Originally posted on Baseball Professor  |  Last updated 12/2/11

Entering 2011, Miguel Montero was expected to be among the game’s top offensive catchers. He slumped a little in 2010, batting just .266 with nine home runs, but in 2009 he burst onto the fantasy scene with a .294 average and 16 homers. Those 16 bombs were good for ninth among all catchers that year and his .294 average trailed only Joe Mauer (.365), Victor Martinez (.303) and A.J. Pierzynski (.300). It’s not easy to find a catcher who can hit for both power and average, and that potential combination made Montero rather valuable. Sure enough, Montero finished 2011 as the fifth-ranked catcher hitting 18 home runs with a .282 average. No one should have been surprised at his success.

Alex Avila‘s rise to prominence wasn’t quite as predictable. Avila finished the 2011 season as the third-ranked catcher with a .295 average, 19 homers and a great-for-a-catcher 82 RBI. Avila had shown glimpses of potential in his two prior seasons with the Tigers, hitting 12 home runs in 355 at-bats in 2009 and 2010 combined, but he was still a relative unknown when he burst out with a .329/3/18 line in April of last season.

After Martinez, Mauer, Mike Napoli, Carlos Santana and Brian McCann come off draft boards, who’s the next catcher you should take? That’s exactly what question 17 asks in our Top 100 Offseason Questions series, and we have the answer for you. As always, let’s break it down.

Batting Average

You may recall from our analysis of Martin Prado‘s .260 average that strikeout rate plays a large role in determining a player’s batting average. More balls in play equals more chances at hits. Montero’s career strikeout rate is 18.3 percent to Avila’s 23.0 percent. Their 2011 strikeout rates mimic these numbers, so Montero is generally a safer bet to put more balls in play.

Last season Montero posted a .317 BABIP, which was right in line with his numbers from the past several seasons (.321, .327, .318 from 2008 to 2010, respectively). Absolutely everything about Montero’s .282 average seems repeatable. We should expect him to be right around this number again with the potential to hit in the .290s like he did in 2009.

Avila’s .295 average last year doesn’t seem as likely to stick around. His success was fueled by a .366 BABIP, which was in turn boosted by a .295 average on ground balls. The league average on grounders is around .250 and few players are able to hit near .300 in this category every season. Ichiro Suzuki‘s career average on grounders is .306. Had Avila finished 2011 with a .329 BABIP (his current career average, which is still higher than I’d expect), he would have batted .263. Right now I don’t think Avila is much better than a .260-something hitter.

Advantage: Montero

Home Runs

Both Avila and Montero stand at 5’11 and they both weight about the same (210-215) so neither has a real power advantage from their frame. Still, Avila’s career HR/FB rate is slightly better than Montero’s (13.2% to 11.2%). In fact, Montero has never reached 13.2 percent in any single season. Both players hit fly balls around 40 percent of the time, so Avila gets the slight nod here provided he gets enough at-bats. Detroit uses Martinez as the DH so playing time shouldn’t be an issue.

Advantage: Avila

Runs Batted In

Montero spends the majority of his time batting at the heart of the Diamondbacks’ order, something that Avila can’t say (and not because he doesn’t play for the Diamondbacks). The chart below shows how many at-bats each player got last year from each spot in the lineup.

From an RBI perspective there isn’t a huge difference batting 4-5-6 for Arizona versus 6-7-8 for Detroit. While Avila doesn’t get the opportunity to drive in the Tigers’ leadoff men, he does have Miguel Cabrera and Martinez, two guys with .300-plus averages, to push across the plate. I also don’t really see much reason for these trends to change in 2012.

Last season Montero came to the plate 172 times with men in scoring position and batted .305 in those situations (he finished with 86 RBI). Avila came to the plate 166 times with men in scoring position and batted .290 in those situations (he finished with 82 RBI).

Montero has a slightly better lineup slot, he tallied a few extra RBI last season than Avila and he’s more likely to repeat his success with runners in scoring position (see the section on batting average above), so he gets the slight nod here.

Advantage: Montero

Runs

Runs are more of an afterthought for catchers, who are generally less fleet of foot, so forgive me if I save this category for next-to-last. Very few catchers provide significant run totals, and Montero (65) and Avila (63) were no exception. This is more where I think lineup slot plays a larger role. Montero will usually have the 5-6-7 hitters stepping to the plate when he’s on base whereas Avila will generally be driven in by the 7-8-9 hitters. I’ll definitely take my chances with Montero here based on that fact alone…and also I expect Avila will be on base fewer times next season (see the section on batting average above).

Advantage: Montero

Stolen Bases

Montero has stolen two bases in 513 career games. Avila has stolen five bases in 274 career games. That means Avila steals bases about four or five times as often as Montero. While that number seems huge, what it really tells us is that there’s a good chance Montero won’t steal any bases and at best might get one or two whereas Avila will at least get a couple. It’s a marginal advantage, but Avila also had a marginal advantage in home runs. Together he should have a solid home run/stolen base lead of about five. That’s not insignificant.

Advantage: Avila

Adding It Up

That means Montero wins batting average, RBI and runs whereas Avila wins home runs and stolen bases. The margins of victory were very close across the board with the exception of batting average, where Montero has a more sizable advantage. For that reason, he’s my choice for 2012. He’s a more established, balanced big league hitter and while the gap between himself and Avila isn’t much, it’s wide enough for me to feel comfortable declaring him the victor.

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