Alex Avila and the Frame Game
Image courtesy of Michael Chow-USA TODAY SportsDepending on which statistical warehouse you consult, Avila’s skills in 2019 floated somewhere between good and average.
According to ESPN/TruMedia’s Framing Runs Above Average metric, Avila was 6.3 runs above average, equating to about half a win to the team’s ledger. This was two runs better than either Mitch Garver or Jason Castro’s season. Likewise, Baseball Savant suggests that Avila was better than the Twins’ duo at stealing strikes in the shadow area just outside of the rule book strike zone. However, Baseball Prospectus’ framing metric, a proprietary data point engineered to include all considerations (including which hitter, umpire, and pitcher) in their calculations, says that Avila’s 2019 was slightly worse than Garver and Castro. StatCorner’s framing rankings echoes the same as BP. Meanwhile Fangraphs had Castro as the trio’s top framer, with Avila following closely and Garver far behind.
Clear as mud, right?
What we can say for sure is that Avila’s defense is trending in the right direction (after all, almost all of those statistical framing models said he was a downright atrocious backstop before landing in Arizona) so presumably he can only get better from here.
And better is something the Twins have been capable of providing.
This past season we learned that under the right guidance catchers can transform from below average to above average receivers, as Mitch Garver showed going from frying pans to soft hands. The catcher whisperer who provided that guidance, Tanner Swanson, is no longer with the organization but the Twins have confidence they still have multiple catching coaches who can implement the same teachings.
Alex Aliva has softened his stance a bit on the framing discussion. For instance, heading into his first spring training with Arizona prior to the 2018 season Avila said he doesn’t like the word “framing” and when asked about the data he replied, “To be honest with you, I can't care less what the numbers say.”
Thankfully for the Twins, Avila’s experience in the Diamondbacks’ organization may have helped convert him into a believer in the gospel of framing. He still might hate the word but he has embraced the concepts. Unlike the teams Avila previously played with, including the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox, the Diamondbacks decided to put a premium on framing metrics. After spending time tweaking his style with Dbacks catching coach Robby Hammock, Avila, who had a very traditional mindset to the position, even started dropping to a one-knee set-up when no one was on base beginning in 2018.
With the success of that addition, Avila could be receptive to undergoing the Twins’ graduate program.
Under Swanson’s tutelage, the Twins’ catching instructors found that most catchers who at least tried the new technique will tell you that they actually like it over the traditional method. So much so that they used it in all situations -- runners or not.
“I think if you ask our guys, most, if not all, would tell you this is how they would prefer to do it,” Swanson said last spring about the one-leg set-up. “We’re also learning that we can still block and throw effectively from these positions too and, although it’s different and hasn’t necessarily been explored in the past, that’s not scaring us from seeing what we can learn.”
The Twins are no strangers when it comes to the value of receiving. This past weekend, Josh Kalk, the organization’s director of pitching, was extolling the virtues of stealing strikes during his presentation at a coaches conference in Texas. A good receiving catcher is worth about 0.3 runs per game, Kalk told the audience. It is clear that the Twins place a high value on the receiving game and Avila’s signing is an indication they believe he can produce in that regard.
Where Avila thrived in 2019 was flipping counts in his pitchers’ favor. This past spring Twins’ catching prospect Ben Rortvedt explained that flipping counts was a critical emphasis for the org’s backstops. “Flip counts and flip innings,” he said, a motto amongst the system’s minor leaguers that referred to getting the even counts to swing to favorable counts. Simply, the more you are in pitcher’s counts, the more outs you can typically get: the difference in results between a 1-2 count and a 2-1 count was .565 OPS points.
In 2019, Avila had the 11th-best strike looking above average rate in even counts. In layman’s terms, he was fairly strong at keeping strikes, strikes, and making others off the plate look good too. By comparison, Garver was 20th and Castro was 35th in those situations. While Avila succeeded in even counts, his weakness was gaining strikes in the vital two-strike situations. His performance with two strikes fell to 50th, while both Garver and Castro finished in the top 20, helping the Twins have one of the league’s better receiver corps in punch-out counts.
The value of which skill is better -- getting to two-strikes or closing the deal -- is debatable but the correct answer is both. And that’s the direction the Twins would like their backstops to trend. If you can add Garver’s two-strike receiving strength to Avila’s repertoire, he becomes that much more valuable of a defender.
Even if Alex Avila comes to the Twins and tells them he’s not interested in any of this newfangled receiving styles, he is still capable of being a strong complement to Mitch Garver as a defensive platoon nevertheless.
Starting with Avila’s weakness -- breaking balls -- we see that he and Garver are near polar opposites.
Garver’s new receiving technique, working under the pitch and moving back into the zone while catching it, has paid dividends on breaking balls. On pitches that are moving down and to the side Garver has captured these much better than in the past. This has enhanced the bottom of the zone. On the other hand, Avila, who starts on top of the pitch and works down, loses more breaking balls at the bottom of the zone.
But you will also notice that Avila is better than average at getting/keeping elevated breaking balls as strikes. One reason for this is that Avila, in a one-leg set-up, will let a high breaking ball travel rather than trying to get it near a spot, giving the optics of a breaking ball that may have dropped in the zone.
Elevated breaking balls are typically mistakes yet they happen so infrequently that it catches hitters by surprise. They rarely swing at a curveball that starts over the zone only to clip the upper reaches of the strike zone. Last year, hitters swung at just 18 percent of curveballs that landed in the upper third of the zone while swinging at 44 percent of curves in the lower third. It may help save a few oops pitches but this chart might also be Exhibit A to show Avila where he needs to improve his game.
At the same time, with his current technique, Avila proved to be able to handle fastballs better than Garver and gained strikes all around the zone, particularly with elevated fastballs.
Pitchers like Jake Odorizzi, who live in the upper third of the zone, may find throwing to Avila beneficial under those circumstances. Similarly, free agent target Hyun-Jin Ryu also utilizes that air space regularly. It is conceivable that the Twins could sell Ryu on the ability to throw to Avila who can strengthen his approach.
Another potentially positive element about Avila’s fastball receiving would be for Jose Berrios, who locates a two-seam fastball on his arm-side corner of the plate -- a zone that is red for Avila but bluer than blue for Garver. Last season Castro aided in getting Berrios a 10% called strike rate on fastballs off the plate in that area whereas Garver held a 4% rate. Avila’s handling of that pitch may give Berrios an advantage.
What makes Avila good at receiving that pitch is his set-up. Unlike Garver, who typically aligns himself at the edge of the zone, Avila will situate off the plate and angle back over, almost creating a new lane for pitchers to exploit.
As mentioned, Avila could benefit Jose Berrios’ two-seam and changeup movement which fades in that direction and, since we’re in the middle of the hot stove season, another free agent pitcher that could be helped by gaining strikes in that area: Madison Bumgarner. That’s right where Bumgarner locates his fastball and cutters.
Regardless if Avila embraces the Twins’ catching methodologies or remains with his current receiving set-up, he has the ability to add marginal gains to the team’s bottom line and, at the very least, replace some of Jason Castro’s defensive output.
MORE FROM TWINS DAILY
— Latest Twins coverage from our writers
— Recent Twins discussion in our forums
— Follow Twins Daily via Twitter, Facebook or email
- wavedog likes this