There is a difference between a bad year and a disappointing one. Plenty of players were terrible this year, but since no one expected anything less, no one was disappointed, and that’s not really where the confusion lies. When a player is expected to do great, amazingly wonderful things and instead only does good, above-average things, it’s not uncommon to hear that he had a bad season when the reality is that his production was adequate, it was just not as good as expected. (There is, of course, the third category of player who was expected to do well and in fact does very badly. At that point, either branch of criticism is fair game; take it away, Dr. Zoidberg!)
Given the expectations heaped on him after 2011’s tour de force, Alex Avila definitely had a disappointing season, there’s not much disputing that, but did he actually have a bad one? That largely depends on whether or not the driving number of your league is average or OBP. In any holistic sense, Avila was an effective enough offensive player. His wRC+ of 104 isn’t going to win him any awards, but it does mean he was slightly above average offensively speaking at a position where it’s still acceptable to hit poorly provided the player defends and/or commands the pitching staff well. So, given that he stayed healthy enough to qualify for the batting title and finished with an above-average wRC+, why is Avila ranked 20th out of the 26 catchers who qualified in Zach Sanders’ rankings?
One of the best things about Avila’s season was his increased walk rate, which has risen steadily up to 14 percent from 11 percent in his first full season of 2010. For OBP-league players, that’s great, it’s as good as a high BABIP year but with the added bonus of being more sustainable over the life of his career. His high number of walks is what fueled a 90 point gap between his average and his OBP and batting average, something that boosts his wOBA and wRC+, but that wouldn’t do much to help in a traditional 5X5.
Avila did himself no favors with respect to his counting stats, though he was also hard done by the Tigers lineup. While his HR/FB stayed relatively high, Avila hit nearly 11 percent fewer flyballs in 2012 than he did in 2011, leaving him with a low home run total. While losing out on home runs wouldn’t render a player bereft of value, given Avila’s surroundings, it did sunder much of his. Avila spent most of his season hitting eighth with substantial time in the sixth spot as well. When he hit eighth, he was hitting behind Delmon Young, Brennan Boesch, and Jhonny Peralta – a trio not exactly guaranteed to provide RBI chances – and ahead of Ramon Santiago and Austin Jackson when the lineup actually rolled over. His lot in the sixth spot wasn’t much better. So, despite an OBP that was solidly above league average, Avila was neither able to drive in his teammates nor be driven in with any great frequency.
Though Victor Martinez will return next year, I can’t imagine that he’ll really challenge Avila for time behind the plate. He recorded just under 100 PAs as a catcher in 2011 and while he won’t have in-game wear and tear from 2012 on his knees, the Tigers will likely do as much as they can to keep his repaired ACL from being any sort of issue. One thing that does bear monitoring is whether they’ll find a platoon partner for Avila, who had a third as many PAs against left-handed pitching as he did against right-handers. The move would be warranted as Avila hit .176/.304/.235 with a single home run in his 103 PAs against lefties compared to .262/.367/.429 and eight homers against righties. My sense is that the Tigers won’t spend the money to find Avila a formal partner, but don’t be surprised if Avila sees even less time against lefties in 2013 than he did this year.
With so little in the way of career numbers with which to compare Avila’s 2012 season, it’s difficult to say whether 2011 was the aberration or whether he’ll return to something resembling that level of production in 2013. Even though he’s just 25, I don’t see Avila as a consistent five win player, which means I see 2012 as more indicative of his future potential, but a simple move within the Tigers lineup could provide him with either the RBI chances or the chance to be driven in himself that he needs to push up his value even with a similar level of overall production.