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The Fall and Rise of Alex Avila

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Twelve months ago, Alex Avila was hitting .109, and was arguably the most hated man in Arizona sports. Now? Not so much,

Arizona Diamondbacks Photo Day Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The fall

It is the nature of talk radio to provide piping Hawt Taeks, with accuracy secondary. Points of view are delivered with Pope-like divine authority... until discarded, never to be mentioned again, in a perpetual, Orwellian rewriting of history [“We have always been in love with Avila!”]. What’s amusing is the remarkable way the faucet of drivel turned off. After being an almost daily whipping boy last season - especially in the first half - the @Gambo987 account has not mentioned Avila a single time this season. Of course, he was hardly alone in his loud disdain, for sports radio is also a paradoxical combination of mob megaphone and deliberate contrariness. A couple of days’ sampling should suffice:

How did we get there? As early as mid-April, there were worries - though as much to do with the remarkable level of his strikeout rate than anything. But as April turned into May into June, and Avila’s batting average sank to the Phoenix temperature, a large swathe of the fanbase began to treat him like he was Shelby Miller, Trevor Cahill, Eric Byrnes (post-contract extension) and Yasmany Tomas, all rolled into one. Woe betide anyone who dared suggest that Avila’s eight previous MLB seasons of 3,000+ PA, and the OPS+ of 105 which resulted, might just be a better indicator of his future performance than a hundred at-bats. The mob had decided, and would brook no discussion on the topic. Avila. Must. Go,

Admittedly, this article probably won’t be filed in Sean’s greatest hits archive: “John Ryan Murphy Needs To Be The Everyday Starter At Catcher”. Oops. Not to pick on Sean (who has been right far more often than I), since again, he was far from the only one demanding more time for Murphy - or, perhaps more accurately, more for anyone-but-Avila. The Diamondbacks sub on Reddit gave us the gem below on June 18. It has not aged well either, shall we say. For in 68 games thereafter, Murphy batted .158/.212/.297 for a .509 OPS. He not only hit his way off the Diamondbacks roster, the other 29 teams had a chance to pick him up as he went through waivers, and every one of them said, “Nah. We’re good, thanks.”

That was at the point when Avila’s season - arguably his career - reached its lowest point. After 44 games, his triple-slash on June 18 was .109/.224/.168 for an OPS of just .392. He had struck out in 53 of 116 PAs, a startling 45.7% rate. We had an entire article, a couple of days later, on whether or not he deserved to be booed. On that day, Phoenix did indeed reach 109 F, so the temperature comparison above was not hyperbole, But as we’ll see, between Alex and the great Paul Goldschmidt slump-that-never-was, we received two object lessons in 2018, that two months worth of games can mean little or nothing in terms of player evaluation.

It’s not clear why Avila was such a lightning-rod for hatred. Sure, .109 is dire. But at $4m, he cost less than MLB average, and was hardly an everyday player: to the point in question (73 games), he had just 116 PA. I think it was partly being his very first at-bats for the team: you only get one chance at a first impression. In Avila’s case, he went 4-for-35 with 18 Ks over our first 20 games. His best Win Probability was +2.7%, and his total, -119.5%, the worst ever to that point for Arizona. [Of all people, Nick Ahmed beat that this year, at -129.6% through 20 games, albeit in twice as many at-bats] Anything after that was just confirmation bias.

Although, there was also the game a year ago today against the Mets, where a ninth-inning meltdown by Brad Boxberger was partly driven by Avila’s decision to pick up a ball in fair territory, which might have been going foul. That came after the one in April shown below. Since this gaffe cost Deven Marrero the one and only home-run he would hit as a Diamondback, I’m sure It didn’t exactly endear Avila to Marrero, never mind the rest of fandom...

The rise

On June 21, 2018, Alex Avila went 2-for-4 with a double and a home-run. Hooray! He is clearly fixe... Oh, wait: he’s gone on the DL with a strained right hamstring. Cue more rolling of eyes in fandom, but on his return, Avila went 3-for-3 with another home-run. After bottoming out at that .109 average, Alex turned a corner. He may still only have ended the season batting .165, easily the lowest in his career. But in his 36 games the rest of the way, he had an OPS of .824, and even the strikeout rate came down considerably over that time to 31%, with a decent K:BB ratio of 37:22 [compared to 46% and 51:13]. He ended with an OPS+ of 61. Not great - but no catcher on the 2019 D-backs was higher.

