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Why is Alex Avila hitting so many home runs already this year?

Avila has never been particularly strong at the plate, so what has changed this season?

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

As of April 25, the Detroit Tigers catchers lead the majors for combined home runs. Alex Avila and James McCann have a combined nine home runs in the young 2017 season. For a duo whose past performance at the plate left a lot to be desired, this red-hot start is both exciting and perplexing. What exactly is Alex Avila doing differently this season that is yielding such tremendous results?

If Avila were to continue at his current pace, he is on track to hit 34 home runs this year, roughly one every five games. This is based on his 12 game appearances in 18 games, playing both catcher and first base. Now, obviously these numbers would only be accurate if he continued to play almost every game this season, which won’t be the case when Miguel Cabrera returns to take over first base duties. So, in order to get a better estimate we need to adjust for total playing time. If we look at game-starting appearances for back-up catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia last season, we can estimate Avila will appear in roughly 67 games this season. Under those adjusted numbers he is projected to hit 24 home runs, about one every three games.

Of course, early season projections are wish fulfillment, not actual predictions. Avila has started this season on a tear, and it’s incredibly unlikely he will continue to produce the way he has been, he simply doesn’t have an established history of hitting this well. His best season on record was his All-Star, Silver Slugger winning season of 2011, where he hammered in 19 home runs and hit for .295/.389/.506. At the moment Avila is hitting .367/.472/.833, a quite unsustainable level of production.

Which brings us back to the question: why? What is Avila doing this year to create such successful results?

Let’s look at his contact numbers. Bearing in mind the data will be a bit skewed from the smaller sample size of the 2017 season, but may still provide some insight. Starting with Avila’s best season 2011, and looking at all the seasons that followed it’s pretty easy to spot the change for this year.

Alex Avila Quality of Contact

Season Soft% Med% Hard%
Season Soft% Med% Hard%
2011 16.9 51.5 31.7
2012 12 54.7 33.3
2013 7.2 56.8 36
2014 9.9 50.4 39.7
2015 11.5 57.5 31
2016 8.7 58.7 32.6
2017 0 40 60

This goes hand in hand with an article posted by our own Jeff Roberts, that pointed to hard hitting as one of the things Tigers batters are excelling at this season. What we can see looking at Avila’s numbers is a complete drop off of soft contact, and an enormous spike in hard contact. Quality of contact is merely a measure of how well a ball is hit, with a high percentage generally indicating the ball was hit with purpose. It doesn’t necessarily equate to runs scored. Still, such an uptick of high quality hits is a definite marker on the path to understanding Avila’s success.

Let’s move on to the type of hits Avila is getting. Again, starting at his All-Star season, we can compare the breakdown of his hits between line drives (LD%), ground balls (GB%) and fly balls (FB%). The chart also includes Avila’s home runs to fly balls ratio, which is an important one to note.

Alex Avila Hit Type

Season LD% GB% FB% HR/FB
Season LD% GB% FB% HR/FB
2011 21.7 37.8 40.5 13.8
2012 23.8 46.4 29.8 11.4
2013 28 42.2 29.8 16.9
2014 25 44.6 30.4 15.1
2015 27.9 40.5 31.5 11.4
2016 25 52.2 22.8 33.3
2017 40 20 40 50

What, exactly does this mean for quality of performance? On the most basic level, again with the caveat that the 2017 sample size is much too small to be considered a perfect indication of the season, it shows us that Avila is changing the type of hits he is delivering. His career-high numbers for line drives came in 2013, with 28%. That season he hit 11 home runs. Typically, line drives equal hits. So the higher a line drive percentage, the more base hits a player will yield. As such, we can see this year that not only is Avila hitting with more hard contact, he is also hitting more line drives, thus creating the perfect storm for hits.

It’s important to pay attention to his home runs to fly balls ratio. Avila had a career high 33.3% HR/FB ratio with the White Sox last year, but it’s obvious a 50% ratio is impossible for a player of Avila’s caliber to maintain. Yes, he’s hitting well now, but the numbers tell us this is bound to drop off over the course of the season. On a positive note, however, Avilas’s infield fly ball percentage (IFFB%) which is a marker of infield flies, is at zero, meaning Avila hasn’t handed over any easy outs to opposing teams this season so far.

Taking a look at Avila’s plate discipline gives us even more insight. His Z-Contact percentage is up to 77% from 71% last year, meaning when he does make swings those swings are making contact more often. Likewise his strikeouts are lower this season than his two previous years, currently at 28%, down from 37% in 2016. Avila is a player who has often used his patience as a skill to find his way to first base, and even though he’s swinging more than usual, he’s striking out less.

Alex Avila Plate Discipline
Courtesy of Fangraphs

Let’s go even further down the rabbit hole of speculation and see how Avila’s hard contact is impacting the hits he makes. Since Statcast has only been available since 2015 it’s difficult to compare results from his best seasons to this year, but we can look at data from last season with the White Sox, when Avila started getting some high quality results in spite of limited play time.

Alex Avila Exit Velocity 2016
Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Alex Avila Exit Velocity 2016
Courtesy of Baseball Savant

And below is the data from the 2017 season so far.

Alex Avila Exit Velocity 2017
Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Alex Avila Exit Velocity 2017
Courtesy of Baseball Savant

What we’re seeing, even in this limited amount of data, is very telling of the results that can be witnessed on the field. Avila is making better, harder contact. His exit velocity is higher, with more hits over 100mph already in this season than the year previous, and his launch angle has gotten higher than it was last season as well meaning the harder hit pitches are going further and often leaving the field.

His ground ball rate has dropped considerably, which helps because Avila isn’t a fast runner, meaning he’s avoiding getting thrown out on the base paths. It also helps him avoid the shift, which he has fallen victim to throughout his career.

These factors have combined into the perfect storm that has resulted in 11 hits, four home runs, two doubles, and eight RBIs. Avila is simply hitting better and it shows in the numbers.

There could, of course, be a simpler explanation altogether to help explain why Avila has been so good lately.

Could it be that easy? That the player who once couldn’t avoid getting hit with foul tips is simply healthier, and this is directly corresponding to his on field performance? Chances are it’s a combination of all those factors, and possibly just the joy, or the pressure, of being back with the team he called home for seven seasons, and which is now run by his father.

Whatever the cause for Avila’s impressive start, it will be interesting to see how the numbers adjust themselves as the season progresses, and whether or not Avila can continue to bring in such impressive results.