By: Will Burchfield
Following the Tigers’ 5-4 win over the Orioles on Wednesday night in which backup catcher Alex Avila continued to thrive at the plate, Brad Ausmus had an idea. Then he had a chat.
“We talked about hitting him second (on Thursday),” Ausmus told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket.
Nicholas Castellanos has hit second for the Tigers since the season began. He swung the bat well out of the gate, lacing line drive after line drive, but the numbers didn’t reflect it. Lately he’s been mired in a slump, hitting .121 over his last nine games. On the season, he owns a .224 average and a .688 OPS.
Avila, meanwhile, has been the Tigers’ best hitter over the first month and a half.
But Ausmus is sticking with Castellanos in the two-hole — for the time being, at least.
“Ultimately I came to the conclusion that I want to give Nick a little more time,” he said. “From spring training through the first few weeks of the season he actually swung the bat extremely well. I still think he can be the guy. He’s going through a little downswing, but get him back to where he was and he’ll be fine.
“Hopefully Nick gets hot, but if he struggles maybe (a change) like that does happen.”
Avila’s penchant for getting on base would play well in front of the Tigers’ big boppers such as Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez (we use his name here lightly) and J.D. Martinez. His speed, on the other hand, would not.
“There’s a little bit of concern with the top of the lineup when you have those run-producers behind them, you want to be able to score from first on a double or score from second on a single,” Ausmus said. “If you start stringing together Alex, Miggy, Victor, for the most part you’re going to be stuck in a situation going base to base. So that was part of the consideration. But I did think about it, I thought about it last night.”
Avila said he wouldn’t alter his approach at the plate if he was moved up in the order.
“I mean, I get on base pretty frequently so I wouldn’t really change much. Even at times when I’m not swinging well I figure out ways to get on base. Really the only downside is I’m not as fast as most guys,” he said with a grin.
Another way to get Avila more at-bats would be to implement a strict platoon with fellow catcher James McCann, whereby Avila starts against righties and McCann starts against lefties. Avila has smoked right-handed pitchers this season to the tune of a .400 average and a 1.228 OPS, while McCann has been held to a .179 average and .592 OPS. Against southpaws McCann has been much better, posting a .259 average and a 1.096 OPS. The latter number ranks eighth in the A.L. among hitters with at least 30 plate appearances.
But Ausmus is leery of removing McCann from the starter’s role.
“That has not so much to do with the righty-lefty splits, but I sometimes get concerned about overplaying Alex Avila. The vast majority of starters are right-handed, which means Alex Avila would be getting the vast majority of playing time. At this point in his career, I’m not saying he has to necessarily be a strict backup role, but I think you have to be a little bit more careful with his playing time in order to preserve him over the season,” Ausmus said.
Avila, 30, battled concussions and knee issues in his first stint with the Tigers from 2009 to 2014. Last year with the White Sox he made two trips to the disabled list due to a pair of hamstring injuries.
“He’s not an old man or anything,” Ausmus said, “but we gotta be a little bit cautious just because of the injury history and concussion history. He’s also not 23 years old so we gotta be a little bit cautious about playing time.”
Ausmus will have his hand forced in the coming days, with Cabrera sidelined due to a sore oblique and V-Mart set to return home on paternity leave. That will likely mean more playing time for Avila.
Where he’ll hit in the batting order remains to be seen. To Ausmus, anyway, it’s not that big of a deal.
“The truth is, unless you start hitting Miggy ninth, the lineup isn’t overly important from a statistical point of view. It just isn’t. It’s a little overvalued by fans,” he said. “Unless I start doing something really off the wall, like hit the lineup backwards with Kinsler ninth and Miggy eighth and you’re drastically affecting the numbers of at-bats they have over the course of a season, it just doesn’t have that big of an impact on a day-to-day basis. And that’s been proven.”