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Front Page: Is Alex Avila an Upgrade Over Jason Castro?

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#1 Nick Nelson

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Posted 08 December 2019 - 07:37 PM

In 2019, Mitch Garver and Jason Castro combined to form one of the most productive catching tandems in MLB history. Tough act to follow.

In 2020, Garver will be back, coming off an historic sophomore campaign, but he'll have a new partner in pitch-receiving. Will Alex Avila represent an upgrade?This 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.

OFFENSE

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.

DEFENSE

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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#2 Otwins

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Posted 08 December 2019 - 10:44 PM

I like this deal.They replaced Castro for slightly over $4 million a year. I also like the timing as now the Twins have filled some needs- two starters and the platoon catcher.They know those costs as they are bidding on higher priced free agents.

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#3 Rosterman

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Posted 08 December 2019 - 11:27 PM

He's a worthy replacement for Castro. Signed only for a year at a decent salary. He can catch, offer some production. The question is figuring out if certain catchers will catch certain pitchers no matter what. And if you will actually work Garver into the lineup at first base (and occasionally as a DH).

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#4 Richard Swerdlick

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 04:30 AM

Nice article.
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#5 tarheeltwinsfan

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 06:15 AM

Good article.


#6 diehardtwinsfan

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 08:29 AM

I personally think they need to work a bit more OBP into the lineup, so I see this as a net positive for a bit lower price. Given they have other needs, I think this was a smart signing.

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#7 rdehring

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 09:16 AM

Informative article, thanks Nick.It was difficult to watch Castro last summer, as his 19% caught stealing number is something I recall.To be honest, I don't remember his throwing anyone out.

 

I will be so happy when we have robots calling strikes and we can stop hearing about pitch framing.It is a stat that I put little faith in, although I don't understand exactly how it is calculated.I assume, perhaps wrongly, that it is based on the number of pitches that were called strikes but were actually balls.Do they offset that with the strikes that were called balls?And how do they know that it was based on what the catcher did versus the ump being out in left field with his strike zone that day? And with the way umps are all over the place with their strike zones, I don't understand how you can calculate anything like pitch framing. 

 

A great defensive catcher to me is one who throws runners out, blocks almost all the balls in the dirt and does a great job managing his pitchers.I can see the first two, don't have a clue about the third other than from the results of the game.

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#8 Brandon

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 09:31 AM

Avila is half the cost of Castro. That alone makes this a good signing considering there is no drop off in offense. And the defense difference isn't enough of a change either. So finding a placeholder till Jeffers is ready at half what we paid last year is worth it to me.
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#9 MMMordabito

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 09:34 AM

Great article.Thanks, Nick.


#10 JLease

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 10:19 AM

I think in terms of production it's probably a push, but there's a little more risk/reward in Avila over Castro. He's had higher highs and lower lows, and there's more miles on his tires, though Castro has the more recent significant injury. Financially, it's a lower risk move because it's nearly half the salary.

 

It's a good move, he should be a good fit as a platoon partner for Garver, and an excellent bridge to one of the guys coming up, whether it's Rortvedt or Jeffers. It's not splashy or sexy, but I'll keep harping on it: one of the best ways to stay competitive is giving as few plate appearances and innings as possible to bad players. These are the moves that keep the floor up, that keep a player from getting exposed before their ready, etc.

 

I liked Castro, and he was terrific in year 1, injured in year 2, and a respectable backup in year 3. It's fine to move on and Avila is a quality replacement.

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#11 stringer bell

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 12:57 PM

Baseball Reference lists Castro as #3 in similarity to Avila. Saltalamacchia was #1. 

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#12 spanman2

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 03:46 PM

I will really like it if they take the $$$ saved in the signing and invest it in some form in pitching upgrades.We shall see.

I WAS TOLD I WOULD NEVER MAKE IT BECAUSE I AM TOO SHORT. WELL, I'M STILL TOO SHORT. IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT YOUR HEIGHT IS. IT'S WHAT'S IN YOUR HEART.

