When the Tigers signed Alex Avila over the winter, it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. They paid him $2 million to re-join the organization and serve as the backup catcher to James McCann, and since his dad is the GM of the team, there was an easy narrative for those who wanted to criticize the organization for not doing more to upgrade a team reaching the end of its window to contend.
@JonHeyman what a joke. Nepotism all the way. The guy cannot hit. Only way he stays in MLB is daddy ball
— NEW ERA (@Roo2481) December 23, 2016
@JonHeyman thanks for the Christmas present, dad
— Rob ™ (@Sesso2345) December 23, 2016
@JonHeyman ugh this team.
— MrJonez1 (@MrJonez1) December 23, 2016
I would imagine that if we polled Roo2481, Sesso2345, and MrJonez1 today, we might find that they have a slightly different view of the Avila acquisition. Because, to this point in the season, he’s basically carried the Tigers’ offense.
Thanks to some injuries and bad luck, Miguel Cabrera is running just a 113 wRC+. Still-clean-up-hitter-for-some-reason Victor Martinez is at 97. Perpetual breakout candidate Nick Castellanos is at 91. J.D. Martinez spent the first six weeks of the season the DL. Jose Iglesias isn’t hurt, but hits like he is, running a 38 wRC+ to this point. And the scrubs part of the team’s stars-and-scrubs collection has hit down to their reputation, with guys like Tyler Collins, Mikie Mahtook, JaCoby Jones, and Andrew Romine all playing at replacement level or worse so far.
As a team, the Tigers’ offense has produced +1.6 runs relative to a league average group, putting them 12th overall in MLB. But if it were not for Avila’s +12.1 mark, the rest of the team’s -10.5 offensive runs total would rank 24th. The Tigers offense is where they are today because their backup catcher has already produced more offensive value this season than the likes of Buster Posey, Justin Turner, Daniel Murphy, and Joey Votto.
Since he hasn’t been an everyday player, it’s been pretty easy to miss what Avila has been doing when in the line-up, but it’s pretty incredible. Through his first 87 plate appearances, Avila is hitting .380/.494/.690, good for a 220 wRC+. Among players with 80+ PAs this year, the MLB wRC+ leaderboard goes Mike Trout, then Avila, then Freddie Freeman.
As a 30-year-old catcher with a history of leg problems, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s getting there with old player skills, ranking 5th in MLB in BB% and 13th in ISO. Avila has always drawn walks, and this is actually his third straight season with an 18% walk rate, so that part isn’t new. The power spike (and an insanely high .489 BABIP) is what’s driving the big surge in his offensive performance, but while it’s usually easy to look at short-term power fluctuations or a near-.500 BABIP and find a guy who is just getting lucky, Statcast lets us show that Avila is earning those marks by hitting the crap out of the baseball.
If you just go to the Statcast Leaderboards over at Baseball Savant, you’ll find Miguel Sano is hitting the ball harder than anyone else, as he’s breaking out as an elite slugger in Minnesota. Tied for second? Aaron Judge, New York’s baseball playing Incredible Hulk, and Avila, the Tigers’ backup catcher. This is some pretty crazy company for a role player who brought out cries of nepotism when he got $2 million as a free agent.
And this is a case where averages aren’t as helpful, because there are diminishing returns to higher levels of exit velocity; the average wOBA on balls hit at 106 mph is .920, and the average wOBA on balls hit 107 mph or harder is .952. While the moonshots hit by guys like Judge and Joey Gallo are amazing to watch, the value in hitting the ball hard is primarily getting it up into that 95-105 mph range, and beyond that, it doesn’t matter quite as much whether it’s 103 mph or 113 mph. Averaging everything will give the guys who hit monstrous shots an edge, but what you really want is to just consistently the ball really hard, with how hard it’s hit being of somewhat less importance.
And this is where Avila is shining. Perhaps the most useful exit velocity number on that Savant leaderboard is percentage of balls hit at least 95 mph; this the Statcast equivalent of “hard-hit rate”, which companies like BIS and Inside Edge have been tracking manually for a while. And if you sort by percentage of 95+ mph batted balls, Avila comes out on top, as 69% of his contacted balls have been hit at least 95 mph this year. More than anyone else in baseball this year, he’s just clustering his batted balls in the exact right areas.
