Alex Avila had a truly wretched game last night for the Diamondbacks. He went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts, and came up empty in some big situations. In the 9th, with the winning run on third and one out, he couldn’t put the ball in play to get A.J. Pollock home from third, whiffing. And he then ended the game in the 10th, grounding out weakly with the tying run on third. His Win Probability for the night was a startling -59.7%. That’s the worst figure in a single-game by an Arizona hitter for more than seven seasons (Gerardo Parra -62.8% on July 29, 2010) and the third-worst all-time (also behind Johnny Estrada’s -64.3% on May 7, 2006).
Sadly, it has been par for the course this year. Through seventeen games on the schedule, Avila is batting just a buck and a quarter. No D-back (min 30 PA) has had a lower average to this point since Chris Snyder started off 3-for-32 in 2009. Even if you use OPS, to take into account that Alex has been getting his walks (six in 38 PA) and his home-run, Avila’s OPS is still only .482. For a catcher who was brought on explicitly to hit, that’s... not good. It’s basically what Jeff Mathis was doing to the same point last season (OPS .463). I don’t think I’ve seen a new hitter make such a bad first impression on fans, since Melvin Mora set a franchise record which still stands, for negative hitter WP in a win, on Opening Day 2011.
Of course, it’s not even 40 PA. As shoewizard reminded me last night, Voros McCracken once wrote what he called Voros’s Law: “Any major league hitter can hit just about anything in 60 at bats.” And we have already seen a perfect example of that this season: in a very similar number of PA (41) to start the year, someone on the team batted just .100 with a near-identical OPS to Avila, of .475. How long ago that all seems, since it turns out Paul Goldschmidt is not broken. But it does offer a salutary lesson. Just as Goldy’s previous 4,000 PA offer a better predictor of his future performance than two weeks, so Avila’s 3,000 PA of slightly above average hitting should weigh more than these 38.
While there was certainly concern about Goldschmidt’s slow start, he wasn’t the recipient of quite the same level of seething fan dislike which Avila is receiving, which is interesting. One reason is obvious: we’ve experienced Paul’s talents first-hand over the past five years, so are up close and personal with how good he is. Avila spent almost all his time in the AL Central: over his career, he has less than 50 PA against the D-backs. Out of sight very much equals out of mind, with local fans’ impressions of the catcher being almost entirely defined by three weeks of play. This is why many - and I include myself - were yelling for Mathis to PH last night. Those are five words I never thought I’d find myself writing.
Another factor why plays into our perception is when Avila has been sucking. Even before last night, his Win Probability was the worst on the team. and now, it’s not even close. He has been worth a total of -111%, three times as much as the next-worst Arizona hitter (Ketel Marte at -37%) and the second-lowest in the entire major-leagues. Alex is 1-for-18 with 11 strikeouts when he comes up with men on base, and he’s hitless in nine plate-appearances with five K’s when there are runners in scoring position. Finally, he’s 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, with a runner on third and less than two outs. When your failures have such a negative impact on your team’s chances, that acts as a “force multiplier” for them.
While small sample size is certainly a factor - he won’t bat .125 all year - there are genuine grounds for some concern. He has always been a high-strikeout batter - coming into this year, his K-rate was 28.1%, compared to MLB average of 19.8%. But so far, Avila is fanning in 42.1% of his trips to the plate. That matters, because K-rate is one of the first numbers to stabilize for a hitter - you can start to draw tentative conclusions at around 60 PA, so we’ll be there for Avila in about another week. The main reason appears to be Avila taking called strikes more often (a lower Z-Swing% here); 43.7% of his strikes have been looking, up from a pre-2018 career figure of about 30%.
His BABIP of .200 is also far below Avila’s career figure (.324), so it might seem like he has had bad luck. There is some truth to that: his only fly-ball to become a hit was his home-run in Los Angeles, and he’s 1-for-8 on ground-balls, about half what you’d expect. But he is also not making good contact: it’s line drives that are far and way most likely to become hits, and Avila’s rate to date is only 19%, down from 34%. If his BABIP is to regress towards what’s normal, more line drives are going to be the fastest route. Perhaps being a bit more aggressive, and taking fewer called strikes (maybe he’s being cautious as he learns NL pitching?), will also help Avila return to something approaching career average.
We fans are simply going to have to be patient, because there aren’t many other options. While the D-backs may give additional playing time to John Ryan Murphy, whose bat has been a pleasant surprise to this point, Avila is still going to get his share of starts. No matter what some may demand, the team is not going to cut him less than a month into a two-year contract. But the sooner Alex starts to hit - and particularly, hit in situations where it matters to the team - the happier I think we’ll all be, not least Avila himself.