Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/18/13
Spend enough time around the Detroit Tigers and you’re certain to see Alex Avila take an absolute beating. He took a beating in Thursday’s Game 5 against the Boston Red Sox, having to be removed in the middle in favor of Brayan Pena. The main issue? Avila got run over at the plate by fellow catcher David Ross and wound up with a knee injury. Shortly thereafter, Avila took a foul tip right off the chin, with Ross this time standing in the batter’s box. Ross, of course, didn’t intend to knock Avila out. Surely, catchers are more sympathetic when they inflict pain on other catchers. But talk to the Tigers and they’ll tell you this is a pattern. They’ll tell you Avila get knocked around more than any catcher they’ve ever seen. For example: After struggling through a season of more foul tips than coaches and teammates have seen any other catcher endure, Detroit Tigers starter Alex Avila is out of commission with delayed concussion symptoms. It’s the foul tips, really, that Jim Leyland laments more than anything else. There are plenty of ways for catchers to get injured, but they say Avila seems to have a knack for catching baseballs with his body or his face. From an old post: Alex Avila gets hit by foul tips more than any catcher manager Jim Leyland has ever seen. [...] “He was seeing stars…. I’d never forgive myself if I left him out there, and he keeled over, passed out,” Leyland said in his postgame comments on FOX Sports Detroit. “He takes a lot more than I ever remember taking, or seeing anybody else take. … He takes a beatin’ pretty often.” An excerpt from an article from this past August: Avila has taken plenty of other foul tips that looked as bad or worse, but not with the same symptoms. And every time there’s a new incident, the question comes back as to why he seems to catch so much more collateral damage from those. Leyland has been saying it for years, but it’s not just Tigers people saying it anymore. A Major League scout who was at Thursday’s game said on Friday that he hasn’t seen anything like it, but can’t really figure out why. Avila said he gets that a lot. Generally, foul tips aren’t something that you really notice, or if you do notice them, it’s not like you’ll be expected to detect a pattern. Therefore, it’s meaningful that people appear to have picked up on something specific with Avila. It was a couple years ago that a foul tip off Avila’s mask caused sparks, which brought the phenomenon to a broader audience: People in the game suspect Avila gets hit more than anybody else. Tigers fans certainly believe it, even if they’re especially sensitive to the issue these days. Granted, one of the dangers is that when you think you’ve observed a pattern, you’re more likely to make similar observations in the future. Most Tigers fans, probably, couldn’t tell you much about Brayan Pena catching foul tips with his body. That isn’t a thing yet. Avila getting hit is a thing, which means it gets noticed when he gets hit. Here’s Thursday: It was a foul tip with sufficient force such that Avila’s mask came clean off. Avila said later he was removed because of his knee, not because of his head, so it wouldn’t seem that he got his bell rung. Still, Avila got drilled and there were a handful of replays. The FOX broadcast was ON IT. One of the theories advanced for this is that the Tigers have a swing-and-miss pitching staff, meaning worse contact, meaning more foul tips. Intuitively, you’d expect the Tigers to generate more foul tips than the Twins, just because the Twins are much more hittable. But I wanted to figure some things out. Is it true Avila gets hit more than anyone else? Is there a relationship between foul tips and swinging strikes? On the first one, this isn’t easy without examining countless hours of video. No one, to my knowledge, keeps a record of catchers who get hit with fouls. What we do have, though, is the PITCHf/x designation of a foul tip. I’ll tell you right away this isn’t perfect. For example, the ball that hit Avila in the mask on Thursday went into the PITCHf/x log as an ordinary foul. But even if the PITCHf/x data aren’t ideal, this information might serve as a proxy. There could be a close relationship between PITCHf/x foul tips and actual, observable, foul tips. It’s something, and it’s the best I can do in short order. This past season, the Tigers ranked 20th in foul tips generated as a staff. They ranked 20th, also, in foul-tip rate. This is the Tigers as a whole, and it isn’t Avila-specific, but it should get us most of the way there. The Cardinals generated the most foul tips, followed by the Orioles. The A’s generated the fewest foul tips, just below the Yankees. What this would suggest is that the Avila foul-tip frequency is exaggerated, but then, for one thing, I’ve already acknowledged this might not be capturing what I want it to capture. For another, Avila might have a knack for getting hit worse. He might get hit by the kinds of foul tips you notice, due maybe to something about his catching technique. I’m not a catching expert — and the Tigers’ catching experts apparently haven’t been able to keep Avila safe. It’s also easy to examine the relationship between foul tips and swinging strikes. By which I mean, the absence of any relationship. Here’s team data for the 2013 regular season: Nothing at all. This is pure randomness. The Tigers generated baseball’s highest whiff rate, and had a foul-tip rate of .68%. The Twins generated baseball’s lowest whiff rate, and had a foul-tip rate of .69%. We could look at more data over a greater number of years, but nothing about these results tells me that would be necessary. From the looks of things, foul tips are just about randomly distributed, no matter how hittable the staffs. Maybe that’s counter-intuitive, but maybe it’s not. On the one hand, a foul tip seems like a pitcher making a hitter all but miss. On the other, a foul tip represents some contact, and the skill is in avoiding contact entirely. You guys can come up with the explanations. I’ll provide the graphics. What hasn’t been established here is people are wrong about Avila getting hit. A lot of people think he gets it worse than anyone, and that thought seems to have substance. It’s possible PITCHf/x can’t capture this at all, even approximately. It’s possible Avila gets worse foul tips than other catchers. To do this exercise properly would mean researching over the course of weeks or months or years. That, of course, is beyond my capability because I’m interested in keeping my job. It’s at least interesting, though, that the Tigers don’t dominate the foul-tip leaderboard. There are other catchers who get hit, too, and maybe they don’t get enough attention. They will, if catchers keep sustaining concussions. Something that’s been established is there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between swinging strikes and foul tips, at least on the team level. If there is, then 2013 was a six-month anomaly. I don’t know what causes a foul tip, but I know pitchers have a lot of control over their swinging strikes, and that’s what I’m interested in. Don’t go out there trying to almost miss a bat. Go out there trying to miss a bat. That’s where the reliable value is. Ross Detwiler had one of baseball’s highest foul-tip rates. Sam LeCure had the lowest. This stuff is weird. Foul tips are an under-researched part of the game. They probably will remain that way, despite this post. Based on reputation, Alex Avila and the Tigers would have a vested interest in knowing much more, but the same might be said of of other people, too. Sure, Avila’s a catcher who gets dinged. But he’s not the only one.
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