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2017 Tigers player preview: Was bringing back Alex Avila the right decision?

Avila followed up a disappointing 2015 with a serviceable performance last season.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Reactions were mixed when the Detroit Tigers decided to part ways with Alex Avila near the end of 2015, as the catcher had been a significant part of the team for over six seasons. Despite a couple years of high offensive output, the tide had turned in the fanbase, and an injury-riddled, below-average performance by Avila had many ready to say goodbye after 2015.

Avila did not travel far, ending up with a one-year deal in Chicago. His numbers with the White Sox were decent, but he again was bit by injuries, a theme that was familiar during his time with Detroit. After hitting free agency following the 2016 season, the Tigers — and his father, general manager Al Avila — brought him back home on a one-year contract, where he will serve as the backup to James McCann.

The 2015 season was arguably Avila’s worst season with the Tigers, which helped facilitate his exit. Injuries certainly played a role as well, but many believed the production just was not there anymore.

2009-14 0.247 0.345 62 108 10.5
2015 0.191 0.339 4 83 0.3
2016 0.213 0.359 7 104 1.1

Avila has never been a high-power guy, or even a high-batting average player, but 2015 saw career lows in both of those areas. Even though his on-base percentage was still boosted by an elite walk rate, his 83 wRC+ left more to be desired.

Though he did not prove to be much healthier, Avila rebounded well in 2016. He raised his batting average and on-base percentage by 20 points each and made a sizable jump in wRC+. His 1.1 fWAR was nothing special, but it was serviceable for a player who missed a decent amount of time.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign from Avila was a shift in contact type. Though the changes were mostly minor, he dropped his soft contact rate by almost three percentage points, down from 2015 and his career average. Additionally, he recorded the highest ground ball rate in his career, while lifting the ball in the air just 22.8 percent of the time, easily his lowest mark. Because of this, Avila saw his BABIP leap to .341, much higher than his .278 BABIP in 2015. While some of this is due to luck, keeping the ball lower is likely to result in more hits.

This is a strategy that Avila should continue to employ. At this point, it is fairly clear who Avila is. He is not going to launch double-digit home runs in part-time duty, and he is going to strike out around 30 percent of the time. Though he does not possess great speed, he has an uncanny ability to draw walks — his walk rate from 2015 to 2016 ranks second among all batters with at least 400 plate appearances — and does not struggle to get on base. So instead of trying to lift the ball and hit with power, Avila could benefit from keeping the ball low and finding gaps.

Avila vs. RHP 0.247 0.357 0.418 114
McCann vs. LHP 0.283 0.335 0.529 132

Avila’s bounce-back season was good to see, and the Tigers have the chance to make the most of their signing if they use him correctly. McCann is expected to be the starter behind the dish once again, but he took a step back after a decent 2015. His biggest issues come against right-handed pitchers, and his 34 wRC+ against them in 2016 was a major issue.

If manager Brad Ausmus is willing to use a platoon between McCann and Avila, the results could be impressive. Hitting McCann mostly against lefties and Avila against righties will maximize both players’ strengths while hiding their weakness. Even if they fall a little short of their career averages in the table above, the Tigers would be one of the strongest offensive teams at catcher; in fact, only seven teams received a wRC+ of 100 (league average) or better from the position last season.

With Avila sharing the role with McCann, his injury problems are assisted as well. Less demand on both players would help keep them healthy through the grind of the season. Nothing is certain in a platoon situation, and both players still have something to prove, but Avila looks like a great signing on paper. Anyone who was happy to show him the door in 2015 should be encouraged by what they saw from him last season. Avila may never be an All Star again — it’s clear 2011 was a career year, not a sign of things to come — but he has the potential to be a key asset for the Tigers in 2017.