Most of the time, Alex Avila probably won't be in the lineup when the Detroit Tigers face a left-handed starting pitcher. Especially when that opposing pitcher is one of the best in baseball.
But Opening Day isn't most days, of course. It's the beginning of a new season, when a team shows itself to fans for the first time. Being in the starting lineup is a vote of confidence for a player. It's the team saying, "We think these are our best guys." And for a manager, giving a player an Opening Day might be something of a tip of the cap.
That's likely why Jim Leyland decided to start Avila at catcher on Thursday against the New York Yankees and CC Sabathia. Avila is the Tigers' starting catcher. He'll get the majority of the playing time behind the plate. So an Opening Day start was probably something of a reward.
It may also have been a test. Avila bats .233/.327/.349 against lefties. And Sabathia, strangely enough, wasn't great against left-handed hitters last year, allowing a .261/.318/.360 average. If Leyland wanted to see how Avila might fare versus a lefty, maybe Sabathia was a decent match-up for a tryout.
Unfortunately for Avila, the tryout didn't go so well. The Tigers catcher struck out in both of his at-bats against Sabathia, looking overmatched each time. (Avila went on to strike out a third time, caught looking against Mariano Rivera to end Thursday's game.) Unless the Tigers have no choice but to start Avila against a left-handed pitcher later this season -- due to injuries, someone needing a day off, or trying not to wear out Victor Martinez behind the plate -- it's hard to imagine we'll see him in such a match-up again.
But professional athletes often speak of wanting to know what their role will be for a team. It helps them focus on the task at hand. Don't tell someone he's the left fielder and then play him at second base. Don't tell a reliever he's going to be the closer, then bring him in for the sixth inning. So in that regard, Leyland probably did Avila no favors. If the understanding was that he'll probably sit against lefties most days, playing him against Sabathia likely sent a mixed message.
More of a concern than Avila's performance with the bat, however, was how he looked at catcher. The Tigers have placed a premium on defense behind the plate over the past few seasons. After two years of sub-.250 batting averages from Gerald Laird, the team realized that good receiving, blocking and game-calling skills didn't always make up for a black hole in the batting order. But controlling the opponent's running game and blocking pitches in the dirt are still important, and Avila came up short in both of those duties, as well.
Tigers pitchers threw three wild pitches against the Yankees on Thursday. That's what the boxscore said, anyway. But the official scorer let Avila off the hook. At least two of those plays could've been scored as passed balls. In the eighth inning, Daniel Schlereth threw a ball toward toward the dirt that went right through Avila's legs, allowing Alex Rodriguez to advance to second base. Was it a wild pitch because Schlereth threw it so low? Or was it a passed ball because Avila let it get past him and roll back behind the plate?
A catcher won't be able to block everything, of course. But keeping the ball in front of him and preventing it from getting away is the least that should be done. And if Avila can't do that, his pitchers will lose confidence in throwing breaking balls that will dart out of the strike zone. They need to know their catcher will block most of those pitches.
Opposing baserunners also need to know that a catcher can throw them out if they try to steal. If not, they'll advance without fear, move into scoring position, and put more pressure on a pitcher. One of the more maddening plays the Yankees made on Thursday was Russell Martin stealing third base in the third inning. It's not because Martin is a catcher himself, and they don't typically run well. Martin has shown good speed and baserunning instincts in the past, nabbing 67 stolen bases in his five-year career.
But stealing third base is supposed to be more difficult. It's a shorter throw for the catcher to make. He has a better angle to see the play develop. His body is in a more natural position to make a sure throw. Part of the blame for Martin's stolen base goes to Verlander. He didn't hold Martin close to second as he should have, possibly because he was concentrating on pitching to Mark Teixeira. (Maybe Verlander should've been concentrating more, as he eventually served up a home run to Teixeira.) But Martin also had the confidence to challenge Avila, who hasn't yet proven that he can consistently throw out basestealers.
Scrutiny is quadrupled on Opening Day, of course. We haven't had any real baseball for four months, so everything that happens in the first game back is magnified. It's like we all forget -- some more briefly than others -- that there are 161 more games to be played. One game is nothing to judge an entire season upon.
Avila has plenty more opportunity to play better. Hopefully, he'll begin to hit (maybe even against the occasional left-handed pitcher). And as he builds more of a rapport with his pitching staff (and becoming more comfortable with Justin Verlander is surely another reason Avila started at catcher on Thursday), he should become more adept on defense. As the season wears on, maybe he'll be better prepared to pounce on pitches in the dirt or lean toward where he think the ball might bounce.
For the Tigers' sake, Avila has to show that improvement. They've put their faith in him as a starting catcher, and he now needs to justify that trust.
If he can't, there's not much help in the organization. And even if they can acquire another catcher outside the organization, he'll likely be a back-up. That puts more of a burden on Martinez, who was signed primarily for his bat, not his catching skills. And the delicate roster balance that the Tigers have tried to construct could be thrown out of whack.