Just like last year, we'll be grading all the Tigers who contributed significant playing time over the course of the season, starting with the position players, then doing the rotation members, and finally finishing up with the bullpen. This list is in alphabetical order. These reviews will occasionally dip into sabermetrics so we can get a better idea why things happened, but I'll try to explain as we go through things.
Early in the season, Alex Avila was struggling bad. He couldn't get a hit to drop in anywhere -- a trend that was continuing from a rather poor 2010 season. He couldn't throw anyone out. And he couldn't even stop wild pitches that we've seen so many other catchers get to.
Fortunately for the Tigers, Avila broke out of the funk by the end of April and he never looked back. In July, he earned his first All-Star nod -- and a starting job at that. He finished the season among the best in the American League at throwing runners (32%) out as well as in average (.295), on-base percentage (.389) and slugging average (.506).
In short, Alex Avila was everything the Tigers asked him to be, and so much more. His season was among the most important to the Tigers' success in 2011 and has the potential to garner him a few MVP votes near the bottom of the ballot. (He is still out-shined by Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, despite playing nearly daily at an incredibly tough position while hitting like a first baseman.) But if you ask me, I give the Tigers' MVP vote to Alex Avila.
By the way, he was only age 24.
At the plate:
One thing to note about Avila's 2010 year: He was unlucky. His BABIP was not just below the league average, it was far beneath what his expected BABIP (xBABIP) would have been given the types of batted balls he had. Essentially, if he hit a line drive it would streak like a laser sighted directly on a fielder's glove. So his BABIP was .278, but his xBABIP in 2010 was a much-higher .332. He was unlucky. Now, in 2011 his BABIP was .366 and his xBABIP was .329. He was getting lucky. (Interestingly enough, his career BABIP is .329). *
Just as we saw an improvement coming after 2010, regression next year seems quite likely. That doesn't take away anything from his accomplishments this year, nor does it indicate he'll stink next. It's just important to keep in mind as you begin to think about next season.
One thing that shouldn't surprise anyone, and won't change dramatically, is that Avila's power is not a mirage. Avila always handled the bat well, and hit 12 home runs with .185 isolated power in Double-A Erie. He showed flashes of that power in 2009 during his six-week call-up, too. In 2011, Avila had 19 home runs, 4 triples and 33 doubles for an ISO of .211.
The area of Avila's game that remains the most consistent is his patience and judgment of the strike zone. He walked 13.2% of the time (per Fangraphs), which was slightly above but mostly in line with his minor league and career numbers.
In the field:
One possible reason -- beyond luck -- for Avila's dip in 2010 was his continuing along the learning curve that a young catcher must go through. Beyond the grueling effort physically, a catcher has to learn all he can about his pitchers, as well as file away as many notes as possible about the hitters the battery will face. So while Avila's hitting may have stumbled last year, his fielding remained pretty steady.
Catching stats remain rather imprecise, but here's a generally look. He threw runners out at a 32% clip for a second consecutive year (That number was hurt when Jacob Turner could not even begin to hold runners during his major league debut and gave up five stolen bases in five attempts.) His passed balls+wild pitchers / games started also decreased, to .484 from .560. As for defensive runs saved, he improved to 1 from -4.
From my own personal eye test, he seems like a capable catcher. He's not the best fielding catcher out there, but he's not bad. His ability to throw out runners is nice, but whether due to Avila or the pitching staff he's still one of the catchers challenged most often by opposing teams.
In the future:
Like I've hinted, I don't think you should expect such glorious stats every season. I wouldn't set myself up to believe he's going to make the all-star team on a yearly basis either. But Avila will continue to be a selective batter with power who gets on base. He'll continue to do a good job behind the plate. Put it all together and he should continue to be an above average player at the position.
* Calculate your own xBABIPs using this tool from Fangraphs