Avila's Above Average? You Better Believe It

Though foul tips and backswings might limit how much we see him down the stretch, Alex Avila is one of the more ever-present members of the Tigers lineup. Batting average devotees may find him frustrating, but judge his game top to bottom and you may be surprised: Avila is an above average major league catcher.

There are three main narratives working against Avila. First, his dad is a key member of the front office so anytime he struggles, the jokes are sitting right in front of you. Second, he has a low batting average. Third, he made the mistake of having his career year too early. None of those are actually flaws in his game and if you take step back, you’ll find a very solid player.

Full disclosure, he’s a bad base runner. He used to be a little below average, but this year he’s been terrible. No argument, end of discussion. He’s a catcher.

But in the other facets of the game, Avila holds his own or stands out. At the plate, his .223 batting average and 32.8% strikeout rate belie his actual contribution. His 13.3% walk rate is well above league average and his .148 ISO provides slightly better than average power. He owns an above average on base percentage and a perfectly average 100 wRC+.

But that’s misleading still. Avila’s a catcher, and catchers are worse hitter than average. Avila has a 100 wRC+ while the average MLB catcher sports a 94 wRC+. In other words, combine his walks, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, etc and weight them properly while adjusting for park effects and Alex Avila is a better hitter than the average major league catcher.

And this offensive performance isn’t new. Since 2012, spanning 1249 PA, he has a 99 wRC+. He’s been a better than average catcher in the years since his elite 2011 season.

And that’s the thing about Avila. He had that magical career year in 2011 and it gave people unrealistic expectations. When you have a .389 OBP and slug over .500 from behind the plate, you’re setting yourself up to disappoint. Avila was never going to do that again, but when he came back to Earth, people viewed it as a collapse rather than an expectation. He’s not declining.

It’s not fair to judge him by his peak season, you have to judge him by his body of work. He’s a career 108 wRC+ hitter and that’s solid for a catcher.

But he’s also a quality defender at a very crucial position. Measuring catcher defense is tricky, but he’s become a very good blocker and thrower and has a history of framing reasonably well. It’s a part of the game that requires a little more human observation than others, but he’s led the staff well even if we aren’t exactly sure how much of a contribution he’s made.

Importantly, there’s no shame in being average. The best teams have a couple stars and very few black holes. Avila’s not going to be a star but he’s also going to offer pretty consistent production at a position that is very difficult to fill.

There simply aren’t many guys who can catch at the major league level. You can find left fielders much more easily than you can find catchers and finding one who can hit is quite rare. Everyone always wants nine all-stars, but the power of a roster of above average players is immense.

Hopefully, Avila can find a way to stay healthy and out of the line of fire, but when he’s in the lineup, he’s a solid contributor. If you’re still fretting over a player’s batting average and strikeout rate with no interest in their walks, power, position, or defense, you’re going to miss a large proportion of what happens on the field.

Avila’s not going to contend for any MVP awards, but getting him back and healthy for the postseason and 2015 should be a big priority for the club.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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