- Rating: 5.69
- Age: 32
- 2019 Stats: 201 PA, .207/.353/.421, 97 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR
- 2019 Salary: $4.25 Million
- 2020 Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
When it comes to fan perception, 2019 was the complete opposite of 2018 for Alex Avila. In 2018, Avila really struggled with the bat, posting a Mathis-worthy 67 wRC+, with his batting line bottoming out at .109/.224/.168 for OPS of just .392 on June 18th. The fans jumped on the Avila Hate Train very quickly in 2018, with Twitter constantly blasting him, the sports radio finding hot take after hot take to blast Avila, and the overall fan perception of Avila was nearing Tomas levels. It got so bad that Jim even wrote an article, “Alex Avila: To boo or not to boo?” Despite his horrid bat, Avila still managed to post 0.7 fWAR in 2018 thanks to his defensive prowess, but the fans clearly weren’t seeing it.
Fast forward to the end of 2019 and Avila is in the middle of the Dbacks rankings with a respectable 5.69 rating. What changed? Well, simply, just some positive regression with the bat. It’s hard to really judge Avila’s 2018 when he only had 234 PA. Being a career 105 wRC+ hitter, it should have been obvious that Avila was ripe for a rebound and he delivered. Avila still had an astronomical K% - his 33.8% K% was 12th-highest out of 360 hitters with at least 200 PA - but he made up for it with a 17.9% BB%, the third-best out of this same sample, and a career-high .213 ISO. More importantly, Avila maintained his stellar defense, being one of the best defensive catchers in baseball for the second-straight year in the desert. That defense combined with a roughly league-average bat put up 1.3 fWAR in only 201 PA - a nearly 4-WAR pace for a 600-PA season. At only $4.25 million, that was a very good value for the team.
Possibly determined to change his perception - or maybe just reverting back to his old self - Avila jumped out of the gates strong in 2019, homering twice in the team’s first 9 games and putting up an awesome-but-SSS-driven .333/.524/.800 line. Purely from the eye, Avila looked much better than he ever did in 2018. Unfortunately, in classic Avila fashion, he strained his left quadriceps on an home run trot in a game against Boston on April 6th, sending him to the IL. Fortunately, the injury didn’t keep him out too long and he was back in the lineup on May 11th. Avila would also go on the IL on June 14th for a calf strain, but he was out for only 15 days, coming back on June 29th.
Overall, Avila’s season with the bat was pretty quiet. He didn’t really have too many “big” hits, having only four games all season with a Win Probability Added (WPA) greater than 10%. In two of those four games, Avila’s biggest WPA play came via a walk. From what I can tell, Avila’s “biggest” hit of the season was a bases loaded single against the Phillies on August 5th, giving the Dbacks a 4-3 lead:
Thank you, Alex Avila. This is really swell. pic.twitter.com/IvVX8fAxrt— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) August 7, 2019
Beyond that, Avila wasn’t very exciting with the bat. He was still a solid contributor, mostly as an OBP-type, but sometimes you need those slow-and-steady types in the lineup.
The real value that Avila provides comes defensively and boy, is he good. Avila put up 7 DRS in only 431 innings, good for 10th among 48 catchers (and of course, all of the 9 above him caught a lot more 431 innings). Avila was also an above-average pitch framer, though the actual value varies depending on the source - FanGraphs has him 19th out of 48 catchers and Statcast has him 13th out of 64. Again, keep in mind that Avila was very much a backup catcher and these are total values, so he would be even higher if he caught as often as these other catchers.
However, Avila’s defense extends beyond pitch framing. He caught more runners (11) than steals allowed (10). Avila also rated excellent as a blocker, allowing only 11 wild pitches and 2 passed balls. Per Baseball Prospectus, he was a top-10 catcher in both controlling baserunners and as a blocker.
Avila provided everything you could ask for and more from a backup catcher: league average bat and solid, across-the-board above-average defense. It’s not flashy or exciting, but Avila is a textbook example of an underrated player and he probably deserves more recognition than he has gotten.
Alex Avila’s 2-year, $8.25 million contract came to an end after this season and he is currently an unrestricted free agent. Per Zach Buchanan of The Athletic, there appears to be mutual interest in bringing Avila back. The terms are not yet known at this time, but a brief crowdsourcing exercise here at the ‘Pit seems to show fans are interested in a 1-year deal around $1.5-$3 million, though there were some calling for a 2 year deal. Personally, I’d like to see the Diamondbacks bring back Avila and I think he will go for more, possibly quite similar to the deal he signed in 2018 (2 years, $8.25 million). And I think he would be worth it at that price.
Going forward, Carson Kelly will be primary catcher, possibly starting upwards of 4 out of every 5 games if all goes well. However, the team has a strong emphasis on catcher defense and Alex Avila fits that mold perfectly. There probably won’t be a better backup catcher that will be available in free agency.