By: Kurt Snyder & Holly Horning
As Alex Avila continues to struggle with a knee problem, the Tigers have had every opportunity to determine what their catching situation will be like during “Life after Alex.”
James McCann, having been handed the everyday catching duties, has responded well in Alex’s absence. With Avila just about set to return, he is experiencing more pain in that knee; a setback I am sure is a disappointment for him.
But this begs a question regarding Alex, James and the Tigers’ evolving catching situation.
Should Alex Avila have to go on the DL for an extended period of time, how significant would the loss be?
I believe the plan the Tigers had in place when the season started was to have Avila handle the bulk of the catching duties, with the eventual intent to platoon both Alex and James McCann as they got deeper into the season.
However, Alex’s knee issues have opened the door for McCann and he has seized the opportunity. And the strengths over Avila are quite revealing. McCann is just a better catcher. Consider this: He’s more agile, more athletic, has a gun for an arm, runs well and is a much better hitter. Tell me when I should stop.
Are they missing Avila? No. How significant would it be if we continued to be without him? Not very. The torch has been passed. But I’m not going to pretend we don’t need Avila at all. Having him return as a backup to McCann would be very valuable. James is still young and can learn a lot from Alex. I would imagine there is a whole lot more to being a successful catcher than just the physical. Being able to insert Alex as an additional left-handed bat is a good option to have as well, but only when McCann needs a breather.
So, this is a major development for a Tiger team who have not been developing talent in their minor leagues. We have drafted and mostly traded our prospects. But the emergence of James McCann is very encouraging for the future of this team. This is one prospect that isn’t going anywhere.
How much weight to give it will primarily depend upon VMart’s return and whether he regains his effectiveness from the left side of the plate. And if Gose and Collins, also left-handers, can continue to contribute at the same level, even less.
Avila gets on base primarily via walks. But it’s a passive way to get runners on, rarely advances those in scoring position and is roundly denounced by successful managers of World Series teams.
Ironically, one thing that Avila contributes, and never gets mentioned, is his importance as a veteran player. Given that only 4 current players on the field have more than 1.5 years of experience, he could be helpful stabilizing his teammates.
But the linchpin argument of Avila’s solid defense is becoming less and less important with the rise of James McCann. Or, I should say, James McCannon. He has closed the gap quickly this year, faster than anyone thought he would. He’s got a rocket for an arm, is more successful at cutting down runners and more athletic going after, and catching, foul balls.
His defensive rankings continue to rise higher and higher every week compared with other catchers. He is currently only 1 of 3 in all of MLB with a perfect fielding percentage. Only two other catchers have allowed fewer steals – and only by one steal. However, his rate of throwing out base stealers is 47% with the league average of 30%.
McCann is much faster and hits for power. He just got his ninth double in the first game against the Cubs. Let’s not forget the inside-the-park-homer that showcased his power and speed. His BA, SLG and OPS are higher than Avila’s and he’s close to tying Alex in OBP.
Quite frankly, the “calls a good game” excuse used for Avila is becoming less valid. Anibal Sanchez sang his praises for calling a great game on Tuesday night and on Wednesday in an interview, Ausmus said that calling a game by a catcher is highly overrated.
But let’s face it, if you’ve got a manager with 19 years of impressive catching experience, wouldn’t you use that advantage by having Ausmus work with McCann to help him get up to speed as quickly as possible?