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#13 rv78

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 04:33 PM

"Both Castro and Avila have had two good offensive seasons and one bad in the past three years;"

 

Not sure where you are getting your information but Avila hit .165 in 2018 and .207 in 2019. I would hardly consider either one of those as a good offensive season. He hit .264 in 2017 which might be considered sort of good.

Castro hardly qualifies as good offensively either. .242, .143, .232 is below Good. 

 

I would go so far as to say they both have had 1 average season offensively in the last 3 years. I wouldn't want either one on my roster. If Castro wasn't good enough to resign then Avila shouldn't have been worth pursuing either. 


#14 mikelink45

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 04:57 PM

An excellent article, however, I am not convinced.If it is a wash that is fine, but nothing convinces me that Castro is not slightly better at this stage.I know we all work to make the Twins players look better on the home front than they might be seen nationally.So I reserve judgment, but without a lot of concern.


#15 Nick Nelson

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 06:18 PM

 

"Both Castro and Avila have had two good offensive seasons and one bad in the past three years;"

 

Not sure where you are getting your information but Avila hit .165 in 2018 and .207 in 2019. I would hardly consider either one of those as a good offensive season. He hit .264 in 2017 which might be considered sort of good.

Castro hardly qualifies as good offensively either. .242, .143, .232 is below Good. 

 

I would go so far as to say they both have had 1 average season offensively in the last 3 years. I wouldn't want either one on my roster. If Castro wasn't good enough to resign then Avila shouldn't have been worth pursuing either. 

Solely looking at batting average isn't a good way to assess any hitter, and definitely not Avila. He gets on base because he walks a ton, and that's a valuable trait completely ignored by his AVG.

 

Avila's .774 OPS this year was 60 points higher than the average MLB catcher. His .834 OPS in 2017 was more than 100 points higher than average. He's a very solid hitter. 

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#16 jbooth2367

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 06:44 PM

I didn't see pop time mentioned, but last year both Castro AND Avila posted the exact same average pop time, 2.01 seconds. There average exchange time was exactly the same at 0.74 seconds. Average velocity was close on throws also, although Castro was slightly better (82.1 mph to Avila's to 815 mph). I was surprised at how close they have become defensively. Really is a nice signing, and only for a 1 year commitment. 

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#17 Linus

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Posted 09 December 2019 - 07:54 PM

Castro is really overrated defensively. He should send a lot of money to whoever made pitch framing a thing because that is his only plus. He doesn’t throw well and is poor blocking balls which I consider just as impactful as framing

#18 JLease

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Posted 10 December 2019 - 10:09 AM

 

"Both Castro and Avila have had two good offensive seasons and one bad in the past three years;"

 

Not sure where you are getting your information but Avila hit .165 in 2018 and .207 in 2019. I would hardly consider either one of those as a good offensive season. He hit .264 in 2017 which might be considered sort of good.

Castro hardly qualifies as good offensively either. .242, .143, .232 is below Good. 

 

I would go so far as to say they both have had 1 average season offensively in the last 3 years. I wouldn't want either one on my roster. If Castro wasn't good enough to resign then Avila shouldn't have been worth pursuing either. 

 

You need to put some of this in context: we're talking about backup catchers here, and finding one with positive offensive contributions is a little harder there. Don't compare them with a left fielder; compare them to catchers.

 

If you think Avila's 2017 season was only sorta good, I really don't know what to tell you: he had an OPS+ of 120, so he was 20% better than league average as a hitter. Last year he had an OPS+ of 100, so right at league average...which is pretty darn good for a backup catcher. Look at the Yankees: Romine had an OPS+ of 97. Houston split their backup catching duties between Maldonado & Stassi; the first was basically Avila in less time (OPS+ of 101 with an equally low BA) and Stassi was an offensive black hole (OPS+ of 19). TB gave 289 PAs to Zunino, who had an OPS+ of 44! Washington got Avila-like production out of old friend Kurt Suzuki (OPS+ of 102), but did a job split with Yan Gomes, who clocked in at 78. Dodgers gave 249 PAs to Russell Martin and his OPS+ of 79. If you get league average hitting with good defense out of your backup catcher, you're doing very well.

 

The platoon splits are very good for Avila in this situation: he should basically never play against a LHP starter absent an injury. It's a nice fit




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