Yesterday, the Diamondbacks signed Alex Avila, a left-handed-hitting catcher. The terms of the deal are unknown, but I expect him to get the majority of the ABs for the Dbacks this year, especially against RHP.
Alex Avila can hit. Last year, he had a 124 wRC+, which is significantly better than the 81 wRC+ that our catchers put up last season. For his career, Alex Avila has mostly been an above-average hitter, peaking with a 140 wRC+ in a full season in 2011 (excluding his brief 147 wRC+ his rookie season in 2009). But he's had some down seasons, too, including three straight seasons below 100 wRC+ from 2013-2015.
So what can we glean from Avila? Well, let's take a look at the batted ball data. And Avila really stands out.
As mentioned in the comments last night, Avila hits the ball hard. Specifically, his 48.7% Hard% was the second-best in baseball (min. 100 PA; 435 batters) only to JD Martinez at 49.0%. That's really damn good. And it wasn't a product of his home ballpark, either, as he conveniently had a 48.7%/48.7% home/away split last year. Yes, they were identical to the first decimal place. Thanks Alex!
So Alex Avila is pretty much JD Martinez, right? Not exactly. While they both hit the ball hard, they hit the ball differently. Avila only had a measly 33.9% FB% (compared to 43.2% for JD) and that 33.9% FB% was the highest since his 2011 season. You kind of need to hit flyballs to hit home runs. And he hits the highest number of flyballs to centerfield, also reducing his home run output. Alex Avila hits the ball hard, but he's not a home run-hitting type of slugger.
Instead, Avila hits a lot of line drives. His LD% was 10th-best in baseball last year. Combine this with his very low infield-fly-rate (10th-lowest), and Alex Avila also stands out in another way: he had the lowest Soft% (6.7%) in baseball and it's a fairly hefty margin. While line drives don't bode terribly well for high power numbers, they do help well on the BABIP side of things, where Avila shines with a .325 career BABIP. Combine this with his excellent on-base skills and Avila has a fairly decent OBP floor, even despite his high strikeout numbers.
This is more-or-less going to help backup the Hard%, but Statcast likes Avila, too. Among hitters with 100 batted ball events (387 batters), Avila was 31st in Barrels/PA and 13th in Barrels/BBE. Avila isn't higher on the barrels list due to his lack of flyballs, but these are still some of the best-in-baseball type of numbers. In regards to raw exit velocity, Avila was 20th in average exit velocity and 6th in percentage of balls hit at 95.0 MPH or greater. Hard. Hard. Hard. Avila hits the ball hard.
Where Avila "struggles", if you will, is with his launch angle. Avila's 12.2° launch angle was 166th in baseball. And while this isn't something you necessarily want to be number 1 in (too high and you're hitting easy popups), but it's something that Avila could stand to increase with how consistently he hits the ball hard. Last year proves this out perfectly:
- Avila with Tigers: 13.6° launch angle, 37.1% FB%, .201 ISO, 133 wRC+
- Avila with Cubs: 8.5° launch angle, 25.0% FB%, .141 ISO, 103 wRC+
Avila still hit the ball pretty hard with the Cubs (43.4% Hard%) but without the loft on the ball, he wasn't hitting nearly as well as he was with the Tigers.
So what should we expect?
It's honestly a pretty tough read on Avila. He has well-below average strikeout rates, sitting above 30% each of the last 4 years. His walk rate, however, is absolutely fantastic, with 18.3%, 18.2%, and 16.5% over the last three years (and this is a big weakness for our team). He's capable of hitting for a decent average thanks to his consistent hard-contact skills and high line drive rates. And he has crazy power upside but this is very limited by his launch angle.
My take on this? We just found ourselves a new leadoff hitter, something we didn't really have last year. The ZiPS projects JUST came out for Arizona and Avila's .352 OBP is the best on the team not named Goldschmidt or JD Martinez. And considering that Chase Field favors doubles and triples more than home runs with Avila's penchant to hit a lot of hard-hit line drives and Avila could really thrive in AZ.
Would it be nice if Avila could hit more flyballs and turn into a home run machine? Of course. But if not, Avila's current profile actually really suits Arizona at the top of the order. Like, really, really well.