Avila struggled at the plate in 2012, hitting just .243 in 116 games. With backup catcher Gerald Laird gone, expect Avila to play more games and improve his numbers in 2013.
After a couple days of saying "slow your roll" on your expectations for a couple of different players, I'm ready to go all Keith-Allen on someone. Alex Avila seems to be a perfect target for such unbridled optimism after a disappointing 2012 season.
What happened last season?
Despite a respectable .313 BABIP, Avila couldn't get a hit to fall in to save his life in 2012. This piece by David Tokarz from last August goes into a bit more detail on what I'm trying to get at here.
While his BABIP has varied from 2009-2012, his xBABIP (expected BABIP, which we can predict based on batted ball data) has consistently fallen around .330 (Avila's xBABIP is currently at .345, due to a really high LD rate). This actually explains how Avila can put up respectable batting averages while striking out in almost a quarter of his plate appearances: he hits line drives at a higher than average rate (career average of 22.2% of balls put in play are line drives).
Tokarz also chalks up the decline in Avila's batting average to random variation (which makes sense) and predicts pretty much the same thing Bill James does below.
The other part of Avila's decline in 2012 was a steep drop-off in his power numbers from 2011. Avila's ISO went from .211 to .142, his OPS+ went from 142 to 100 (which is considered league average), and he only hit 9 home runs. For someone who thrived off of extra base hits in 2011, the power decline is a bit puzzling.
What needs to happen in 2013?
Oddly enough, I think Avila needs to walk a little less in 2013. His 14.1% walk rate was the seventh-highest rate in baseball (for those with more than 400 plate appearances), but his fly ball percentage dropped from 40.5% in 2011 to just 29.8% in 2012. While this doesn't entirely correlate with his decline in batting average, it most definitely plays a role in his lower power numbers. At its simplest level, fewer fly balls means fewer home runs. So where do the walks come into play? I think Avila was concentrating too much on hitting for contact and getting on base last season -- an idea that his elevated line drive percentage supports -- and needs to get back to his slugging ways in 2013.
One interesting idea to follow is how often Avila plays and whether or not his production drops off in the later months of the year. While some may point to the 2011 postseason as evidence that Avila was beat up from playing so many games, they fail to see that he downright abused the ball at the plate in August and September of that season, hitting .326/.429/.576 in the final two months. My guess is that Avila may have been a bit worn down in the postseason, but that Gerald Laird took too many starts away from him last season, and Avila wasn't able to find a consistent groove in 2012. With Brayan Pena taking over the backup duties, expect Avila to play 130+ games again this year.
2012 stats and 2013 Bill James projections
The part where I predict exactly the same thing Bill James does
We all knew that Avila overperformed a bit in 2011, but I don't think anyone expected the amount of regression from him that we saw in 2012. Whether it was due to his health, playing time, or bad luck, Avila's production basically flipped to the other side of the Spectrum of Unsustainability. I may be tempting fate by saying "he can't be that bad again," but I'll go with it. 2013 is the season that we see the Avila everyone thought he was.
My one addition to Bill James' forecast: a second All-Star appearance.