Diamondbacks Sign One of Last Year’s Best Hitters

I’ve been waiting for the Diamondbacks to sign Alex Avila for months. It’s not like it’s been some obsession, and it’s not something I’ve thought about every single day, but the fit just always seemed more or less perfect. Avila is younger than the departed Chris Iannetta, and, unlike Iannetta, he swings from the left side, which makes him a better partner for Jeff Mathis. Importantly, Avila had a highly promising 2017; importantly, he was never going to cost a fortune, and the Diamondbacks are dealing with limited financial flexibility. It’s a move that I thought was inevitable. Oftentimes, those inevitable moves fail to come to fruition, but at least this one is finally crossing the finish line. Avila is joining the Diamondbacks, on a two-year contract.

He’s going to get paid $8.25 million, and there are additionally some modest incentives. Avila’s likely to be something of a semi-regular, and last year’s 112 games played was his highest total since 2014. When a team uses Avila, he should be platooned, because southpaws just give him awful fits. There are so many reasons to just see this news and move right on by it, like seeing that David Hernandez signed with the Reds. But in case you don’t play much with Statcast tools, Avila’s 2017 was outstanding. He resembled, by one measure, a frightening threat.

This is going to get somewhat complicated. Before I over-complicate things, we can just look at the more basic stuff. Avila’s coming off a 124 wRC+, and his career mark is 108. At 31, he’s neither young nor too old. As mentioned, he’s a lefty, which makes for a better job share with Mathis, and Avila can also provide depth at first base behind Paul Goldschmidt, which is something the Diamondbacks haven’t really rostered. Avila can also be used as a pinch-hitter, should Arizona move forward with three catchers. In a way, he improves both the lineup and the bench.

Among catchers over the past three years, Avila ranks seventh in wRC+ and second in OBP. Just last year, among catchers, he ranked seventh in wRC+ and third in OBP. Avila reaches base. Sometimes he goes deep. He seldom chases out of the zone. Let’s move now to the more fun stuff.

Out of every batter last season who came to the plate at least 250 times, Avila posted the lowest soft-hit rate. Relatedly, he posted the second-highest hard-hit rate, and while there was some evidence to suggest biased scoring in Detroit, Avila’s rates were no worse on the road. Although Avila does have a habit of getting struck out, his contact quality was terrific. More terrific than a lot of people probably realize.

I’m turning to numbers from Baseball Savant. Avila ranked 60th among regulars and semi-regulars in wOBA, which was largely a function of his having ranked 16th in wOBA on batted balls. But in terms of expected wOBA on batted balls, based on exit velocity and launch, Avila ranked third, behind only Aaron Judge and J.D. Martinez. And so, in expected wOBA overall, Avila ranked seventh, between Rhys Hoskins and Nelson Cruz. Behind Cruz, we find Freddie Freeman and Giancarlo Stanton. This is some of the company that Alex Avila kept. Even though he can only hit righties, he just hit righties extremely well.

For Avila, it’s not about achieving elite-level peak power. He’s never going to hit a ball like how peak Judge can hit a ball. But no one actually needs to hit a ball like peak Judge. The story of Avila’s 2017 was a story of being consistent. Over and over and over again, Avila hit his batted balls on a line. To illustrate, here are more images from Baseball Savant. On the left, Avila’s launch angles between 2015 and 2016. On the right, 2017 alone.

In 2015 and 2016, Avila hit about 31% of his batted balls between 10 and 30 degrees off the ground. Last season, that rate jumped all the way to about 45%, which wasn’t only the highest mark in baseball — it was the highest mark in baseball, by five percentage points. I understand that looking at 10 and 30 degrees is arbitrary, but all this does is support the numbers from earlier. Avila didn’t make very much weak contact. He made a whole lot of quality contact. When, that is, he made contact at all. His blend of skills is fairly unusual.

There’s virtually no question about whether Avila can sustain what he did. You can’t expect anyone to lead baseball again, in almost any measure, by five percentage points. Avila basically has to regress a certain amount. But he’s demonstrated in the past that he can be a line-drive hitter who doesn’t often pop up, and Avila also played 2017 as a healthy person for the first time in a while. He didn’t go on the disabled list. He did perform worse down the stretch, but for all I know, that was because of fatigue, due to being unaccustomed to playing so much. Once more, you can’t or shouldn’t rely on Avila every day. But he looks like an improved hitter, and the Diamondbacks aren’t paying him to do what he did. At $8.25 million over two years, Avila isn’t going to get in the way.

Naturally, because it’s 2018, and because Avila is a catcher at all, we can’t just ignore the defensive components. As a matter of fact, it was a little over a year ago that the Diamondbacks non-tendered Welington Castillo, because he was a strong offensive catcher who simply didn’t do enough behind the plate. The front office emphasized catcher defense, and the message is sent pretty clearly when Jeff Mathis is acquired. Arizona frequently gave the catchers credit for the ballclub’s overall turnaround.

Avila doesn’t rate well. According to the numbers at StatCorner, and according to the more complicated numbers at Baseball Prospectus, Avila is a negative framer. Has been for years. This can’t be dismissed; Avila’s bat is probably ahead of his defense.

In one sense, then, maybe the Castillo decision and the Avila decision are inconsistent. But it was just a few days ago that David Forst suggested he doesn’t love the pitch-framing metrics. Teams might be backing away from taking those numbers as gospel. And consider this from Arizona’s perspective. Welington Castillo, this past season with the Orioles, suddenly rated as an above-average framer. And Chris Iannetta has gone from being a bad framer to being a good one to being a bad one to being a good one again. It’s not entirely clear what this means. It’s not entirely clear what should be done about this. Maybe there’s still far too much noise. Maybe, instead, framing isn’t all that hard to teach or re-learn. Avila was an above-average framer years ago, and he probably hasn’t forgotten how to do that. The Diamondbacks must not be all that concerned.

Or, maybe they know Avila won’t catch well, but they’re happy to have him anyway. The bat is strong, and Mathis is around to be the defensive specialist. I don’t know precisely what the Diamondbacks are thinking. On the defensive side, there are questions remaining, about Avila, but also about the metrics themselves. On the offensive side? That’s where Alex Avila gets to shine. He’s going to give the ballclub something it didn’t have.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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John Edwardsmember
6 years ago

I’m fairly cautious w.r.t. Avila’s quality of contact numbers – the consistent elevation is positive and there’s no denying that he got results, but Comerica’s Statcast numbers were questionable (https://www.fangraphs.com/community/detroits-batted-ball-readings-are-hot/) and Avila was arguably the largest beneficiary of this effect, posting a .459 xwOBA at home vs. .343 xwOBA away.

John Edwardsmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

TIL. Still, Baseball Savant seems to have the same issue – Detroit pitchers ran a .325 xwOBA at home vs. .309 away, and for hitters it was .330 at home vs. .293 away, which raises a huge red flag for me.

6 years ago
Reply to  John Edwards

The data in that article doesn’t appear to be Statcast data… Quality of contact data on fangraphs comes from Baseball Info Solutions, and Avila had an identical hard% at home and on the road in the first half, which covers his time with the Tigers; a crazy 55.8% hard-hit. Avila was killing the ball, and it had nothing to do with Comerica. The only real difference in his batted ball data between home and away was he hit few line drives while away and hit more fly balls.