REPORT: Twins Land Second Catcher Avila on One-Year Deal

Please Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins have reportedly landed their second catcher, as Jeff Passan of ESPN reported early Friday morning that the team had agreed to a one-year deal worth $4.25 million with Alex Avila. The Twins have not yet confirmed the move, or for that matter, the Michael Pineda signing reported Thursday evening.

There’s an obvious level of familiarity with the American League Central for Avila, the son of Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila. Not only has the younger Avila played with Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs, but the entirety of his AL experience has come in the Central — almost exclusively with the Tigers.

Overall, 760 of Avila’s 995 career MLB games have come with the Tigers, and there were rumors about a potential third time around with Detroit before he signed with the Twins. In all, 817 of Avila’s career games — 82.1 percent — have come in the AL Central, which means he’s seen a lot of the Twins, and of course, vice versa.

Avila was twice drafted by the Tigers — 34th round in 2005, fifth round in 2008 — and he debuted with the team as a 22-year-old in 2009. He’s played 83 of his career games against the Twins — trailing only the Indians (92) and Royals (87) — but has hit just .216/.325/.376 against them.

The 32-year-old Avila — 33 in January — hit .207/.353/.421 in the second year of a two-year stint with the Diamondbacks last season, good for a 100 OPS+ which almost exactly mirrors his career mark of 102.

Sep 12, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Alex Avila (31) hits a single during the fourth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Please Credit: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Avila has never hit more than 19 homers in a season and hit nine this past year, but he’s also only gone over 400 plate appearances once in his 11-year MLB career. And therein lies this issue with any catcher, really; the rigors of their position demands that they sit a game or two per week. That was almost always true with Avila, who has played more than 120 games just twice and more than 130 just once. That year (2011), Avila finished 12th in the AL MVP race when he hit .298/.389/.506 while catching a Central-winning rotation that featured Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer at the top.

Offensively, Avila has his good years and his bad ones. Over the last five seasons, his OPS+ numbers have gone as follows (100 represents league average):

  • 2015: 77
  • 2016: 103
  • 2017: 120
  • 2018: 61
  • 2019: 100

In all, he’s a career .235/.348/.396 hitter who will show pop at times but always, always takes his walks.

So the short story is that Avila is a big on-base percentage guy who occasionally runs into one. For a second catcher, that’s a good start.

And calling him a second catcher is a deliberate move. The Twins employed a two-catcher arrangement in 2019 and figure to do the same — to some extent — in 2020. Mitch Garver clearly deserves the lion’s share of playing time behind the plate after a tremendous breakout season, but it’s also worth mentioning that both he and Avila are capable of playing first base, and each has strengths that will complement the other nicely.

For instance, Avila is a career .241/.358/.417 hitter against right-handed pitching and is coming off a year where he hit a strange, but productive all the same .205/.364/.432 against northpaws. Garver, meanwhile, crushed pitchers of all types last season (.995 OPS vs. RHP/1.170 v. LHP) but also can’t play every single day, which would allow the Twins to use Avila against righties for more matchups-based success.

And while Garver continues to improve by leaps and bounds behind the plate, Avila pretty much is who he is at this point behind the plate — and it’s a pretty decent defensive profile. For his career, Avila is 33.8 runs above average according to Fangraphs defensive measures, with 20.7 of those runs coming in just 143 games over the last two seasons.

Baseball Prospectus breaks it down in more granular detail. On that site, they separate catching defensive grades into framing runs, blocking runs, throwing runs and then an overall fielding runs above average.

By adjusted FRAA, Avila ranked 30th among catchers — 2.8 runs above average despite catching just under 3,000 pitches last season. Yasmani Grandal, for instance, caught 8,000 and J.T. Realmuto was even higher at 8,275.

Here’s how Avila and Garver compare across each aspect (among 113 MLB catchers):

  • Framing runs: Garver 24th (+4.2) | Avila 61st (-0.1)
  • Blocking runs: Garver 71st (-0.3) | Avila 9th (2.3)
  • Throwing runs: Garver 101st (-0.4) | Avila 9th (0.7)
  • Adjusted FRAA: Garver 28th (3.3) | Avila 30th (2.8)

Again, as noted before, it’s a very complementary relationship behind the plate and at it.

For just one more data source, catcher framing can be found at Statcorner as well, and on an overall basis, they have Garver at +5.9 runs above average (14th) while checked in at +0.9 runs (34th). Oddly enough, former Twins catcher Jason Castro is right in the middle at +3.0 runs (22nd).

Also, don’t expect this to spell the end of Willians Astudillo in Minnesota. The new 26-man roster setup means Astudillo’s versatility will be valued — perhaps even more — and he still has the ability to be optioned to the minors, where he’d share time behind the plate with Tomas Telis and Juan Graterol. Teams need third catchers pretty much every season, so don’t expect him to be completely off the radar.

Overall, it’s pretty easy to see the path here. The Twins had a number of options to complement Garver and chose one who is regarded as a terrific clubhouse guy who’ll come in and do his job, and won’t have any issue with as much or as little playing time as that entails. It’s a good get for the Twins, who’ll continue to be active as the Winter Meetings open up this Sunday.

As a fun bonus, Avila appears in this 2015 video where MLB players recited the “People Will Come” speech from Field of Dreams:

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