Why Alex Avila Isn't A Surprise

DETROIT: Alex Avila #13 of the Detroit Tigers singles to center field scoring teammate Miguel Cabrera #24 in the second inning during the game against the Seattle Mariners at Comerica Park. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

You’ll probably read something soon about how Alex Avila is one of the most surprising stories of the season. Don’t believe it. Sure, the Detroit Tigers catcher is hitting .300/.373/.532 -- great for a first baseman, otherworldly for a catcher. Only 34 catchers have managed a full season with an on-base percentage over .350 and a slugging percentage over .500. Avila’s doing it as a 24-year-old who:

  • was only a fifth-round pick in 2008
  • probably went a couple of rounds higher than he might have because his dad was the assistant GM of the Tigers
  • was never a top prospect (#20 in the Tigers’ system before 2009, #6 before 2010)
  • spent a season-and-a-half in the minors
  • only started catching as a senior in college

Pretty much any of those bullet points could help Avila’s case to be the most surprising story of the 2011 season so far. Add them all up, and he’s something like a runaway favorite.

Take the first one -- the fifth-round pick thing. Fifth-round picks never make it. Well, they do, but at the rate of aspiring actors in Hollywood. The chances are far, far better that the aspiring actor will make his money wearing a Donald Duck suit at Disneyland before he gets a bit role in a major film. Avila has already accumulated more WAR than all of the players selected in the fifth rounds from 2002 through 2007 combined. So if it’s surprising that he’s even in the big leagues, it’s almost fluky that he’s thriving. But you shouldn’t be surprised.

Then take the last two bullet points and mash them together. He started catching during his 2008 season at Alabama, yet he was catching in the majors less than two years later. That’s ludicrous and completely against established old-school doctrine:

... Brian Harper, a roving catching instructor for the Giants, had done some research on developing young catchers and confirmed what they both suspected. The most successful catchers tend to spend at least 300 games in the minors before they make the move to the parent club.

Avila caught 124 games in the minors before sticking for good. He caught 60 games in college. Now he’s catching no-hitters. His defense is improving, to the point where he's second in baseball in caught-stealing percentage. But that’s still not surprising.

No, Alex Avila isn’t a surprise at all because of two statistics:

Slugging percentage of catchers in major league history who didn’t have Tommy Lasorda as a godfather: .341

Slugging percentage of catchers in major league history who had Tommy Lasorda as a godfather: .530

Lasorda is Alex Avila’s godfather. Lasorda is also Mike Piazza’s godfather. Tommy Lasorda is an evil man, and an obvious practitioner of the dark arts, and he knows how to craft magic zygotes that turn into All-Star offensive catchers when no one expects it. Why is it surprising that he can make catchers who can hit when it amuses him? It isn’t. Ergo, it isn’t surprising that Alex Avila is doing so well.

(All right, maybe it’s still a little surprising that Avila is this good, this quick. It’s still one of the most surprising stories in baseball this year, which makes it one of the best stories of the year. But you have the right to be creeped out about Lasorda’s involvement. I know I am.)

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