There was a time earlier this year when I advocated sending Alex Avila down to Toledo. He was lost. He was hitting .166/.265/.280. He showed the occasional flash, but it was mostly one of those horrible stretches in which a player is stuck in between and can’t find his way out. But very shortly after that he took one on the wrist and jumped on the DL. It was June 16th and he had a .560 OPS.
But Avila has been himself since the injury and even better if you put the cutoff at the All-Star Game, hitting .284/.360/.485 since the wrist injury and .313/.376/.545 since the break. He’s been the Avila we saw in 2011 as he’s posted a 153 wRC+ since the break compared to 141 wRC+ over all of 2011. It’s probably wrong to think he’s going to be that player consistently, but it’s not wrong to be optimistic that the worst is behind him.
The statistics tell a convincing story. If we drop the cutoff before and after his two week break due to injury or at the ASG, Avila looks much more like the player we thought he would be. Granted, sample sizes can always cloud your vision when it comes to statistics, but the actual swing mechanics have looked so much better ever since he got back. The flashpoint for me was the go-ahead homerun in Cleveland on August 5th where he cleared the high wall in LCF.
I’ve always though Avila was at his best when he took a short path to the ball and drove pitches to left center and he’s doing that again in a big way. Let’s draw the line at the wrist injury which puts about 190 PA on one side and 150 on the other. Neither is huge, but they aren’t way out of proportion.
First the spray charts:
Not only is he less pull happy overall, but when he goes the other way he’s now hitting the ball on a line much more often.
His batting average and slugging percentage are up against almost every type of pitch (only slugging against sinkers is down). Let’s simplify that and take a look at hard, breaking, and offspeed pitches:
So Avila is driving the ball to the left center field gap and he’s doing much better against breaking balls and offspeed pitches. This probably isn’t surprising information considering how much his numbers have picked up. The swing is a lot shorter to the ball and it’s been a huge improvement. I wish I was adept at GIF-making, because a visual illustration would be great. Below are two screenshots from pitches at nearly identical locations at very similar speeds. He misses the first and hits the second for a game winning homerun. I think you can see the slightly more compact swing in the second, but if you can’t, that’s more my visualization abilities than anything else.
Also, one of Avila’s big problems during the slump was his awful numbers against lefties. Granted, he’s still not tearing it up against southpaws and neither is a big sample, but the comparison is striking. In 26 AB against lefties before the injury he hit .038/.100/.038. In 45 AB since, he’s .222/.314/.378. Add that to his ability to mash righties lately (Since the injury, 315/.384/.539 against RHP) and you’re in business.
He’s improved against lefties and he’s gotten better overall, but you don’t just see it in the numbers. The spray chart tells the same story and the video does as well. It’s all looking up for Avila who has been worth a full win above replacement since the break and has himself up to 90 wRC+ for the season despite the terrible start. It’s not going to be a Silver Slugger year for the Tigers backstop, but ending the season like this is a very good sign for the future. He’s never going to be the most durable player and it’s probably wrong to expect him to be a 5 win player like he was in 2011, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect him to be an above average catcher for the next couple of seasons.
The swing is back and he has the number to prove it. And really, if he delivers in October and helps the Tigers win a World Series, is anyone going to care how he hit in May?
I’m going to be honest up front. I love Alex Avila. He’s one of my favorite players. I caught all the way up through high school and always thought the best catchers were one part strategist, one part shrink, and one part over-protective mother. I think he’s the perfect mix. I love his demeanor and his class. He’s a strong defender and a good teammate. He calls a very good game. And in 2011, he was an elite hitter. In 2012, he was a solid MLB regular. But this year he looks lost. I don’t have the answers, I just have questions.
I’m always an advocate to give struggling hitters time. There’s random variation in outcomes and performance. I wrote about that with Victor Martinez recently. Sometimes players need time to figure things out. But we’re approaching the halfway point of the 2013 season and Alex Avila hasn’t figured it out. Granted, it’s not getting worse, but it’s not getting better.
