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Alex Avila's injury puts Dioner Navarro under microscope

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White Sox pitchers started getting squeezed in late innings after catcher change, which correlates with receiver reputation

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The White Sox were one of two teams without a player on the disabled list, but the White Sox most likely to be injured is about to change that.

Alex Avila exited Saturday's game at the end of the sixth inning after pulling up lame running to second on a fielder's choice:

Avila was replaced immediately, and there was also no hesitation when assessing the probability of his strained right hamstring forcing him to the DL. Then again, most of Avila's answers were terse ("How did it happen?" "Running.").

Kevan Smith, the only other catcher on the 40-man roster, didn't play in Charlotte's no-hit loss to Toledo on Saturday, so you can connect those dots.

In one sense, the White Sox are insured against this outcome. Dioner Navarro has been a capable starter for long stretches, and while Smith might've been the automatic replacement due to roster considerations, he also happens to deserve a look. The 27-year-old started the year hitting .345/.394/.586 with just four strikeouts over 33 plate appearances down in Charlotte, which is an improvement over last season, when he lost out on the September call-up battle with Rob Brantly.

Persistence pays.

While Avila's sub-.600 OPS makes him quite replaceable, his absence could be felt in a couple ways. For one, he has the team's most discerning batting eye, somehow carrying a .333 OBP despite an empty .214 average. He's often the only one seeing pitches when nobody else is. Ranking the team's regulars in pitches per plate appearance:

  1. Avila, 4.21
  2. Brett Lawrie, 3.86
  3. Todd Frazier, 3.80

Then there's the matter of everybody's favorite topic: framing. As tiresome as it might be to some people, it had very real applications on Saturday.

Only three weeks into the season, these numbers can shift, so I'm inclined to draw general conclusions at this point.  Avila was slightly above average a few days ago, and now he's 0.3 runs on the negative side, so if you want to say he's average, go for it.

That can't be said for Navarro, who ranks 62nd out of 65 catchers despite having fewer framing chances than anybody else in the bottom nine (he'd tied for last in terms of Called Strikes Above Average). And while home plate umpire Chris Guccione didn't cover himself in glory throughout Saturday afternoon, he really took it up a notch in the late innings.

Looking at Brooks Baseball's charts, Carlos Rodon had five pitches entirely inside the strike zone called balls.

Over Zach Duke and Matt Albers' individual innings, there were eight of them. It's nuts:

Matt Albers-Duke Chart

Now the Albers inning was your prototypical "getting squeezed," in that Navarro tried to get the calls with his catches. It just happened to be an extreme case, both by the frequency of strikes uncalled, and by Albers' reaction afterward.

Matt Albers head slap

The Duke inning is a sneaky one, though, because Brooks says that he started off three straight batters with pitches that were not called strikes, and the third was the only one that looked like a typical unsuccessful framing attempt. Here was the first to Nomar Mazara, which is the leftmost green dot above:

Zach Duke Mazara GIF

And the second first pitch to Adrian Beltre, which is the rightmost:

Zach Duke Adrian Beltre

These catches look specific to Duke, or at least pitcher with Duke's stuff. It's not humming across home plate -- it's falling off, and Navarro's glove is going along for the ride. In Navarro's defense, Duke missed the mitt on the first GIF. In the second one, though, Navarro sets up low and away, then allows his mitt to drift back toward the center of the plate. He then reaches back to get Duke's pitch, which was low and away like it was supposed to be.

I don't want to make too much of two innings as a personal reflection of Navarro's catching, especially in a game where he came off the bench cold. Guccione might've been a miser with Avila back there, too, because his zone was at no point generous.

However, there are a few reasons to draw attention to it:

  1. You seldom see an inning as frustrating as Albers'.
  2. It shows how thin Duke's margin is.
  3. It jibes with his reputation as a below-average receiver.

If the last one holds, we'll see plenty of more pitchers grimacing and griping over the next two weeks. The hope is that regular play at least gets Navarro's bat going. He's 3-for-30, and if he's due for positive regression, the extra hits would help make up for some of strike deficit.