Alex Avila: Ready to Rebound
On August 7th, 2009, a fan favorite was born when Alex Avila hit his first home run in just his second game of his career. It only took one season in the minors for Avila to make it to the big leagues, but he produced right from the start.
In that first season with the Detroit Tigers, Avila hit .279 with five home runs in just 29 games. While he struggled in 2010 to play like he did towards the end of that first season, it was 2011 and 2012 that really proved he belonged in Major League Baseball.
When it comes to FanGraph’s version of wins above replacement (fWAR), Avila's best two seasons in baseball were 2011 and 2012. He produced fWARs of 4.6 and 2.4, respectively, and looked like a solid MLB catcher for a team that consistently competed in the AL Central.
In 2013, his fWAR continued to decline though, dropping to 0.6. This decline caused Detroit faithful to jump ship and plead for the Tigers to make a move for a different catcher. While his defense has been one of the best - if not the best - when it comes to American League (AL) catchers, just like AL MVP voters, Tigers fans don't care about defense.
Avila has continued to struggle to get hits in 2014, but there's reason to believe this will improve, mostly because of one number that isn't sustainable: Avila's 35.1% strikeout rate. He's currently tied for last among players with at least 150 plate appearances with a 35.1% strikeout rate, making him worse than the infamous Mark Reynolds by 2%. To give you context into how bad 35.1% is, Reynolds has only struck out at a worse rate one time in eight seasons in the league.
This isn't the norm for Avila. His career average is 25.5%, and his worst before this season was 29.6% in 2013. There’s no reason to think that, as he becomes older and in his prime due to being in his high 20s, that he would just consistently swing and miss more often for a full season.
His 2014 plate discipline numbers are big time outliers when looking at his six-year career. Never has he been below 45% when it comes to putting balls in play outside of the strike zone, but this season he's at 37.1%. Never has he been below 82% when it comes to putting balls in play inside the strike zone, and he’s at 78.9% this season.
This inability to put the ball in play is surprising due to his above average eye at the plate. In 2014, his 15.2% walk rate is 11th in the MLB for players with 150 at-bats. While this is a career high number for him, he has averaged a 12.9% walk rate in his career, so he's not that far from his norm.
Besides the fact that Avila should put the ball in play more, he is already getting a little unlucky with BABIP. According to Jim Sannes' expected BABIP formula, which you can read about when he discussed five hitters who will improve and five hitters who will regress, Avila is bound for improvement in the BABIP department.
With a line-drive percentage (LD%) of 27.8%, Avila is looking at an increase in BABIP of almost 20 points to .338. An increase in batting average is clear and numberFire's projection system agrees with me. Avila's current average sits at .206, and numberFire projects him to hit .242 for the rest of the season. The numbers also predict increases in on-base percentage (.351) and weighted on-base average (.332) as well.
This offensive increase in these remaining months certainly will help him surpass that 2012 fWAR, but it’s his defense that has kept him in the positives so far in 2014.
Alex Avila currently sits atop the list of catchers when it comes to defensive stats, and with good reason. He has bounced back from a miserable 2013 season where he threw out only 17% of runners by throwing out 43% of runners so far this season. He’s on pace for just three passed balls and 18 wild pitches, both of which would be career lows even though he's on pace for the second most games played in a season.
The regular battery mate of stud pitchers like Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer has made a name for himself defensively this season. When you combine an eventual increase in offensive production with that, Avila is bound for the second-best season of his career in 2014.