I dove into the numbers and my conclusions are descriptive, not causal. I know what the problems are, but I can’t figure out what’s causing them. Entering 2013, Avila had a 115 wRC+ in his career with a very nice .261/.359/.432 line. He had 8.0 WAR in about 3 seasons worth of PA. This year (entering 6/15), he’s at 52 wRC+, .166/.265/.280, and -0.3 WAR.
Going deeper, he’s walking at a good rate, but the strikeouts are up and the BABIP is down. Unlike with Martinez, Avila isn’t making a ton of hard hit outs. He’s had some, but not so many that you could chalk this thing up to luck. He’s hitting fewer line drives and more groundballs. He’s swinging less at pitches outside the zone and more at pitches in the zone, and just a little bit more (1%) overall. But the contact rate is down both in and outside the zone.
He’s making contact less, the contact is weaker, and the balls that are in play are going into the ground more often. If you look at his platoon splits, it’s actually so gruesome that you have to look away. He hits.191/.299/.328 against RHP (75 wRC+, 131 PA), but just a dreadful .038/.074/.113 against LHP (-80 wRC+, 27 PA). That’s not big sample size, so the error bars around the left side should be pretty big, but I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen a line look that bad even in just 30 PA.
But then I went looking at his performance by count, and things got confusing:
I’m looking at that graph comparing his 2013 and 2011 wRC+ by count and it looks pretty comparable for the hitter’s counts and pretty uneven when he’s behind in the count. And that kind of throws a wrench in this whole thing. I thought I was looking at Avila and seeing some sort of problem with his swing. Maybe something hurts, maybe he’s out of whack. But when he gets ahead in the count, he can hit. If his swing was messed up, he couldn’t hit in 2-0 counts.
So this has to be between his ears. It seemingly has to be. He says he’s healthy and I believe him. So it’s something happening with his approach, which is weird because his walk rate is good. Above average, even. What we’re looking at is kind of baffling. Clearly Avila isn’t performing at the plate, but the best explanation I can come up with is that it’s about his approach, not his health or mechanics. But he’s walking and chasing fewer pitches, so how can his approach be messed up?
Like I said guys, I don’t have answers, just questions. The contact isn’t good and the power is gone. He’s shown flashes of it, but it’s mostly not there. So I think it’s probably time to send him down to Toledo to figure this out. I generally have three conditions for sending an established player down to the minors:
- The team has to have a replacement plan that is better.
- Staying in the majors isn’t helping the player solve the problem
- The player has been given sufficient time to solve the problem at the MLB level
I think we’re at the point where all three conditions have been met. We’re closing in on the halfway point and Avila isn’t turning the corner. It’s clearly not helping him to get at bats in Detroit right now and the Tigers can offer Pena and a minor league compliment who can produce at a better level than Avila can.
It’s time. I would consider myself among the most patient people for these kinds of things, but I think it’s time to send Avila to Toledo to work on whatever it is that has gone wrong. He’s shown us he has the ability to be a star player, but he just can’t get anything going at the plate right now and there is no indication it’s just bad luck. The Tigers need to get Avila going and I think he needs to head to AAA to get going.
I’m a huge fan of Avila and I’m pulling for him to snap out of it on every pitch. But I think the time has come for the Tigers to make the move and outsource his recovery to Phil Nevin and Bull Durham down I-75 in Toledo. I don’t want to see it happen and I won’t stop wearing my Alex Avila #13 shirt, but it’s not helping anyone to keep him in Detroit and in the lineup.
The Tigers are easily one of the top teams in the league right now despite Avila’s struggles. Imagine what they could be if he was hitting the ball like we know he can. Two or three weeks in AAA should help, and if it doesn’t, then at least we know where we stand. The team knows the player better than I do, but I think it’s time and I’m not an easy person to push to this conclusion.
It’s time for the Tigers to send Alex Avila down so that they can recall the good Alex Avila as soon as possible.