One could spin Alex Avila’s 2012 batting line any number of ways to make him seem like a terrible hitter. His .243 batting average was third-worst on the team among players with 250 or more at-bats (and only .004 off the bottom) and his 24% strikeout rate was second-worst on the team by the same at-bat threshold (and only 0.2% off the bottom).
Major League averages in batting average and strikeout rate for non-pitchers last season was .259 and 19% (respectively), so Avila wasn’t only bad by these metrics for the Tigers (a relatively good hitting team), he was below average when compared across baseball at large.
We’ve heard a lot this offseason about Avila’s 2012 campaign being a “disappointment” and him “needing to bounce back” in 2013, but I don’t think that’s entirely the case. It was a disappointing season when compared to his 2011 numbers (or even his career totals) – that’s a fair statement to make – but it wasn’t a disappointing season at the plate when we consider what type of numbers hitters (and especially catchers) put up across the league.
I did say before that Avila’s numbers were below league average, but they’re only below league average if you’re cherry picking the data. Batting average and strikeout rate are two components of hitting, but they’re only two components — and not even the most significant components.
The number one thing hitters can do to help their team is to not make an out. Well, I mean, hitting a home run would help too, but fundamentally players either make an out or they don’t. Avila did strike out a lot, and this did lead to a low batting average, and this probably makes it sounds like he made a ton of outs last season but he actually didn’t. Alex Avila was actually quite good at not making outs in 2012.
Avila lead the Tigers in walk rate last season, but, perhaps more significantly, finished seventh in all of baseball (minimum 400 plate appearances) in walk rate. Now it’s true that walks aren’t as good as hits, but it’s also much truer that outs aren’t as good as non-outs. Despite his low average and high strikeout rate, Avila was able to compile a .359 on-base percentage (or non-out percentage, as one might think of it) which is significantly better than the non-pitcher major league average OBP of .324, and even more significantly better than the major league catcher average OBP of .319.
Major league catchers last year hit for a triple slash line of .247/.319/.399, and Alex Avila hit for a slash line of .243/.359/.395. It’s easy to see that despite giving up a few points in average and slugging (.004 each), he was significantly better when it came to avoiding outs (.040 points of OBP).
It was a disappointment that Avila’s above average power seemingly disappeared last season – I won’t argue that – and it would be nice to see him rebound there, but even if he didn’t, he would still be an excellent hitter (especially considering his position). It would be wonderful to see him hit for a ton of power and get on base at a high rate like he did the season before, but it’s still incredibly useful to have a guy in the lineup that can get on base at a high rate.
Avila’s power numbers will likely bounce back toward his career rates, but, even if they don’t, the Tigers still have an above average hitter on their hands. He didn’t meet our preseason expectations for him last season, that’s very true, but if he didn’t have an All-Star year in 2011 and instead put up something like his 2012 numbers two years in a row, we’d be incredibly happy about the way he bounced back from a pretty bad 2010 and we’d be looking forward to a bright future.