With the calendar getting ready to flip to June and with updated catcher rankings on their way, there’s been a decent behind-the-scenes debate over the power and performance of 24 year old Detroit Tigers backstop Alex Avila. Currently, Avila is sporting a slash line of .279/.346/.529 with 8 home runs and 28 RBI. He’s tied for second in HR amongst catchers, leads in RBI production and according to most overall rankings based strictly on 2011 performance, he is listed as the second best catcher behind Russell Martin. There’s no doubting his current performance totals here, but the question remains…can he keep it going?
The obvious thing to do is to turn to certain stats in an effort to check and see if there’s anything out of the ordinary; something to suggest that either you’ve got a total stud on your hands or the bottom is about to fall out. The first thing everyone runs to is BABIP, which as of today, sits at .333 for Avila. Not outlandish , by any means, but certainly higher than last season’s .278. If we are expecting a regression to the mean, then of course there will be a drop-off. From there, we can move onto his 30.0 K% which is reasonably higher than last years mark of 24.1%. The Contact% is down a few percentage points, obviously a result of his increased swings at pitches outside the zone while laying off a lot that is coming inside the zone. And then there’s the 17.4% HR/FB, up from 9.0% last season. Plenty are saying that his current mark is unsustainable and they may be right.
But what if they aren’t right. What if he continues to keep his GB% down, maintain his LD%, and his BABIP stays around .310 for the season? What if he works on his plate discipline and drops that K%? Maybe his ISO isn’t a legitimate .250, but what if it really is around .200? If all of that were to happen, then we’re looking a pretty studly catcher, no?
Now I’m not saying that’s all going to happen. I’m a big Avila fan and an owner in multiple leagues, but I’m also a realist. Of course there are certain stats that will come back down to earth, so to speak. But we preach about sample size so often here, that I can’t help but think that 566 plate appearances over a 3 year span is too little to make a proper determination. He was a hot shot call up in 2009, struggled as a rookie in 2010, and has made certain adjustments to his game here in his sophomore campaign. I’m not completely dismissing his struggles last year, but, as a rookie, when you stop receiving consistent at bats because you’re struggling at the plate, it messes with your confidence and you’re too wrapped up in your head trying to do too much while worrying about your job security. Unfortunately, that’s not something that can be empirically measured. Yes, FanGraphers, you do have to account for more than just numbers. I know it may sound like heresy, but it’s true and some day you’ll thank me for the reminder.
Now, it’s pretty obvious that I’m on the side that thinks that Avila’s start to the season is legitimate. I won’t deny a bit of bias here. I think that he’s got 20 HR capabilities and can do it with a .270ish average. I’ve watched a number of his games, seen a few of those dingers go opposite field in Comerica Park, and think that with a few adjustments at the plate, can put together a fantastic rest of the season. I know what the ZiPS projections for the rest of the year are saying, but I’m not sold on that being gospel here. I’ll put his ROS somewhere between that and his current totals, and if that’s the case, then you’ve got yourself a pretty damn good catcher in Avila.