In 2011, Alex Avila seemed to come out of nowhere to become one of the best catchers in the American League. He won the Silver Slugger Award, made the All Star Team, put together a wOBA of .384, threw out 32% of base steal attempts and put up a 4.6 fWAR, 5.2 rWAR season. However, that was he pinnacle of his young career and he has come crashing down the last two seasons. It has been an Alex Avila-nche.
Here are his last three seasons in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and wRC+:
- 2011: .295/.389/.506, .895, 140
- 2012: .243/.352/.384, .736, 104
- 2013: .227/.317/.376, .693, 92
That is a pretty heady fall. But it was not just his offense that fell. He had, by the numbers, his worst fielding season and after three years of throwing out base steal attempts at a 30% clip or higher, he fell off to 17% last season. Many give the pitcher most of the credit or lack of it on stolen bases, but Avila has dealt with pretty much the same group of pitchers in each of his seasons.
What is to make of this drop of his overall game? No doubt, catching is a tough position and a catcher gets dinged up over time. That kind of abuse makes you give an extra pause to the kind of offensive players that Piazza and Posada were to hit so well for so long as catchers.
But there are other factors too. Alex Avila has very good plate discipline. But sometimes pitchers figure those kinds of patterns too. Avila, like Gardner in New York, takes the first pitch a lot. In a nearly one third of Avila’s at bats last season, he took the first pitch and also nearly a third of the time, he was 0-1 in the count.
It is interesting to note that first pitch strikes really jumped for Avila last season. Up until 2013, the highest pitch strike rate against Avila was 56.9%. Last year, that jumped to 62.3%. So pitchers really tried to get that first strike against him and did on a much more higher occasion.
Why is that important? Because Avila is a .176 hitter after an 0-1 count. These scouts and today’s pitchers are no dummies.
Another aspect that jumps out at you with Avila is his success rate against left-handed pitching. In his great year, he compiled a .779 OPS against lefties. In 2012, that fell precipitously to .539. In 2013, that number did a further Avila-nche to an awful .455. That forces the manager’s hand and makes Avila more of a platoon catcher as we saw last year with Brayan Pena.
Alex Avila’s great season of 2011 was aided somewhat by a very high batting average on batted balls in play. His BABIP that season was .366. The last two seasons, that has fallen to a little above average at .313 in 2012 and .302 in 2013. That is important too because Avila strikes out quite a bit. Last season, Avila struck out 29.6% of the time. That was a career high after averaging 24.1% for his career.
Add the two together: Less balls in play plus a lower BABIP and you have a nice recipe for a deep regression.
So where do we go from here with Alex Avila? He will probably get more playing time with Pena gone. The new backup is young Bryan Holaday. Holaday has done nothing to show that he is any great shakes as a batter. His small sample size the last two seasons should not give anyone any optimism that he is that good a hitter if you look at his minor league records.
Holaday will spell Avila against left-handed pitchers, but since there are fewer of those than the alternative, Avila will get most of the playing time. All the projections have Avila bouncing back to the 2.5 WAR range in value after he tanked at 0.6 last year. But he is going to have to stay healthier and make some adjustments.
Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs.com had a fascinating article about the beating that Avila takes behind the plate. Perhaps that is the smoking gun here. But Avila is a catcher and that will not change. That being said, Avila does not have the makings for a long career as a starting catcher and unless something changes soon, he is going to sink out of sight.