Is Alex Avila an Upgrade Over Jason Castro?
Image courtesy of Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY SportsThis is not an insignificant question. As I wrote when sizing up the catching market two weeks ago, "The decision here bears more importance than your standard backup catcher pickup, because the Twins appear committed to a balanced timeshare." I estimate there will be at least 70-80 starts up for grabs at catcher.
That load could potentially be split between three players (an easier proposition with 26 roster spots), but in any case, Avila will be in line for substantial run – especially if the team decides to start using Garver occasionally at other positions. So where might fans notice an improvement in Avila, compared to his predecessor?
Let's dig a bit deeper into what the newcomer brings on both sides.
All the way back in 2011, a 24-year-old Avila burst onto the scene as Detroit's sudden star catcher, just as the Tigers were launching a mini-dynasty in the AL Central. Slashing .295/.389/.506 in 141 games, Avila was an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, and 12th-place finisher in the AL MVP balloting. A prodigious offensive threat, the young backstop piled up 19 homers, 33 doubles, 82 RBIs, and 73 walks in 551 plate appearances.
Eight years later, all of those numbers remain career highs for Avila, who wasn't able to sustain his initial brilliance with the bat. However, the traits that drove his success continue to endure. He's extremely patient (his 16.6% BB rate over the past three years leads all catchers with 500+ PA), he's got some pop (nine homers in 68 games last year), and he excels against right-handed pitching (.775 OPS career, .795 in 2019).
Offsetting these strengths, he hits very poorly against lefties (.617 OPS career, .681 in 2019) and strikes out at an exorbitant rate – like, almost Miguel Sano territory. (In fact, Sano is one of just seven MLB players with a higher K-rate than Avila's 34.3% over the past three years in 500+ PA.)
Castro is similar to Avila in many ways, but to lesser extremes. He strikes out a lot but not that much. He walks a lot but not that much. Both are considerably better against righties than lefties, so the functional platoon utility is the same. This year, 84% of Castro's 275 plate appearances came against right-handers, almost identical to Avila's 82% in Arizona.
Both Castro and Avila have had two good offensive seasons and one bad in the past three years; in both cases, strong showings in 2017 and 2019 sandwiched a dud in 2018. But Avila was better at his best, and not as bad at his worst; his total .752 OPS over that span easily beats Castro's .715. I think it's fair to say the Twins have upgraded modestly offensively with this swap, though similar overall production should be expected from Avila.
This feels like the more pertinent matter. It'd be nice to get some offensive punch out of Garver's timeshare partner but the starter already specializes on that front. Castro's biggest value to the Twins came from his veteran defensive presence, game-calling prowess, and pitch-framing skills. How will Avila measure up on these fronts?
Avila certainly has a wide breadth of experience, having spent time with four different teams since leaving Detroit (including another stint with the Tigers). He'll obviously need to build rapport with a new set of pitchers, but as a respected vet who's been around the block, that shouldn't be an issue.
The most obvious asset for Avila defensively, and a point of contrast with Castro, is his ability to control the running game. Avila's caught-stealing percentage has been better than league average in each of the last three years, and five the last six. This year he gunned down a career-high 52% of thieving runners. Castro, meanwhile, has been below average (albeit it slightly) in three of the last four years and is coming off a career-low 19%.
Pitch framing is the hot topic. It was Castro's major selling point when Minnesota signed him three years ago, and he made good on it. Here's how he stacked up during his Twins tenure according to the Adjusted Framing Runs Above Average metric via Baseball Prospectus:
2017: 16th out of 111
2018: 30th out of 117
2019: 25th out of 113
He wasn't elite at the level of a Yasmani Grandal or Austin Hedges, but Castro was consistently in the top quartile of pitch framers. From an observational standpoint, it was noticeable the way he would steal strikes for his pitchers on a semi-regular basis (especially with the likes of Kurt Suzuki serving as our baseline).
Avila's FRAA rankings over the same span are kind of fascinating:
2017: 102nd out of 111
2018: 22nd out of 117
2019: 30th out of 113
Over the past two seasons, he's been almost Castro's exact equivalent. Prior to that, he rated as a completely awful framer. And 2017 was no isolated case – Avila ranked 88th in 2016, and 103rd in 2015. He experienced a complete turnaround upon signing with the Diamondbacks in 2017.
This is almost the exact same leap Garver made from 2018 to 2019, with support from now-departed instructor Tanner Swanson:
2017: 73rd out of 111
2018: 110th out of 117
2019: 28th out of 113
Losing Swanson hurts, but it helps to have another self-made framing specialist in the house who committed to improving himself and did it. Perhaps Garver and Avila can learn from one another's contrasting strengths in this department:
Based on all the evidence we've reviewed here, it's hard to say that Avila is definitively an upgrade over Castro, but this is at worst a lateral switch with a bit more upside. When you look at the very favorable terms of his deal – an inexpensive one-year pact that preserves flexibility to move top catching prospect Ryan Jeffers aggressively – there's really no knocking Avila as the choice.
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