Alex Avila Thinks It’s 2011

Amid a disappointing season, one of the commanding bright spots for the Tigers has been Alex Avila. After letting the homegrown catcher walk after the 2015 season, the Tigers brought him back for 2017 at $2 million and have been rewarded with 174 wRC+ in 186 PA. Avila has 10 HR and a .441 OBP. Granted, he’s served mostly against right-handed pitching but that’s one heck of a strong side of a platoon for next to nothing.

Avila isn’t necessarily known for his receiving, but he controls the running game well and is generally considered one of the better game-callers in the sport. The picture on catcher defense can be a little hazy given how much of their role is strategic rather than performative, but other than on matters of framing he seems to be quite good.

In fact, 2017 Avila — at age 30 — reminds me quite a bit of 24-year-old 2011 Avila. He’s striking out more, walking more, and hitting for more power, but the game is moving in that direction as a whole. What we’re seeing this year is essentially the kind of player we saw in 2011. He hits for power, he gets on base, but he does strikeout more than you’d prefer in a perfect world. We’re seeing the best of Avila now, for a second time.

There’s no secret. He’s hitting more fly balls and he’s using left field more. It’s easy to draw that line because that’s exactly what he did during his excellent 2011 campaign.

It’s hard to say exactly why 2017 Avila is reviving the summer of 2011. It might be health or it might be approach. We can’t really say without getting inside his head, and it’s not like we think that he is a true-talent 170 wRC+ hitter, but getting three months of good Avila again is a good reminder that the skills are there when things are properly aligned.

Living through this period has led me to reflect on two Avila-related points about which I’ve long-wondered. The first is that Avila’s 2011 season was something of a curse. He was a 24-year-old catcher playing in his first full season and he was amazing. While the All-Star trip, silver slugger, and deep playoff run were awesome, it set unrealistic expectations for the rest of his career. If you have your career year in your first year, everything after that will always disappoint people. Avila had a truly dreadful 2015, but from 2012-2014 he was a solid major league regular behind the dish when he was out there. He was a league average hitter and being league average and also catching makes you pretty useful. But it never felt like that to a lot of people because he looked so much worse than he did in 2011.

Rather than people treating it like his one fluky great year, everyone looked at him like he had collapsed and that’s probably not fair.

The other big thing I’ve wondered about is whether Jim Leyland broke Avila when he rode him so hard down the stretch in 2011. If you recall, during the early part of that year, Victor Martinez served as the other catcher, but when Martinez suffered a minor injury he stayed in the lineup but wasn’t able to catch. Because of exactly how the roster was set up, the Tigers basically played with one catcher for an extended period of time. Avila was playing so well and the roster was tight so Avila didn’t get a real break until rosters expanded. Then when the playoff push came he obviously had to catch every inning.

By the end, he was in bad shape. I’ve always wondered if things would have been different if Avila had been used more cautiously in 2011. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered and the bangs and bruises, and later concussions, would have gotten him anyway. It’s impossible to know, but maybe the lighter workload over the last two seasons has allowed him to recover and his 30-year-old body feels better than he did at 27 and 28.

It’s probably going to end with Avila traded to a contender, and I’ll be happy to see him get another shot at the title he didn’t win in Detroit. Avila’s always been a favorite of mine and his success, despite the team’s struggles, has been a nice development.

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