Alex Avila's name kept coming up in the last week, and not for the right reasons. With the Tigers struggling to put runs on the board against the A's, everyone had a favorite solution for fixing the problems. One of them that came up more than once: DH Miguel Cabrera, move Jhonny Peralta to third base and have Victor Martinez catch. Left unsaid: Alex Avila's .125 average in the first four games of the postseason hurt his team and something had to be done.
My response to this was simple: Look not at what Avila does when standing next to the plate, look at how he does his job squatting behind it. The way he calls a game, the way he makes his pitchers feel comfortable, that's why Avila has to play.
Game calling is one of those areas that's hard to quantify and thus sometimes gets overlooked. Chemistry, too, is hard to put a number to and can be written off as a created narrative. But in this, what your gut tells you about human nature matches the results. Detroit's best starting pitchers feel more comfortable with Avila's familiar face behind the plate.
In 18 games with Avila catching, Max Scherzer's ERA was 2.49. The other 15 with Pena there, that figure rose to 3.41.
In each case, the pitchers were at least a half-run better and in Scherzer's case, a full run. Only Doug Fister went against that trend, finding more success with Pena (3.58) than Avila (3.88).
Avila was behind the plate for Verlander's masterful performance in Game 5 of the ALDS against the A's, just as he needed to be, and he guided Sanchez, Al Alburquerque, Drew Smyly, Jose Veras and Joaquin Benoit to a shutout and near no-hitter of the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALCS.
The Tiger catcher is an Avila, so he talked about [Saturday's] pitchers. But in many ways, he was the hero, the unspoken hero. He caught five different pitchers. He called 164 pitches. He blocked curveballs and changeups and splitters that bounced in the dirt, at least all but two.
He started hitters with curveballs, sliders, and changeups. Alburqurque came in and fired an inside fastball for a jam shot.
"Those pitchers had great stuff, but it wasn't consistent, strike throwing stuff," said one scout. "That was as good a job guiding pitchers through a really tough game as you'll ever see." A really, really, really tough game.
There was a time when people would expect the catcher to catch and not worry so much about his hitting. But when things go wrong, people tend to forget about some of the basics. Benching Avila may have seemed like a way to get an extra bat in the lineup, but when that bat belongs to Andy Dirks or Don Kelly that seems like a rather small upgrade over the obvious chemistry Avila has behind the plate with the Tigers' best three pitchers.
Pitching wins, and the Tigers have plenty of it. But the pitchers aren't operating in a vacuum. Avila is the unsung hero who makes the Tigers' staff so good.