Alex Avila will always carry two curses. The first is that his father was a high level executive with the team that drafted and developed him. Even though Alex clearly rose to the majors on his own merits, there will always be people who see his career through the lens of nepotism.
His second curse is 2011. Avila was incredible that season. It was a career year. All players have a best season but Avila’s came at 24 during his first full year as an MLB starter. This hurt him so much because 1) Leyland ran him into the ground down the stretch because VMart couldn’t catch and 2) fans were routinely disappointed that Alex didn’t hit to his potential in the following campaigns. He hit 140 wRC+ and when he settled in as a slightly better than average hitting catcher from 2012-2015, he looked like he had failed.
But if you take a step back and look at Avila through objective eyes, he’s had a fine career and is a terrific signing at $2 million for his age 30 season. The Tigers have a big question mark at catcher and some stability from a veteran like Avila makes all the sense in the world if they weren’t going to go out and make a trade for a legitimate upgrade at the position. James McCann is a great thrower and his receiving has improved, but the development of his offense is still a work in progress. At this point, he’s a below average player at the position.
Avila brings with him a respectable bat that can handle work against the RHP than give McCann the most trouble. Avila walks a ton and can hit for extra bases. He won’t set the world on fire but a 95-100 wRC+ is probably in the cards. After being well-regarded statistically for his receiving in his youth, Avila’s numbers have dropped off over the last two or three years. It’s hard to parse the specifics of year to year changes to know exactly what’s up but in watching Avila he still possess some of the skills necessary to steal strikes even if he’s not quite as consistent as he once was. On the other hand, Avila has always been a good game manager and smartly shepherds pitchers through lineups. That’s the kind of thing that only gets better with age.
If you want Avila to be some kind of star 3 WAR catcher you’re asking too much. But he’s not being paid to be that kind of player. He signed for next to nothing. The minimum salary is just south of $600,000 and he’s going to provide the Tigers with maybe 1 WAR for just $1.4 million more. There aren’t a lot of better ways to spend such a small amount of baseball dollars. If you could acquire Lucroy or Posey or some distant Molina cousin that would be one thing, but the market was very thin and getting Avila at this price is a no-brainer.
Separate from the dollars and cents, I’m pleased to see Avila coming back. I’m personally fond of Avila’s style and enjoy his even-keel demeanor. He seems like a genuinely good person and I’d rather root for someone like that than someone who’s a little better but kind of a jerk. Also the beard.
Please allow me to trick you for a moment. From 2010 to 2013, Victor Martinez posted a 121 wRC+ in 1801 PA. From 2014 to 2016, he posted a 126 wRC+ in 1736 PA. At the plate, Martinez was just as good from from 31-34 as he was from 35-37. Granted, he’s a designated hitter and a terrible base runner, so being 20 percent better than average at the plate is essentially a requirement, but Martinez has been the same consistent hitter he’s always been. Did you know his career wRC+ is 122.
(looks around sheepishly)
Okay, so I warned you I was tricking you and you’re also probably a person with a memory so you know I’m playing fast and loose with the word consistent. To the graph!
The 2010 to 2013 Martinez was quite consistent except for the part about not having an ACL there for a minute. If you take the sum total of that era and compare it to his last three years, it seems consistent but we’ve actually seen three different Martinezes since. In 2014 he was one of the best hitters in the league. In 2015, he was one of the worst. In 2016, he was the normal Martinez again. What should we expect from the 2017 version?
If you ask the statistical projections, you get an answer somewhere between 100 and 110. This makes sense, given that he’s been a career 120 wRC+ kind of guy and he’s going to be 38 and two years removed from an awful season. It makes sense that you’d forecast a little decline if all you had were the numbers. So that’s one answer.
But let’s try to add some outside wisdom to that. Martinez had knee surgery before 2015 and was clearly not himself for most of that season. We shouldn’t ignore that information – the fact that he had knee surgery two seasons ago is super important – but we also shouldn’t necessary treat performance during injury as the same as performance when healthy. After all, we don’t treat his missed 2012 season as a 0 wRC+. We treat it like he didn’t exist. He got a year older but we have no information about how well he would have played. Imagine if he had tried to play while his knee was healing then, he probably would have sucked!
Perhaps 2015 Martinez should simply have sat out most of the season instead of just 40 games. Would you remember his last few seasons differently if instead of watching him play horribly you pined over him while Tyler Collins? I might.
If you look at 2013, 2014, and 2016 as his last three seasons you wind up with a projection closer to 135 before adjusting for age and health. Maybe that brings you down to 120-125, which again, is right around the VMart average. It’s a question of whether we want to treat 2015 as valid performance or if we just want to eliminate it and say “second knee surgery penalty.” The odds of Martinez’s knee exploding between now and next October is quite high relative to average, but if his knee does not explode, I think I like the odds of his performance being more in line with his other healthy years.
But there’s another thing. I’m also worried about a slightly bad habit he got into when he was hurt in 2015 that carried over to 2016.
He’s always been well below average in terms of strikeout rate but the last two years that number has ticked up considerably. I wouldn’t think much of it in 2015 but it got worse in 2016 even as his production came back.
He’s started to swing more often at pitches in the zone, essentially at the rate of the rest of the league.
This is troubling because it’s been paired with less contact in the zone.
He’s swinging at more pitches in the zone but he’s not really making contact with those pitches. Maybe in 2015 when he had no bat speed he needed to be more aggressive, but now that he’s healthy again he should have reverted back to the old Martinez way of never swinging at anything he didn’t like. This is something to watch in 2017. Is Martinez able to be as selective as he was during his peak or is he still chasing those not-very-hittable-strikes?
I think it’s plausible we get an injury-hampered Martinez, that we get a 120 wRC+ Martinez, or that we get a really good near-2014esque Martinez in 2017. I’m not qualified to put a number on his health, so just adjust these percentages based on your own expectation. I think I’d wager we get something like 80/20 in favor of the 120 wRC+ Martinez. Even with less plate discipline in 2016 he was still a good hitter. But if he is able to work that out, he showed plenty of power last year to push him into the 140 wRC+ range. The question is if last year’s power is conditional on his hacking ways – I’ll bet that it wasn’t.
The Tigers were very close to postseason baseball in 2016, if everyone pushes a little bit in the right direction they can make it there in 2017, and Martinez is one of the guys with more room to push that most. Hopefully his knee can bear it.