Alex Avila’s Success is Just a Mirage
By John Parent
When Tigers catcher Alex Avila began the season 1-for-10 with four strikeouts, there was a lot of chatter (including some by yours truly) that the Tigers could pick up more offense by using Avila less and allowing the DH role to be given to one of the extra outfielders. Since that opening few days, however, Avila has stepped up his production and is suddenly just one RBI behind Miguel Cabrera for the team lead. Not only that, but he’s second in home runs and second in OPS and OPS+.
Since Victor Martinez went on the disabled list last week, Avila has started five of the six games the Tigers have played. In that time, he’s hit .412 (7-for-17) with five RBI. The vast majority of the damage came this weekend when Avila turned in a 6-for-11 performance with half of his hits going for extra bases (two doubles and a triple) and he drove home four runs in the process.
Avila’s big weekend has raised his overall line to .321/.387/.589/.976. His eight extra-base hits tie him with Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch for second-most on the team (behind Cabrera of course).
So how has he turned his season around?
Well, it’s not all good news with Avila. So far this year he has a BABiP of .395, which is extremely high. Sooner or later that number will come crashing down. When it does, expect to see a prolonged slump. Last season, when he struggled so mightily, Avila suffered from a bit of bad luck in that department, coming in a .278 BABiP, about 22 points below leave average. It’s not surprising to see that his great month has been fueled by some good luck here. Part of that “luck” has been created by a 33% line drive rate. While that number isn’t exceptionally high for a great hitter, it is significantly higher than the numbers Avila has put up in the past.
Not only that, but there are some other troubling signs. Avila’s walk rate of 9.5% is down from over 13% last year. His strikeout rate has risen from 21.3% to 23.8%. Again, these aren’t good trends. I know we are talking about a very small sample yet, but there isn’t anything in these numbers that suggest he can (or will) sustain his hot start.
If he can correct the walk and strikeout trends, even if just by getting back to where he was last year, he should be an average offensive catcher when his BABiP corrects itself. Avila has demonstrated the ability to work counts and draw walks, and that skill doesn’t usually drop significantly without a reason. His extra-base thump is real as well, so you can still expect him to find the gaps and even the seats with a decent amount of regularity, but his OPS and batting average will drop as his BABiP does.
The good thing for the Tigers is that Avila is hot just when the Tigers have needed him to be. With Martinez on the shelf, Avila has been able to excel as the everyday backstop. Once VMart returns, the Tigers will have another bat to take some of the heat off his shoulders and the Tigers should be able to carry Avila’s bat even when he cools off again.
Until he does cool down however, Avila is giving the Tigers a much more potent bottom of the order and that has translated into wins. Let’s hope his luck hold for a good long while.
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