That the Chicago Cubs would ultimately acquire a veteran back-up catcher for the stretch run was inevitable.
Experienced reserve backstops have been a constant during the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime, with David Ross and Miguel Montero playing significant roles in each of the Cubs’ last two postseason runs. And before you dismiss the value of a backup catcher altogether, let’s not forget that all three of the Cubs catchers homered in the 2016 playoffs, and each drove in a run during Game 7 of the World Series – which the Cubs won, by the way (Michael: People forget that).
With that out of the way, let’s meet the newest Cubs catcher, Alex Avila.
Avila, who comes to the North Side of Chicago with left-handed reliever Justin Wilson, owns a career slash line of .243/.350/.402 which is good for a 108 wRC+ and .333 wOBA. Now in his age 30 season, Avila is in the midst of a career year with the bat. He is slashing .274/.394/.475, which is an excellent 134 wRC+, and .373 wOBA.
The peripherals also look superb, as Avila can boast a 50.7 percent hard-hit rate (highest in MLB, among batters with at least 250 PAs), a minuscule 5.0 percent soft-hit percentage (also best in MLB), and a spray-to-all-fields approach that features a 32.1 percent pull rate to go along with hitting balls to the opposite field at a 30.7 percent clip.
He has done his best work against right-handers this season, hitting to the tune of a .282/.398/.500 slash in 241 plate appearances. Avila is playing well enough to be a 1.9-fWAR player despite batting .125 since the All-Star Break as part of a slump-filled July wherein he’s hit just .158. But despite the bad luck in the batting average department, Avila still posted a 15.9 percent walk rate last month making him somewhat useful at the plate.
But let’s move behind it, for a bit.
Defensively, Avila brings a respectable 33.3 percent caught stealing rate. He hasn’t played enough innings to qualify on the leaderboard, but if he had, he would rank ahead of Yadier Molina (31.7 percent) but behind Buster Posey (34.8 percent). That’s pretty great. On the other hand, StatCorner rates his pitch framing among the worst in baseball across the board and Baseball Prospectus has him near the bottom in framing runs.
But that was no surprise to the Cubs. After all, we know that they toyed with adding a more defensively-minded, true back-up catcher to the mix, but ultimately decided to bring in a big left-handed bat with plenty of veteran experience and an ability to control the running game instead.
Of course, he’ll need to stay healthy. Avila has a documented history with concussions and concussion-like symptoms, including a most-recent battle that occurred during Game 3 of the 2014 ALDS that was believed to be the third concussion he suffered that season. For what it’s worth, Avila said he is cognizant of those issues and it’s something he needs to monitor and not take lightly.
Presumably, he will give starting catcher Willson Contreras intermittent breathers, to keep him fresh for another (hopefully) deep playoff run, and without losing much production in between. Having Avila as an option behind the plate could also allow Contreras to play left field or first base if necessary. Avila has also made 10 starts at first base this year, which could give manager Joe Maddon another option if he so chooses to give Anthony Rizzo a break later on.
Of course, because of Contreras’ general awesomeness, the Cubs won’t be able to totally cash in on Avila’s magical year with the bat. His playing time will get (rightfully) cut in favor of Contreras, but at least he brings some always appreciated flexibility and off-day upside to the lineup.