Before we analyze what's currently happening, it can be wise to ground ourselves in what was expected of Alex Avila when he came up to Detroit. Tigers' fans obviously remember his impressive 2011 season, in which he was an All-Star and hit .295 with an .895 OPS, including 19 home runs and 33 doubles. Was that where many thought he'd be, or was that a career year in which he exceeded all reasonable expectations from when he was a prospect?
Let's take a look at his scouting report from Mark Anderson from 2010, prior to him becoming a most days big league player:
His power has shown very well at times, but he doesn't project for much more than above-average power on a daily basis. He should hit between 15-18 home runs annually, while also adding a fair number of doubles along the way. … He may never become a star behind the plate, but he has all the makings of a quality starting catcher at the big league level.
In other words, it looked like Avila could become a player with a solid average, around 15 home runs, and somewhere in the neighborhood of an .800 OPS. He wasn't looking to be a many time All-Star, but he shouldn't be a hole in the lineup either.
It's important to start there, because often times fans want to wonder why a player is struggling compared to a past season, when in reality, the 2011 season for Avila was likely above realistic expectations for him. Simply put, expecting something like that out of him again just isn't fair or reasonable.
But so far this season, a .176 average with a .544 OPS isn't quite what anyone had in mind when they talk about Avila. Even 2012, when he posted a .736 OPS with 9 home runs was probably a bit of a letdown, though closer in line with what would be expected out of him.
So, is Avila on a shockingly poor downward trend that he might not recover from, or is this just a small sample size issue that will balance in time?
The default first step in this case is to take a look at his average on balls in play. When dealing with such a small sample size, only 74 at-bats, hitting statistics can swing one way or the other dramatically based on a few balls falling in or dropping for hits. Victor Martinez this season has not posted stellar numbers, but has had many hard hit balls in the gaps caught via excellent defense, hits that over time will likely fall in for hits, pulling his average and power numbers up.
Is it the same for Avila?
Well, the .176 average is alarming, but his .213 BAbip is so shockingly low that it's hard to believe that will continue, as most players usually average a BAbip in the .300 neighborhood. FanGraphs produces a stat called xBAbip, or a player's expected average on balls in play, based on the mix of how he hits balls (line drives, ground balls, fly balls, etc.). Looking at Avila's line, his xBAbip is actually .320, in other words, if he just continues to hit the ball like he has been, he should expect to see that BAbip rise substantially.
That in turn would boost the rest of his numbers as well, but not quite as much as one would hope. A BAbip of .320 on his current production would result in an average of .244 and OPS of .634, a noteworthy improvement obviously, but by no means anywhere near where the Tigers expect or want Avila to be.
When looking at the mix of balls he's put in play, a couple of alarming trends emerge. First, his line drive rate has dropped off, a lot. After consistently posting a line drive rate between 21.5% and 24% over the last three years, his line drive rate has fallen to 18.4%. That number is worrisome, because it indicates regardless of balls falling in play, he's just not squaring the ball up as much. In addition, he's hitting a lot more balls on the ground, nearly half in fact at 46.9%. In 2011, only about 38% of his balls in play were on the ground, so not only is he not squarely hitting the ball, he's not getting good lift, either. For a speedy player like Austin Jackson or Quintin Berry, balls on the ground aren't necessarily an issue, but for a player with Avila's speed, he's unlikely to turn that many of those in-between ground balls into hits.
One common quote from manager Jim Leyland on Avila is a need for him to be more aggressive; he feels Avila needs to look for his pitch and go for it, rather than show additional patience and work counts. This shift in approach may not be music to the ears of those that love Avila's walk rate, but even that has taken a hit this season, so something isn't working. Again, the numbers show an interesting story.
In 2011, on average, Avila saw 4.03 pitches per plate appearance. Last year, that number went up a tad to 4.16, and it's made another small increase in 2013, up to 4.18. Correlation doesn't equate to causation, but the trend here can be seen that Avila taking more pitches isn't necessarily helping his production as the numbers are moving in opposite directions.
When you investigate further, the patience shows it could be an even greater problem. After seeing on average 56% fastballs the past two years, that number is up to over 62% so far in 2013. So, he's seeing more fastballs this year. And he's seeing more pitches. Wouldn't Avila, he of having good plate discipline and pitch recognition, be inclined to swing at fastballs? One would think, but not if he's trying to work a count, and it's possible that pitchers know that, and are working to put him behind in the count early.
Among his 81 plate appearances, Avila has put the ball in play on the first pitch 12 times – not quite Joe Mauer, but also clearly not the approach of an aggressive hitter. And when that first pitch isn't being put in play, it's more likely than not a strike – 39 times in fact or almost half his plate appearances, he's fallen to 0-1. And Avila is not a hitter that does well when behind in the count. When the pitcher is ahead of Avila in the count this year, he's hitting just .059 with a .294 OPS. When he falls behind 0-1, he's hitting .086. Avila is putting himself behind in the count by trying to work counts, and when he's behind, he doesn't hit.
Finally, what do his contact rates look like – with a strikeout rate of almost 30% (compared to a career average of 23.7%), there appears to be something off there too, right? Indeed there is, but it's not just that he's swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. He's swinging and missing slightly more now (11% compared to a career average of 9.8%), but he's especially swinging and missing more now on balls in the strike zone. He usually swings and makes contact about 85% of the time on pitches in the zone, but that number is down to 81% according to PITCHf/x this year.
His pitch recognition is still strong, in fact, he's swinging at FEWER pitches outside of the zone (19% compared to a career average of 22%), but when the ball is in the zone, he's not hitting it like he's used to.
All this adds up to a perplexing and concerning situation. BAbip this argument all you want, a normalization of balls in play falling for hits doesn't get Avila anywhere near the hitter he used to, or projected, to be.
Avila isn't hitting the ball as hard as he used to, isn't getting as much lift on it, is swinging and missing on his increasing diet of fastballs, and despite his attempts to get ahead in the count, he's more likely taking first pitch fastballs, putting him behind, and dramatically decreasing the chance he finds a hit.
The Tigers can live with a good defense, minimal offense catcher, given the productivity they get from the rest of their lineup. But for Avila in particular, he's clearly not the same player he was even just a couple years ago, and a number of alarming trends bring into question whether or not Avila truly should be penciled in as the Tigers starting catcher for the foreseeable future. Avila's swing and approach need work to address the myriad of issues he's having right now, otherwise his production isn't going anywhere north like where it should.