Alex Avila and Catchers Who Get Hit in the Body

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, and was removed during the game 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 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:

AvilaTip1.gif.opt

avilatipross

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:

foultipsswingingstrikes2013

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


30 Responses to “Alex Avila and Catchers Who Get Hit in the Body”

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  1. Evan says:

    Is it possible to isolate home/road splits in the Pitchf/x data? The teams producing the most foul tips per Pitchf/x might have more to do with the tendencies of the person entering the data in their ballpark than what is actually taking place.

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  2. Fred says:

    Hey Jeff – during an Orioles broadcast towards the end of the year the announcers mentioned that the catcher being closer to the batter helps him 1) catch foul tips and 2)get strikes called on breaking balls because the ball has less time to drop between when it crosses the plate and when it is caught. Both of those claims make sense intuitively but I don’t know if any real research has been done. Maybe Avila is positioning himself farther from the batter than the average catcher making it harder for him to catch the tips that are generated.

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    • exxrox says:

      Greg Zaun (SportsNet broadcast in Canada) said the same thing about needing to position closer to the plate during game 6.

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  3. mario mendoza says:

    Totally unrelated, but there’s no way he’s 5-11. He looks much taller than that when standing.

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  4. Huisj says:

    Anything to look at fastball speed and foul tips? Or pitchers who throw hard and have a good changeup and foul tips?

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  5. The Stranger says:

    Does the location of the tipped pitch affect whether a foul tip is likely to hit the catcher in the head? Both the video and the .gif show low-ish pitches, thrown slightly inside of where Avila was set up. So when the pitch was tipped, it went upwards and away from the batter, right towards Avila’s face – which makes some amount of sense. I feel like I’m breaking down the Zapruder film here, but if Avila actually is hit more than other catchers (which may or may not be the case), maybe it’s a combination of where he’s calling for the pitches and where he’s setting up.

    Or maybe Avila just isn’t very good at getting his glove in the path of tipped balls. Do we have data on whether catching foul tips is a skill?

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    • Joe Durant says:

      “Or maybe Avila just isn’t very good at getting his glove in the path of tipped balls. Do we have data on whether catching foul tips is a skill?”

      I have seen this so many times and am continuously baffled as to what you people mean. Catch a foul ball? How on earth does a human being ‘catch’ a foul ball? Avila’s glove is going to be positioned to catch the pitch. Once the bat makes contact with the ball, are you trying to tell me you think Avila should be able to discern the direction the ball is going to take and be able to move his glove to catch it, AFTER it’s fouled off?

      Like, what? Do you understand the tiniest fraction of a moment that hitters have once the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand to when they begin to swing (at a distance of 60 ft 6in), and you think Avila should possess the ability to do more than anything except blink in the tiny little bit of time and space between the ball being hit at home plate and himself?

      Once the bat makes contact with the ball, there is not one thing in this universe Avila can do except get hit or not get hit. If anything, his positioning during the pitch would be something to look at, not what he’s doing after the ball is fouled off.

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      • The Stranger says:

        I’m not an idiot, thank you. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that there’s something a catcher can do to change the odds of catching a tipped ball, if only because I don’t like to bet on something being impossible when we’re talking about extreme outliers on the scale of human ability. Maybe it’s not reflexes, just positioning, but that’s part of what I was asking about, and the mechanism isn’t the point. I was just asking if there’s any data on whether certain catchers caught foul tips more often than others. There probably isn’t, for the reasons you’ve pointed out. But if there was, it would be interesting, and we would all learn something.

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    • BigNachos says:

      As a catcher myself, I don’t think there’s any way catching foul tips could be a skill per say. However, there are some catching techniques that could factor in–for example, how close the catcher sets up to the batter, how far he reaches forward to receive the pitch, and how he positions the glove.

      In the second gif, Avila appears to have his glove unusually positioned. His elbow is inside his legs, and he has the glove angled almost straight up. When the ball is tipped, it easily passes over his glove due to its angle. A much more typical position would be to have his elbow outside his body and glove angled toward the ground, which would have the majority of the glove positioned about the glove’s pocket. That would make a tip much more likely to strike some part of the glove.

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      • Steve Holt says:

        His glove was also moving down at a rapid rate, meaning the the ball did not have to climb much to get over the top of the glove.

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  6. speed says:

    Maybe because Detroit’s pitchers throw at a higher mph than the rest of the league, the foul tips hit Avila much harder?

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  7. baseballbaseball says:

    Ask any tigers fan, and they will likely agree that Avila seems to get hit more often. Obviously you remeber the bad ones, the one that stagger the catcher.

    I think this is mostly random, and this season has been especially tough. One thing, i think avila sits with his right leg a bit open, opening himself for fouls from right hander inside the leg, not on his gear, these are memorable. I can’t explain the ones of the mask though, maybe its just his reactions on those, maybe he sells his pain a little more? in any case, it seems mostly unexplainable, he does seem to take a beating

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  8. baseballbaseball says:

    a question though, a foul tip is defined as one that the catcher actually catches. so when we are looking at foul tip rates, are you sure that the ones catchers don’t catch (which, by definition, are NOT foul tips) actaully count?

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    • Yeah, that could be a likely big problem. Although you’d also think there could be a correlation between caught foul tips and uncaught foul tips, since they’re just slightly different shades of foul tips. So my hope is that it at least works as a proxy, since I don’t have any other alternative.

