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2018 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews #44, Alex Avila

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It was a terrible season. The question is why ?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
  • 2018 rating: 2.82
  • 2017 rating: N/A
  • 2018 salary: $4,000,000
  • 2018 performance: 234 PA, .165/.299/.304 = .603 OPS, 0.2 fWAR
  • 2019 status: Under contract, $4,250,000

After losing Chris Iannetta to free agency the Diamondbacks waited until almost the very end of the off season to find his replacement, signing Alex Avila to a 2 year, 8.25 M contract. At the time of the signing, most people felt he would bring a good left hand bat to the lineup, replacing the production the team got from Iannetta. On top of that, as Jim pointed out in his article on the signing , Avila was holding out for the opportunity to play with a playoff contender and did not mind being a backup or platoon catcher if that’s what it took to have that chance.

Splitting time with the Tigers and Cubs after a trade deadline deal in 2017, Alex had the second best offensive season of his career, bringing his career batting line through 2017 to solidly above league average. However due to aging curves and increasing strikeout rates the projection systems had him regressing quite a bit in 2018, expecting him to be a slightly below average hitter in. If only that’s how it worked out.

There were some early signs that it would be a rough season for Alex. While his batted ball data suggested the DBacks had perhaps acquired a slugger on the cheap, the ever increasing K rates were a red flag that this good ol fashioned analyst noted as the primary reason for his low projection prior to 2018. When you strikeout , walk or homer in over 53% of your PA, projected BABIP based on Batted Ball Data becomes less and less relevant.

Here is the Fangraphs.com chart of his K % throughout his career:

It doesn’t take much to see the obvious trend. Even though the K rate dropped from 2016 to 2017, the projection systems saw this trend line and projected an increase to 33%. It actually ended up much worse at 38%, (and that was only after rallying later in the year after hovering close to 50% through mid season)

Jim wrote an article in late March about the spring training struggles Avila was having. And despite the usual, “it’s only spring” protestations, the slump continued into the regular season. By April 19th some fans were already calling for his head, demanding he be benched, DFA’d or worse. As Jim pointed out in this early season article following his 0-5 night on April 18th with 4 K’s and a whopping - 59.7% WPA, the DBacks had an Alex Avila problem.

Yours truly spent a fair amount of time arguing with people during this time that they needed to be more patient, that it was less than 40 PA, that he has a track record of being much better than this, and things would eventually get better. (perhaps out of a desire to do “penance” I volunteered for this player’s review)

However not only was he not hitting, but it seemed that his head wasn’t right either. A glaring base running fiasco cost Deven Marrero a 3 run homer in a pivotal game against the Dodgers. Add in a defensive mistake or two, that stood out like sore thumbs amidst his horrible slump, and the die was cast. Avila was the villain, and was being vilified and booed by the fanbase at every turn. By the 2nd week of May, even I was calling for more John Ryan Murphy playing time until Avila could right his ship. And despite continued support from Torey Lovullo in interviews and press conferences, Murphy did start to see more playing time.

Incredibly however by June 17th, even in a somewhat smaller role, things got even worse for Alex. His batting line had dropped even further to .109/.224/.168 .392 OPS. He had 53 K’s in 116 PA, (46% !). By this point, some of the questions surrounding Avila caused us to question the very nature of fandom. It got THAT bad.

Finally on Jun 21 he had a good game, going 2 for 4 with a homer and double and 3 RBI in a 9-3 victory vs. the Pirates. There was hope he might be turning it around , as he had been making some better contact leading up to that game. And then he promptly went on the DL for 16 days with a hamstring injury.

When he came back, he started to hit. Over the next Month, (July 7 thru Aug 8th) in limited playing time ( 14 Games, 48 PA ) his line was .343/.500/.629 . That brought his season batting avg up to .179 and OPS to .635. It looked like he might even manage to get over the Uecker line.

Alas, it was not to be. After wrestling back the playing time from Murphy, who was in a dispiriting slump himself, Alex would sag again over his final 21 games played, batting just .130 with a .525 OPS, and 25 more K’s in 65 PA.

Despite only getting 234 total PA on the year, the extended slumps by Alex seemed like an out sized factor in the failure of the offense. The bottom of the order was a constant black hole for the team all year. His horrible season also resulted in Murphy getting more playing time than he should have, and despite a couple of hot weeks, Murphy’s season line was no better than Avila’s as both finished with a 59 OPS+. A better season from Avila would have cut Murphy’s playing time in half.

The 2018 DBacks sported 3 of the worst 7 and 5 of the worst 15 Single Season OPS+ marks, in franchise history, (minimum 200 PA). While the likes of Mathis, Dyson, and Owings were actually worse, it can be argued that Alex’s season was the most damaging when stacked up against expectations and need.

So was it just a bad season, or did Avila get old overnight ? Is the collapse typical for a catcher his age ? It’s hard to say. There is plenty of precedent of course for catchers falling off a cliff in their early 30’s. In fact many of his most comparable players through age 30 , as listed on baseball-reference.com , were catchers who had big drops in production at age 31 or shortly thereafter, such as Joe Oliver, John Buck, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, & Ed Herrman.

Visually, what stood out to me the most for Avila was that his plate coverage shrank so much. It seemed like he had zero chance to get to a pitch low and inside, which should be a “happy zone” for a left hand slugger. But the bat speed just wasn’t there. He constantly swung late and over the top of the ball down and in. But he also had no chance to get to anything out and away. Basically if he got a belt high mistake in the middle or inner half he might do something with it, and the rest of the time he either swung and missed, or rolled over into the shift , which he faced more than ever before in his career, over 70% of his PA’s.

I actually found some evidence for those observations in the Statcast Zone Charts. Take a look at that link, and toggle back and forth between 2018 and 2017, and look specifically at the Whiff% and the Launch Angle. It shows much higher Whiff rates , especially down and in, and it shows much lower launch angles, (i.e. more ground balls) also on the inner half.

So the three factors that have me somewhat pessimistic about a big rebound for Alex at the plate are:

  1. Ever increasing K rate as evidenced by the FG Chart
  2. Ending the season so poorly after a promising mid season rebound in limited playing time.
  3. Finding visual evidence of my anecdotal “scouting report”

I have not talked about his defense here very much, as his offensive woes were such an overwhelming part of his 2018 story. However I would be remiss not to at least mention that on the whole, his defense was not too bad. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t a negative, at least not by all the various measures we have available. Visually he seemed to do a decent job framing pitches, blocking balls, and throwing out runners. Both Mathis and Murphy ranked quite positive in 2018, so Avila suffered by comparison, but he actually wasn’t bad. Had he hit AT ALL, he could have been a positive for the team. Instead he was a major drain most of the year. Fingers crossed he finds a way to reverse these trends in 2019.