clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Alex Avila will try to shed limitations with White Sox

Concussions, knee injury have hampered performance of former standout Detroit catcher

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Avila is younger than Tyler Flowers. By an entire year.

I don't know if I would've answered that correctly if I had to blurt out an answer before I lost a finger for every second I hesitated. Avila started getting regular playing time as a 23-year-old, while Flowers needed a Ramon Castro broken finger to get backup work at 25. That difference in career trajectories has created quite a disparity with the experience stats:

Avila Flowers
Starts at catcher 593 371
Innings at catcher 5,225 3,294
Plate appearances 2,084 1,267

Avila established a beachhead with a tremendous 2011. In his first full season as an unfettered starter, he hit .295/.389/.506 (good for a 142 OPS+) with 56 extra-base hits and 82 RBIs. He made the All-Star team, he won a Silver Slugger, he earned MVP votes, and he deserved every accolade.

In the following years, Avila couldn't find an encore. That's not a black mark on his record, because any MVP-vote season from a catcher is a blessing. But increased vulnerability against left-handed pitching dragged both his rates and counting stats down to mere above-averageness.

Not to mention the injuries. Hawk Harrelson might lean on superlatives too often, but he had reason to say that Avila took the worst beating of any catcher. For instance, the one with the sparks:

He entered the season trying to figure out how to avoid adding to his concussion total, and his solution was a hockey-style mask and a lower stance. That part preserved his head, but it had an adverse effect on his defense (receiving and blocking), and a knee injury reduced the health gains as well.

The result: his worst season. He hit .191/.339/.287 over 219 plate appearances, and his defensive numbers took a nosedive. While Flowers was the third-best framer in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus, Avila was the 10th worst.

That's why he's now a member of the White Sox on a one-year, $2.5 million contract to take Geovany Soto's role.

If he's lucky, he'll get Soto's health. Knee injuries cost Soto most of his 2012 and 2014 seasons, but he made it through 2015 with no such issues and parlayed it into a raise and potential starting job with the Angels. Perhaps Herm Schneider can guide Avila through that particular minefield, even if he can't do much for the concussions.

(He could maybe learn something from Flowers, who is five inches taller than Avila but somehow provides one of the game's lowest targets. Brad Ausmus theorized that Avila leaves himself open to foul tips because he sets up higher. Flowers doesn't have Avila's foul-tip problems despite being a much bigger dude, for what that's worth.)

If Avila can stay healthy, then the fit is there. Even though he misplaced his hitting tools in 2015, he still posted a .339 OBP (.355 against righties), giving the Sox some sorely needed patience. Any kind of bounce-back would give Robin Ventura options, and in a shape that Ventura might actually be open to using.

That was a problem in 2015. Soto should've played more -- setting aside pitchers' comfort with Flowers, he was only used as a pinch-hitter four times, which is rather absurd considering he was the only right-handed power threat on the bench. On top of that, he started just one game at DH before rosters expanded. It's silly in isolation to harp on Soto's shortage of plate appearances as if more lineups with "Soto DH" would've turned the Sox into an 85-win team, but it's indicative of Robin Ventura's limited imagination, alongside starker examples like "Alexei Ramirez starting every day during his awful first half" and "the fight to try Jose Abreu in the second spot."

Avila helps reduce the need for creativity by being a left-handed hitter with traditional splits. Flowers hits lefties better than righties; Avila hits righties better than lefties. It won't be a perfect platoon situation, assuming Flowers continues catching every Chris Sale start along with other preferred pitcher matchups (Carlos Rodon?), but with non-Sale pitchers and late-game situations, finding the better-hitting catcher becomes a paint-by-numbers situation.

That's conditional on Avila's condition, though, and there are no safe assumptions about a catcher with a history of concussions and a recent knee injury. It wouldn't be entirely surprising if his batting average continued starting with a "1" and he couldn't negotiate self-preservation with effectiveness for his technique behind the plate. That's how the Sox got one of the decade's better catchers on a prove-it deal, and given the lack of suitable in-house options, it's a risk worth taking because of the talent he showed before the injuries.

And, of course, the age. If Avila can reprove he's somehow younger than Flowers with his play, then catcher shouldn't be a problem.


Also pertinent:

*Adrian Nieto is now a member of the Miami Marlins organization, apparently:

The writing must've been on the wall when the White Sox signed Chadd Krist to a minor-league contract. Krist is a 25-year-old who can't get past Double-A, but the White Sox drafted him in the 13th round of the 2011 draft and couldn't come to terms, so at least they'll get to wrap up some unfinished business.

*Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.