Jack offered this analysis at season’s end: “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”

This year, however, the change has been significant. While the problem for Avila has again been a lack of playing time, in 2019 it has been due to injury rather than ineffectiveness. He had barely got started when he had to miss five weeks with a strained left quad. And he is once more on the IL, this time with a strained left calf, meaning that Alex has managed to appear in only one-third of the D-backs’ games this year. Which is unfortunate, because he has been very, very good. The batting average may still seem low at .220, but he has a K:BB of just 25:18, giving him an on-base percentage of .410, the highest of any Arizona player. With five HR in 72 PA, his OPS is over nine hundred. And that’s despite a .242 BABIP.

Admittedly, the remarkable surge in offense this year makes it a little hard to compare Avila’s numbers to previous years. But even across 2019 MLB catchers, he ranks fourth by OPS (min. 50 PA) and second by OBP. If we get a bigger sample size by drawing the line at last year’s low-point, giving us a 61-game period, over the last 12 months, Avila has batted .224/.388/.474 for an OPS of .861. That puts him in the top 15% of all players (min 150 PA) in that time - #51 of 378, to be precise. The list of players who have a lower OPS over the past year than that, at time of writing, includes Jay Bruce, Khris Davis, Manny Machado, Mike Moustakas and Shin-Soo Choo.

What has changed? The most obvious thing is that Avila is making much better contact. But the table below compares his numbers in various plate discipline categories for 2018 and 2019, as well as Alex’s career figures. Remember that the former includes a good chunk of the recovery. But it should still serve to illustrate the difference between then and now, and illustrate how bad things were in the slump. [O- = on pitches out of the zone, S- = pitches in the zone]

Avila 2018 vs. 2019

Season 2018 2019 Career
Season 2018 2019 Career
O-Swing% 14.6% 15.9% 19.7%
Z-Swing% 59.0% 53.7% 65.3%
Swing% 35.2% 32.1% 39.9%
O-Contact% 46.2% 58.6% 47.4%
Z-Contact% 72.4% 79.5% 80.2%
Contact% 66.6% 73.5% 71.2%
Zone% 46.3% 42.8% 44.4%
SwStr% 11.7% 8.3% 11.4%
K% 38.5% 26.9% 28.8%
BB% 15.8% 23.1% 14.4%
1st Sw% 23.0% 17.7% 27.5%

Oddly, he’s swinging slightly more out of the strike zone, and less inside it. But the real change is in putting lumber on the ball, regardless of location. His in the zone contact % is now virtually back to his career average, while his out of zone contact is well above that. As a result, he has cut his swinging strike-rate by 30% from last season, a big factor in his K-rate being down by about the same percentage. He is also being more patient, only swinging at the first pitch about one time in six (rather than almost one in four last year), just enough to keep pitchers honest. Fun fact: since being traded to the Cubs at the trade deadline in 2017, Avila has seen 37 counts of 3-0. He swung once.

However, there are some reasons for concern, even beyond the health issues which have troubled him this season. He has become a much more ground-ball oriented hitter, with 23 of those against 8 fly-balls, which is not what we want to see, in this launch-angle oriented game we now play. And five of the latter left the park, a 62.5% rate which, it’s probably safe to say, is not sustainable. However, we are still in the realm of small sample-sizes, and it’s hard to say much - especially if the various ailments affected his approach, as is potentially the case.

But perhaps more than anything, I’m just impressed by the mental fortitude Avila showed. In May last season, he said, “To be honest with you, I don’t worry about struggling. It doesn’t get me upset. As long as the work is there, the effort is there, everything is there, typically you have the confidence that things will turn around and you’ll start getting the results you expect. That’s really it.” And you know what? Avila was right. And all those who called for him to be DFA’d - or “never play again. Ever” - were wrong. Hopefully, he can come back strong and continue to act as a reminder to us all, about the perils of rushing to judgment based on a small sample size.