Alex Avila is back with the Detroit Tigers. This has either made you cry doomsday about the Tigers’ chances of success for 2017, or elated that general manager Al Avila made the most obvious move of the offseason. Either way, the Twitter and Facebook takes came in hot and heavy, faster than at any point since the end of the 2016 season.
Since the departure of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Tigers had a hole for the backup catcher spot. With James McCann mightily struggling against right-handed pitchers last year (34 wRC+) the Tigers needed a left-handed hitter to spell him against tough right-handed pitching. After Matt Weiters, who was going to demand more money and playing time that the Tigers could not commit to, the only left-handed hitting catcher available was Alex Avila.
The Chicago White Sox knew exactly who they were getting when the signed Alex Avila before the 2016 season, and used him accordingly. He only started four games when a left-handed pitcher was on the mound, and accumulated only 27 plate appearances against southpaws (13 percent of his total playing time). Due to this extreme use of this platoon split, Avila enjoyed his best offensive season since 2012.
Alex Avila’s Production
Avila finished the year with an above league average wRC+ (104) for the first time since 2012. He also rediscovered some power. After an abysmal .096 ISO in 2015, Avila bounced back to a .160 ISO in 2016, his highest since his 2011 All-Star season. For the second year in a row, Avila walked over 18 percent of the time. The only players to accomplish this over the last two years (minimum 400 plate appearances) are Joey Votto and Bryce Harper. Of course, Avila is not in the same talent pool as these guys. There is also quite a big difference in their respective playing time, but it does highlight Avila’s biggest asset: getting on base. His .359 on-base percentrage would have ranked fourth on the 2016 Tigers, behind Miguel Cabrera (.393), Cameron Maybin (.383), and J.D. Martinez (.373).
Of course, there are a few concerns with his numbers. He struck out 37.3 percent of the time last season, the highest among all players with at least 200 plate appearances. His .341 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) also seems fluky, even with getting the majority of his playing time against right-handed pitchers. His .213 batting average is low enough as it is, and there’s a real possibility that it could dip below the Mendoza line again, like in 2015.
Avila’s batted ball profile could also be due for some regression. His ground ball rate was over 50 percent (52.2 percent) for the first time in his career, a worrying trend for someone with his speed. The fact that he displayed as much power as he did in 2016 is remarkable. His home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) was an astoundingly high 33.3 percent. The highest HR/FB among any qualified hitter was Ryan Braun’s 28.8 percent. Avila would have to put the ball in the air more often if he wants to maintain his power in 2017.
There is also Avila’s lengthy injury history. He had concussion problems during his first stint in Detroit — he was always a magnet for foul tips — but has since changed to a hockey-style mask. He has also been setting up lower in his catching stance. It seems to have worked, as Avila has not suffered a concussion since 2014. He did miss some time in 2016 due to a hamstring strain, though. Because of his limited role and injury troubles, Avila only tallied 209 plate appearances in 2016, his lowest since becoming a full-time player in 2010.
The Avila signing isn’t a flashy move, but an obvious one. The Tigers had a need to fill with very little money to spend, and Alex Avila fill every criteria. The fact that he is already familiar with the organization, manager Brad Ausmus, and most of the pitching staff is a bonus. If the Tigers can limit Avila’s playing time against left-handed pitchers and he is able to duplicate his production from 2016 into 2017, then the Tigers have found a solid backup at a bargain price.