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Alex Avila: To boo or not to boo?

That is the question...

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MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Avila is having a potentially historic season. Unfortunately, not in a good way. One of the D-backs’ tent-pole off-season arrivals, Avila signed to a two-year, $8.25 million contract at the end of January. Coming off a sturdy 118 OPS+ season with the Cubs and Tigers, Avila was expected to form the left-handed half of a catching platoon with Jeff Mathis. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out that way, and Avila has instead seen his playing time sharply eroded, particularly this month. After 55 PA in April in 43 in May, Alex has come to the plate just 18 times during June, and made only four starts, compared to 12 and 11 the previous months.

The issue has been almost entirely his offense. He is now batting a wretched .109 on the season. This is easily the lowest ever by any Diamondback with 100+ PA in a season: indeed, the only Arizona player to bat under .160 in so much playing time was... Randy Johnson, and even he hit .124 over 104 PA in 1999. Plate discipline is about the only part of Avila’s game which has held up: indeed, he has quite a few more walks (15) than hits (11). But by OPS, Avila’s .392 figure is ahead only of the Big Unit’s .289. And things haven’t been getting any better. After hitting .174 in April, the figure dropped to .079 last month, and we’re still waiting for his first June hit, where he is 0-for-17 with a walk.

The “potentially historic” aspect comes in Alex’s strikeout rate. To date, he has been fanned in 53 of 116 plate-appearances, a rate of 45.7%. Only two position players have ever had a higher K-rate (again, 100+ PA) for . Here are the top three to this point, in reverse order:

  • 3. Alex Avila, 2018: 45.7% (53/116)
  • 2. Joey Gallo, 2015: 46.3% (57/123)
  • 1. Dave Duncan, 1967: 47.2% (50/106)

These are largely a result of small sample-size, which is kinda self-fulfilling, in the sense that when you strike-out 45% of the time, you’re typically not going to play much. This is why, in the entirety of recorded baseball history, no player - not even a pitcher - has sustained that K-rate for 150 PA in a season. If Avila strikes out 15 times in his next 34 trips to the plate, he will become the first. [Here’s something perhaps indicative of the modern game. Five players in history own a 40% K-rate with 150+ PA. All are since 2014, and three have been this year: Mike Zunino (40.6%), the now-demoted Miguel Sano (40.5%) and Robinson Chirinos (40.0%)]

There’s no hiding from the fact that he’s having a truly wretched season at the plate, though his defense and work with the pitchers has generally been fine (the bunt thing over the weekend a rare gaffe), and entirely comparable with our other catcher, John Ryan Murphy and Jeff Mathis. However, it does not appear the team intends to take any drastic action with regard to Avila. GM Mike Hazen said the current plan is to continue carrying three catchers, citing the demands of the position as the main reason. And, of course, Avila is under contract for 2019 as well: with Mathis a free-agent at the end of the year, it appears next season will see a platoon of Murphy and Avila.

Fans, however, don’t have to like it, and have been increasingly vociferous in showing disapproval of the catcher’s production. This was particularly notable on Sunday, when the team blew a lead in the top of the ninth, and Avila led off the bottom of the inning. Even before his AB (he reached base on an error), the boos rang loud around Chase Field. Avila certainly heard, though seemed unfazed: “If you play long enough, you’re going to get booed at some point, even by your home fans. I’m just trying to give them something to cheer about. I really haven’t gone through (a slump) this lengthy, for sure. I’ve just got to keep plugging away. There’s nothing really else to do but to keep working.”

Arizona fans are generally a fairly placid lot, and it tends to take a lot to become the target of their ire. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw a player get this kind of reaction, and it’s not common. Post-extension Eric Byrnes? Russ Ortiz? That’s the kind of level of hate I’m seeing, though both of those players were largely before social media became a thing - Twitter has been particularly brutal to Avila. With today being an off-day, I figured it might be interesting to have a general debate on the topic of booing your own players. Do you feel it’s never merited, especially for a team which is in first-place? Or is there a point where you feel enough is enough?

The case against is largely based on the fact that it doesn’t help matters. You’re not exactly telling the player anything he doesn’t know, and hearing boos from people who are supposed to be on his side, is not going to do anything for his confidence. There’s an argument that, good or bad, he’s still a Diamondbacks, and as such, should continue to deserve our support. Turning your back on a player when he’s not doing well, can be seen as no different from being the much-despised fair-weather fan and turning your back on the team when they’re not doing well. It’s now, when things are at their worst, that Avila needs support from fans most of all.

However, there are credible counter-arguments. Fans don’t have many other ways to voice their disapproval in a way they know will be heard by those responsible. A sigh and sad shake of the head certainly won’t. They are paying customers, after all, and a one-star review on Yelp doesn’t do much for sports teams. :) Complacency in the face of historic awfulness is a tacit acceptance that it’s “ok”, and that way lies “lovable loser” status; see the Cubs for much of their post-war history. Especially in May, when Avila was getting regular starts, the booing was as much aimed at Torey Lovullo - a signal that loyalty, while admirable, goes only so far, and he needs to find an alternative catcher.

Booing is part and parcel of being at the ballpark, but it is generally aimed at the opposing team, whether for a historical reason (see “Braun, Ryan”) or the in-game situation, such as their pitcher repeatedly throwing over to first. Personally, I wouldn’t boo a player: I’m British, and so am more likely to write a sternly-worded article of disapproval. But I do understand the reactions of those who do, and don’t have a problem with it. What are your thoughts? That would be what the comment section is for...