's other two closest competitors are Montero and Atlanta's Brian McCann. If you then factor in the defensive numbers as well, here's a look at how the top four stack up (SB and CS are defensive stolen bases allowed and runner caught, while DRS is Defensive Runs Saved, via Baseball Info Solutions):
What about the rest of the contenders? Yes, Yadier Molina and Carlos Ruiz are outstanding catchers, particularly defensively. Avila is younger than both those players and gives you more offensive bang for your buck. Yes, that description would seem to apply to both Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, but consider this: How much do you really want your team's offense to depend on your catcher? In other words, can your catcher be too good a hitter?
That notion might seem ludicrous but look at the situation both the Twins and Giants were placed this year. Mauer began the season as a .327 career hitter with three batting titles and an MVP trophy. This year, Minnesota began paying Mauer $23 million per season and will do so through 2018. Mauer has hit just three home runs and already at age 28 the idea of him playing as the Twins' everyday catcher through the life of that contract seems impossible. Can the offense depend too much on a catcher? Ask the Giants. Players who hit at the level of Mauer or Posey very early in their careers demand significant investments if their franchises are going to keep them, perhaps too big an investment considering the dangers of the position. The argument can be made that you want your catcher to produce, but not so much that he leaves a gaping offensive void that cannot be adequately filled should he either face serious injury or wear down from the catching workload.
There are offensive players who can occasionally catch, such as Martinez and Napoli. There are young hitters who catch now but might soon find other permanent positions because their bats are too critical to expose to injury like Posey or Cleveland's Carlos Santana. Some teams get production from the catching position using a combination of players, like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek in Boston. Some catchers are known best as glove men, like Molina and Ruiz. However, when you consider youth, durability and production both offensively and defensively, Avila would be hard to pass up with the top pick in a catchers draft.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.