In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy.
I know this series is only seven words old, but I’m already breaking with the premise. The ninth spot on this year’s list belongs to James McCann and Alex Avila. The site has a math literate audience and I know including ten players on a nine player list is wrong, but I have a reasonable defense that will become clear as we proceed.
In 2016, the Tigers had one of the worst catching units in baseball. That probably sounds a little extreme because McCann and Saltalamacchia combined for 20 HR from behind the plate, but the rest of their offensive output (and four PA from Bobby Wilson) was basically a disaster. Collectively, the group had a 66 wRC+, which was fourth worst in baseball last year. All catchers combined for a 97 wRC+.
But it wasn’t just the offense that was a problem. Baseball Prospectus ranked Tigers catchers 10th worst in framing, and while they scored better in blocking and throwing, there just aren’t a ton of runs to be saved in those aspects of the game. Even the best blocking and throwing catcher in the league probably can’t add much more than a win or so to his team’s total.
It should certainly be noted that James McCann took statistically and visually noticeable steps forward in terms of receiving. Saying the Tigers catchers were bad in 2016 isn’t an indictment on their overall potential, just simply that in order for the team to squeak out the necessary four or five additional wins they need to make the playoffs this year, they have to get better somewhere and catcher is the lowest hanging fruit.
McCann and Avila are ranked jointly here because it doesn’t really matter which one steps up, just that one or both of them need to perform in order for the Tigers to be a competitive team in 2017. McCann is younger and has room to grow, while Avila has already had success in the majors that he could replicate.
McCann obviously needs to replicate his framing progress. If he’s a competent framer and maintains his strong arm, the defense will work if he’s able to hit. Unfortunately, he’s a career .244/.284/.373 hitter (76 wRC+) hitter in 810 PA. I’m not burying a guy after less than two full seasons of reps, but a 5 BB%, 25 K%, and .130 ISO is not a promising start. He needs to hit for a lot more power or he has to make more contact. He’s entering his age 27 season, which is quite young developmentally for a catcher’s offensive profile, but this needs to be a point of focus in 2017. I was more than willing to give McCann a break over the last two plus seasons as he learned how to perform behind the plate in the majors and dealt with the grind of a full season of catching. Catchers develop late at the plate, but McCann needs to start showing that ability this year or the Tigers need to find another catcher of the future.
On the other hand, Avila just turned 30 and has a long career already behind him. While Avila’s defensive skills have seemed less impressive over the last couple of years, his control of the game makes him at least a wash behind the plate if not still a positive contributor. The key will also be his bat. Avila continues to walk his way to a great OBP, but his strikeout rate up near 30% cuts down on some of his potential. Except for a dreadful 2015, Avila’s generally been able to hit for an average number of extra bases. You’re never going to see 2011 Avila again, but he’s been between 92 and 104 wRC+ in four of the last five seasons. If he runs a 95 wRC+ and performs ably behind the plate, that’s a huge improvement for the team.
And only one of them needs to deliver. The Tigers don’t need to get Posey-level production from their catcher, they just can’t carry a black hole for another year. If one or both catchers hit, the team will be poised to keep the pressure on Cleveland into the final month.