The Detroit Tigers are generally thought of as having a good offense, bolstered by big name sluggers like Miguel Cabrera, JD Martinez, Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler. The conventional wisdom certainly rings true, as the Tigers are 2nd in the MLB in team wRC+ from 2014 through 2016. They are also 4th in runs scored in that span, despite playing their home games in cavernous Comerica Park. Detroit did all of this in the face of middling production from the catcher position, with a collective 79 wRC+ and .648 OPS coming from the team’s catchers, both 4th worst in the MLB in that span.
Fast forward through the first 56 games of the 2017 season and Detroit once again has a good offense, however this time the team’s catchers are propping up the rest of the position players rather than the other way around. The triumvirate of James McCann, Alex Avila and John Hicks have all mashed the ball, so much so that they are currently on a historic collective home-run hitting.
Before delving into the numbers, it’s important to recognize how rag-tag and unspectacular this group seemed a mere two months ago. McCann, turning 27 in a week’s time, was always known for his pitch-framing and defensive abilities, never having posted a wRC+ higher than 85 in previous seasons. Avila, 30, was one of the top hitting catchers in baseball around 2010-11, however injuries derailed his career and have hampered his offensive production since. Hicks, 27, is a journeyman minor-leaguer who bounced around among Seattle, Minnesota and finally Detroit, where he’s gotten his first extended taste of big-league action this season.
The plain Jane trio has logged 225 plate appearances while at the catcher position this season, and 299 plate appearances inclusive of starts at first base, designated hitter, etc. From the catcher spot they’ve slugged a combined 15 home runs, which extrapolates to 44 over a full season if they retain their current pace of 6.7% home runs per plate appearance. They’ve hit another three home runs while starting at other positions, giving them 18 total on the season and an aggregate extrapolated total of 52 over the full year. Nothing to shake a stick at from a group making less than $3 million combined.
How good has this group been in historic context? If they keep their current home-run hitting pace from the catcher position intact for the rest of the season, their 44 extrapolated home runs would be the best all-time from a team’s catcher position.
The current record is 43 home runs (to reiterate, this only counts home runs accrued from the catcher position. If a catcher were to play DH for a game and hit a home run, that would not count in this list), co-owned by the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers, the 1997 Los Angeles Dodgers, the 1999 New York Mets and the 2003 Atlanta Braves. Interestingly, the Dodgers, on the backs of Roy Campanella and Mike Piazza, the Mets, thanks to Mike Piazza and Todd Hundley, and the Braves, courtesy of Javy Lopez, occupy the entirety of the top eight. Johnny Bench’s amazing 1970 season placed the Reds in 9th with 39 and the tandem of Walker Cooper and Ernie Lombardi smacked 37 dingers for the 1947 New York Giants.
Names like Campanella, Piazza, Lopez and Bench are rarefied company. Three of the four are the in Hall of Fame, while Lopez is 10th all-time among catchers in home runs and third in home runs per plate appearance. The fact that McCann, Avila and Hicks are performing at a combined level commensurate with some of the game’s all-time greats speaks volumes about their play thus far in 2017.
The sudden, and seemingly out of nowhere power surge from Detroit’s catchers should naturally attract some skepticism regarding the sustainability of their performance. After all, the above list is dotted with Hall of Famers, not guys who provided replacement level offensive performance in previous seasons. When breaking down home run sustainability, the natural place to look is the batted ball data. Are players hitting fly balls? Are they hitting the ball hard? Or are they mainly hitting grounders and riding an unsustainable hot streak?
There’s a couple things going on here. Starting from the left, it’s evident that the McCann/Avila/Hicks combination hits fly balls at an above average rate. This is an important metric to consider, because in order to hit home runs players need to hit the ball in the air. However, moving on to HR/FB ratio, we can see that the trio is hitting about one-quarter of all their fly balls out of the ballpark. This will be a difficult feat to continue, as HR/FB ratios generally don’t trend much above 25%, with the 20% to 25% range reserved for the best sluggers in the game.
Yet, one way to produce higher than expected HR/FB ratios is to hit the ball hard. And Detroit’s catchers absolutely knock it out of the park (sorry, too easy) in this respect. Their hard hit rates range from the 94th to 99th percentile (among all MLB hitters, not just catchers), while their barrels per batted ball event (Brls/BBE) range from 92nd to 99th percentile. While there is definitely something funny going on with Comerica Park’s exit velocity tracking, the relative magnitude of McCann, Avila and Hicks’ batted ball performance ensures that they are hitting the ball hard, even with the exit velocity inflation coming from their home ballpark. All things considered, I would still expect some regression in the cumulative HR/FB ratios for Detroit’s catchers, although I think it’s realistic for each player to be at or above 20%.
Analyzing the numbers, it’s clear that Avila is the best performing of the three and potentially the most improved player in baseball this season. He’s split catching duties with McCann about 50/50 to this point, however if Avila begins to earn a lion’s share of the catching responsibility then the likelihood of Detroit’s catcher production continuing its current pace increases. On the other hand, if there is an injury to first baseman Miguel Cabrera or designated hitter Victor Martinez, Avila would likely assume those at bats, which lower Detroit’s chances of maintaining their current pace as McCann and Hicks would get the catching starts.
This will be an interesting race to track throughout the summer. I’d peg odds on Detroit setting the home run record from the catching position at about 25%, however a finish in the top 10, which would be a miraculous accomplishment, looks more achievable.