I hesitate to ask this question. I really do. We are four games into the season. Anyone attempting to draw sweeping conclusions about the season to come based on four games has no idea how baseball actually works. Here's a hint: it's not football. It's 162 games across six months where trends can last a month or six weeks and then completely reverse themselves.
But this is a baseball fansite, and this is an off day, and talking about baseball is what we do. So I'll bring it up for debate.
Who should the Tigers be starting as catcher on most days, Victor Martinez or Alex Avila?
The debate would be a good one regardless of how the players started the year.
Alex Avila will never be known as a catcher with great offensive abilities. His minor league OPS was .796 in two seasons, neither higher than the Double-A level. After that, he made his major league debut in 2009 and spent the whole year with Detroit in 2010. Last season he hit .228 with a .316 on-base and .340 slugging for a .656 OPS.
So Avila's claim to the starting job has to be his defense. Lee Panas put together some stats on where Avila stood there. In working with the pitching staff, Avila was just a trickle of runs beneath average. In throwing out baserunners, Avila was above average. In curtailing wild pitches, Avila was below average. In throwing and fielding, he was a bit above average. Add it all up, and Avila was -1.2 runs saved per game. So a bit below average.
However, it should be noted he began playing the position as a senior in college. So he basically has three pro seasons and one college season under his belt. You could expect a bit of continued improvement on defense.
What about Martinez? In many people's mind, he was exactly opposite of Avila. He'll never be confused with a defensive catcher, but he certainly excels as an offensive one. In 2009, he had an OPS of .861 with Cleveland and Boston. In 2010, he had an OPS of .844. Across those two seasons he has 43 home runs and 187 RBI. He was brought to Detroit to play both catcher and designated hitter for those reasons.
But as a catcher, he gives reason to worry. His caught stealing percentage of 21.4% and attempted steals against of 134 meant his inability to throw out baserunners alone cost around 5 runs in 2010 (using linear weighting of a stolen base, if you wonder where that came from). However, he was average in the other defensive catching statistics. So defensively he was -4.7 runs. That is, he was about 3 runs per season worse than Avila.
Is it reasonable to expect Martinez's bat makes up for his arm? That is the heart of this question.
To me, the answer is "yes." Martinez in the lineup at catcher gives the Tigers better offense without greatly costly them defensively. It also allows them to move Magglio Ordonez out of the field more often and take advantage of the fact they brought three non-starting outfielders north.
So far this year, neither catcher has been good at the plate or behind it. They have combined to allow six wild pitches -- five off Avila -- the most in the major leagues. (That isn't to take away the pitcher's fault here, but a good defensive catcher still finds a way to keep wild pitches in front of him.) They haven't thrown out a runner -- Avila is 0-for-4 in three games, Martinez 0-for-0 in one game. And they haven't hit -- Avila OPS of .350, Martinez of .529.
But going forward, what should happen? Martinez or Avila? Vote now!
As for what I think is going to happen: Martinez is going to end up behind the plate a lot more than the Tigers first said. Don't expect it to happen overnight though. But if Avila does not quickly turn things around he won't continue starting. It's that simple. The Tigers just can't afford to keep running him out there, especially when the manager's butt is on the line. Given Avila's history, it's hard for me to believe he's going to be able to turn it around substantially. I don't rule it out, I just don't think it's likely. The best thing for Detroit is for Avila to assume the back-up role.