There’s a few weakly hit grounders and some pop-ups in there, but mostly, Avila is just living in that ~100 mph, 10-30 degree range. He’s not running a .489 BABIP because balls are finding holes; he’s running a .489 BABIP because he’s regularly crushing the ball to spots where there aren’t any defenders.
To this point, Avila is running a .640 wOBA on contact, but based on Statcast’s estimated wOBA on his 48 tracked balls, he’d have a .775 wOBA on contact in a park/fielding neutral environment. Like pretty much every other Detroit slugger, his results have been dragged down by Comercia’s dimensions, so if anything, the guy running a .489 BABIP could be considered somewhat unlucky so far.
Now, of course, Avila can’t keep this up. No one can keep this up.
But there do appear to be reasons to think that Avila could be a quality hitter for the Tigers the rest of the season, and perhaps even worthy of replacing Victor Martinez as the team’s DH with some regularity.
As mentioned previously, the walks aren’t a fluke; Avila legitimately has one of the best eyes in baseball. Since the start of the 2015 season, no one has swung at a lower rate of pitches out of the zone than Avila, and his 17% O-Swing is several percentage points better than the next best mark.
And when healthy, Avila has generally had average or better power. He has a career ISO of .160, and he was up at .211 back in 2011, when he was one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. And despite being a lead-foot catcher, Avila has run higher-than-average BABIPs for most of his career, since he almost never makes weak contact; he also has the league’s lowest Soft% since the start of the 2013 season, a full point ahead of Miguel Cabrera, the only other guy to hit fewer than 10% of their balls weakly.
In prior years, Avila’s hard-hit rates didn’t translate to as much power because (you guessed it) he generally hit a decent number of ground balls. For his career, Avila’s ground ball rate is at 42%, and it spiked up to 52% last year as he dealt with leg issues that sapped his power. This year, though, only 22% of Avila’s batted balls have been hit on the ground.
Now, batted ball rates can fluctuate wildly over 100 plate appearances, and Avila himself says there’s no significant change in his swing or approach this year, so he’s more Ryan Zimmerman than Yonder Alonso. Like Zimmerman, Avila just says he’s finally healthy, and that’s allowing him to do more damage on balls, which naturally includes getting the ball into the air with more frequency.
The causation of all this remains somewhat murky. We can’t say that Avila decided to join the elevate-and-celebrate crowd and simply became a great hitter overnight because he realized that fly balls were good. If it was that simple, everyone would do it, and Avila himself is saying it’s not a swing or approach change; he’s just making better contact than he has previously.
But Avila has always made good contact. He’s always hit the ball well to the all fields, and had a lot of opposite field power. He’s always taken bad pitches and forced pitchers to challenge him in the zone. In recent years, he just didn’t make enough contact, and when he did, it too frequently went on the ground, where how hard you hit the ball doesn’t matter as much, especially for a left-handed hitter.
This year, though, Avila’s contact rate is back over 70%, thanks to a big spike in his contact rate on pitches in the zone. And with the kind of contact he’s making, a 70% contact rate is just fine. He’ll always strike out some, but the walks probably aren’t going away, and there’s enough here to suggest that Avila’s power spike isn’t completely a fluke. He won’t keep running a .311 ISO or a .489 BABIP, but even a .150 to .200 ISO and something close to his career .325 BABIP makes him a good hitter.
With Victor Martinez again showing his age, and Cabrera potentially needing to DH in order to keep his body healthy-ish, installing Avila as a semi-regular first baseman might not be a bad idea for the Tigers. Like Zimmerman or Alonso, we don’t have to think he’s anywhere near as good as his 2017-to-date numbers to acknowledge that there may be improvements here that make him a quality hitter, even if he wasn’t expected to be much heading into the season.
So while the Tigers hopes for contention will probably still boil down to whether they can find some more pitching, an already-scary offense is probably even better than we thought headed into the season. With J.D. Martinez also crushing the balls since coming off the DL last week, once Miggy gets going, this line-up is not going to be much fun to face. And the $2 million “nepotism” backup catcher is one of the reasons why.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.