Mark Cunningham/Detroit Tigers

2017 Detroit Tigers Preview: Catcher and DH; James McCann, Alex Avila and Victor Martinez

After a year away, the Tigers have brought back Alex Avila to share time behind the backstop with incumbent starter James McCann. Avila knows the staff well and should provide adequate offense, while Victor Martinez returns as the designated hitter, and as long as he’s healthy, should produce. The question among this position group really comes down to McCann; can he prove 2016 was a sophomore slump, and he has more to contribute at the plate?

2016 Year in Review

James McCann:

 

G

PA

WAR

wRC+

BA

BAbip

xBAbip

OBP

SLG

BB%

SO%

SB/CS

DRS

DVal

105

373

0.8

66

.221

.283

.310

.272

.358

6.2%

29.2%

0 / 1

9

13.7

 

Alex Avila:

 

G

PA

WAR

wRC+

BA

BAbip

xBAbip

OBP

SLG

BB%

SO%

SB/CS

DRS

DVal

57

209

1.1

104

.213

.341

.356

.359

.373

18.2%

37.3%

0 / 0

-1

4.7

 

Victor Martinez:

 

G

PA

WAR

wRC+

BA

BAbip

xBAbip

OBP

SLG

BB%

SO%

SB/CS

DRS

DVal

154

610

0.6

120

.289

.303

.319

.351

.476

8.2%

14.8%

0 / 0

-1

-15.1

 

The biggest disappointment of the group was clearly McCann. The club anointed McCann as the team’s clear starter behind the dish, let Avila walk, and handed him the keys. He arrived in camp in excellent shape, dedicated time to refining his defensive craft, and spent time getting to know his pitching staff. And then in the first week suffered a severely sprained ankle, was sidelined a month, and never appeared to be playing at full strength at the plate. His batting average bottomed out, he was striking out at a very high rate, and his WAR was only positive due to a stronger defensive grade, which can be hit or miss with catchers. McCann’s offense did perk up a bit in the second half, as he raised his average 30 points and his ISO 40 points, but the walk and strikeout rates remained steady. McCann also did most of his damage against left-handed pitching, with a very good .357 wOBA against lefties, but a putrid .227 wOBA vs. righties.

 

Avila meanwhile remained a similar player that Tigers fans remember in the Windy City, posting a very low average with LOTS of strikeouts, but walking plenty and driving the ball when he made good contact.

 

And Martinez, healthy once again, was back to his hammering self, with a wRC+ well above average, driven by plenty of power and a good average. Possibly the lone concern was the uptick in Martinez’s strikeout rate, which jumped to nearly 15%, more than 4 points above his career norm.

 

 

 

2017 Player Projections

 

James McCann:

 

Source

PA

WAR

BA

BAbip

OBP

SLG

wOBA

DVal

Steamer

332

1.4

.243

.304

.289

.370

.286

13.2

ZiPS

434

1.2

.240

.302

.282

.359

.279

12.6

 

Alex Avila:

 

Source

PA

WAR

BA

BAbip

OBP

SLG

wOBA

DVal

Steamer

158

0.7

.215

.310

.330

.352

.305

4.0

ZiPS

303

1.0

.217

.313

.334

.354

.309

3.1

 

Victor Martinez:

 

Source

PA

WAR

BA

BAbip

OBP

SLG

wOBA

DVal

Steamer

564

0.5

.281

.298

.344

.451

.338

-15.6

ZiPS

507

0.0

.263

.276

.320

.415

.313

-13

 

Behind the plate, the two grading systems are remarkably consistent for the two backstops, though Steamer’s math leaves the team well short on plate appearances, the rate stats all are in line and the Tigers should expect to get something in the 2-3 win range from their catching duo.

 

Martinez on the other hand has a wide disparity, with the ZiPS system project a pretty steep drop-off in productivity from V-Mart at the plate, to the extent that they project he’s not even worth anything more than a replacement player. WAR is always a tricky stat to evaluate designated hitters, but hitting .260 with a wOBA just a handful of points over 300 would be a disappointment for Martinez, given his track record as well as what the Tigers are paying him.

 

The TigsTown Take

 

This is going to be a crucial year for McCann and the Tigers. His defense has clearly come along and he’s well respected with the pitching staff, which is a critical part of being the team’s every day catcher – despite the injury last year, he’s also very sturdy, and should be able to hold up to the rigors of catching 120 games (or more) over the course of a season.

 

But frankly speaking, McCann has never hit well against right-handed pitchers. Major League stats aside, in 2014 with Toledo his OPS was .879 vs lefties and .724 vs righties. In 2013, while not as pronounced, it was still nearly 100 points difference. And last year, the Tigers only had 46 games where the opposing starter was a lefty. So unless the Tigers are going to flip the percentage of playing time and have Avila take 2/3 of the starts (which is unlikely given his role that he was signed for, as well as the likelihood that his body is durable enough to handle that workload), that leaves 50-60 games that McCann is going to face mostly right-handers, and he has to be able to hold his own at the plate against them. While Tigers fans can hope, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate McCann will still struggle, and the Tigers offensive productivity from the catcher spot will be limited because of it.

 

Meanwhile at DH, the ZiPS prognosis makes some sense given injury trends and age, but Martinez has already been proving those prognostications wrong – his 2014 season should have never happened either given his age. Now, there is reason to wonder if Martinez can stay healthy – his knees have long been a problem, and if he suffers a knee injury, the Tigers could be searching for a new DH rather quickly. But assuming he’s healthy, expect Martinez to have another highly productive season at the plate.

 

 

 

 

2017 Projections come from two different sources; ZiPS, and Steamer, both publicly available via FanGraphs.com and presented for information purposes only.  ZiPS projections come from Dan Szymborski, and Steamer from Steamer Projections, a trio of independent academic researchers. 


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