Is There Hope For Avila Against Lefties?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

At this particular website, we don’t put up with any of the anti-Avila nonsense you sometimes here out in the world. Avila, despite his imperfections, is a really solid major league catcher. Buster Posey he is not, but he’s a good player and a vital part of the organization. Really, if you think Avila’s subpar, it’s because you care about batting average and that’s a silly thing about which to care.

But Avila’s overall quality is worth putting in the context of his strengths and weaknesses. Avila’s a really good defender. He works well with his pitching staff. He has great discipline and nice power. We also know that he’s really, really terrible at doing the part of baseball that requires you to run between the bases. And of course, he struggles against southpaws.

And the difficulties with lefties is actually worth talking about. I don’t care what his batting average is, but there is a real gap between his performance against RHP and LHP to the point at which you wonder if the team might benefit from running a full on platoon with James McCann next season. The Tigers kind of toyed with it in 2014, but it wasn’t anything official or permanent. Let’s see if we can find any hope for Avila against lefties or if we just ought to assume it’s a lost cause.

Year PA vs LHP wOBA vs LHP PA vs RHP wOBA vs RHP Difference
2009 11 0.525 61 0.387 -0.138
2010 38 0.245 295 0.305 0.060
2011 148 0.343 403 0.399 0.056
2012 103 0.257 331 0.349 0.092
2013 88 0.213 291 0.339 0.126
2014 116 0.268 341 0.326 0.058

We can probably ignore the first two seasons due to LHP sample size, but if we look into 2011 and beyond it’s something in the 60 to 130 points of wOBA range for a platoon split which is considerably more than average. Clearly 2011 is the Avila outlier season and he’s probably more of a .260 hitter against lefties and something like .330 to .340 against righties.

He strikes out more, walks less, has lower BABIPs, and less power against lefties. It’s everywhere. Generally, this should be about sliders. If you get killed by same side pitchers it’s usually about breaking balls.

Using Baseball-Savant, we find no extra base hits off lefty sliders in 2014. He saw 92 lefty sliders in total. Here’s what happened:

  • 45 balls
  • 16 called strikes
  • 8 fouls
  • 6 in ground outs
  • One single
  • Missed bunt
  • 15 whiffs

Let’s recap. He took about half of them for balls and among the rest, he got exactly one to the outfield. That’s not very encouraging. And this image seems particularly relevant.

chart (2)

Avila is a very solid performer against righties, but against lefties, he lets them get away with this. It’s a 16.3% swinging strike rate and a 52% contact rate against lefty sliders. Maybe you can forgive him for the ones in the zone because, well, what are you going to do.

So let’s just talk about the 69 lefty sliders outside the zone. 45 balls, 9 called strikes, 2 fouls, ground out, single, missed bunt, 10 whiffs. A 14.5% swinging strike rate and a 33.3% contact rate.

Avila saw 460 pitches from lefties and about 20% were classified as sliders. He took 263 total pitches and swung and missed at 68. That’s a 65.5% contact rate against left-handed pitchers overall. Translate that to a 68.2% contact rate against lefties not throwing a slider, or a 16% gap between his contact rate versus lefty sliders and lefty everything else.

Of course this is just a single season, but it’s not like 2014 came out of nowhere in terms of his numbers versus left-handed pitches. Realistically, if Avila can’t learn to do anything at all against the slider, he’s probably not going to be worth much against left-handed tossers.

Thankfully he has other virtues and James McCann looks more than capable of handling the weak half of a platoon. We know Avila’s not going to get 500 PA in a season at catcher ever again, so it’s probably reasonable to consistently sit hit against lefties, or at least lefties with competent breaking stuff.

This isn’t a horribly groundbreaking thought, but it’s important to note that the Tigers’ backup catcher needs to be selected for his ability to handle left-handed pitchers, rather than the defensive side of the game. You can’t put out a zero behind the plate, but if you’re not getting a real hitter, you’re not getting an advantage. If you can take 80-100 PA of .260 wOBA and plug in a catcher who can run a .320 wOBA, you’re taking about half a win over the course of a season. In order for that not to make sense, you have to think McCann is something like 30 runs worse than Avila on defense over a full season, which he’s not.

The only reason not to jump in with both feet on a platoon is if the pitchers really hate throwing to someone other than Avila, and despite what Brad Ausmus might have you think, McCann is a perfectly capable receiver. And he’s very likely in line for plenty of 2015 plate appearances.

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