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      • baseballbaseball says:

        ya, if this is the case, i would think you could expect even higher correlation. you wouldnt have scorekeeper judgments invovled.

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      • James says:

        I think that whether this is important enough to make a difference comes down to the discussion above, i.e. whether catching a foul ball is a skill. If it is a skill, then maybe the reason he’s getting hit so much is that he sucks at it.

        Anyway, I’m a Tigers’ fan, and I totally share in the perception about Avila. Since I’m naturally skeptical of this sort of thing, I’ve watched this season for it when Pena’s playing, and he does not seem to get hit nearly as much. Take that with a grain of salt since Avila plays more, and this is still very anecdotal. Not expecting necessarily to convince anyone else, but I firmly believe that there’s something to it myself.

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        • Kevin Stovall says:

          James I know you aren’t necessarily arguing that catching a foul tip is a skill, but I don’t believe there is any way it could be a skill. It is absolutely a random occurrence if happens to land in your glove.

          1 foot per second is 0.68182 miles per hour. If the ball is traveling at 100MPH off the bat, and the catcher is 6 feet away from where the ball leaves the bat, it will get to him in 1/25th of a second. No person could recognize that there was a foul tip, see that position and trajectory of the ball, calculate the location when it reaches him, and then move his glove to that location in 1/25th of a second.

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  9. I’ve been watching Tigers games religiously my entire life and also watch a ton of other baseball. Avila takes it worse than any catcher I’ve ever seen. Don’t have a good explanation for it either.

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  10. Kevin Stovall says:

    I understand that this article is more focused on foul tips than home plate collisions, but there is an issue that should be addressed by MLB.

    In game 4 the umpires gave Stephen Drew the benefit of the “neighborhood play” on a DP attempt when he was clearly 3 feet + off the bag when he caught the ball. The rational is that they allow this so middle infielders don’t get hurt. At the same time they allow a catcher to be absolutely drilled and if he doesn’t apply the tag, or the ball is dislodged then the runner is safe.

    The neighborhood play is allowed, essentially only so the defending team can potentially turn a double play, it is never allowed on a simple force out. They allow the middle infielder to just be close to the bag, so he can make a play on attempting to get yet another out, but they allow the catcher absolutely no leeway to get just one out.

    Personally I think the entire situation is absurd. Make the play at second and the play at home follow the same protocols. In these cases, Drew would not have registered an out, and David Ross should have been forced to slide (and Cabrera as well).

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    • B N says:

      I do have to say, there’s the neighborhood play, but that was more like the “greater metropolitan statistical area” play. Even as a Red Sox fan, who really needed that double play, I couldn’t have called that an out in good conscience if I was an ump.

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  11. BurleighGrimes says:

    In watching Mets games this year, I remember the broadcasters / team saying that they felt Travis d’Arnaud gets hit by foul tips way more than the “average” catcher. I wonder if teams aren’t trying to find a way to quantify this to keep their catchers healthy. It doesn’t seem like more research into this terrain is all that unlikely given the stakes (concussions, injury, ineffectiveness, etc.).

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  12. bada bing says:

    Hawk Harrelson also mentioned during a game this year that Avila has been hit more than any other catcher he has ever seen. Hawk is really dumb, though, so this probably doesn’t mean much.

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    • Gyre says:

      It doesn’t take long for an announcer to notice he never has to talk thru a ‘catcher hit’ timeout for the Sox, but it does happen when the Tigers visit…too often.

      In the Red Sox series, I was noticing that Salty had the tipped balls fly over and around him. Sounds like being further away from the plate is safer.

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  13. baseballbaseball says:

    one other thing. how the hell did catchers survive in the very early days, with no gear? i know they stood way back, but still

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  14. Rob says:

    I’m worried about avilas health after baseball. Especially with all this talk about football players and concussions now. Avila gets plunked in the head all the time. Would hate to see him have trouble later on in life

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  15. Nine O says:

    Seems like there are a few variables that would impact the answer were looking for. Real easy is the average speed and amount of pitches caught. More fast pitches, more hard shots to body on tips. Distance from point of tip is an obvious one, the closer a catcher is to the point of tip the greater the angle of trajectory needed to avoid the catcher. Location of pitches has to play a part. High and outside would have very little chance to be tipped into the catcher’s body, low and inside would have a much greater chance to hit him. I’d also be curious to know whether fastballs or breaking balls create more tips to the catcher’s body.

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  16. Shawneecubs says:

    Mike matheny’s career ended on foul tips off of his mask. It’s a big problem and mlb should be commended for its concussion management program.

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  17. Paul Thomas says:

    “Takes it worse than other catchers” has very little to do with how many times someone gets hit and everything to do with that person’s own physiological characteristics. It’s a truism that some people are more prone to concussions, bone breaks, and assorted other injuries than others are, and in the case of concussions, we know that they are pyramiding; one concussion greatly increases the chance of a second.

    It’s easily possible for one person to be staggered far more by ten fouls than another person is by twenty, in other words. That’s my theory: Avila is unusually (for a catcher) sensitive to the EFFECTS of foul balls. Which suggests he should find another position (or take medical retirement if he cannot make the grade elsewhere).

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