Is it possible that Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila is over-the-hill at age 26? Rewind to the end of the 2011 season and it appeared as though the Tigers had baseball’s best up and coming catcher. He had hit .295 with 33 doubles, 19 homers, 82 RBI’s, and slugged at a .506 clip. The future doesn’t get much brighter for a young backstop.
And then came 2012, the season in which Avila looked like a broken down old truck. He battled aches and pains all season, hobbled about the diamond, took shot after shot behind the dish, and was generally of little value to the club. Giving way to backup Gerald Laird more often than expected Avila suited up just 116 times a season ago while hitting .243 with 9 homers, 48 RBI’s, and a .384 slugging %.
Surely the injuries were the culprit. No question Avila would return to form in 2013. Detroit was confident enough that they let Laird walk via free agency and signed up Brayan Pena to take some of the at-bats against lefty starters. The debate wasn’t so much over whether Avila would be back, but to what degree.
Avila is hitting .176 with his lone highlights being two solo homers, representing both of his RBI’s on the year. He has walked just 5 times (an area he usually excels) and has K’d 21 times in just 68 at-bats, providing plenty of data to back up his horrid .233 on-base % and .265 slugging %.
Few players miss meaty fastballs in the zone at the rate that Avila has over the last 7 or 8 months of real baseball. So far in 2013 Alex is experiencing new lows in walk rate and batting average on balls in play while striking out more than ever. These aren’t the signs of a guy on the brink of busting loose.
Some analysts suggest that Avila is too passive while he’s in the batter’s box. The numbers suggest otherwise. Avila is hacking at 44.3% of the pitches he sees, which is his highest rate since 2010. He is actually making contact at a similar rate to the rest of his career both on pitches inside and outside of the strike zone per Fangraphs.com. The bottom line is that Avila is having a very difficult time barreling up the baseball.
The fact that this has been his issue for more than a full season of play now is of legitimate concern. The Tigers don’t necessarily need Avila to hit to be successful as a team. They made the playoffs in 2012 without significant contribution from him. But it sure would be nice to have everyone not only RSVP’ing to the party, but boogying down on the dance floor too.
Jhonny Peralta has seemingly bounced back from a rough 2012. Omar Infante has given the Tigers their most prolific 9th hole hitter in recent memory, if ever, with his scorching hot start. Andy Dirks has battled a knee injury but homered and laid down a beautiful bunt single to trigger the Tigers’ key rally in Monday night’s win after taking a few days off to get healthy.
The only one still operating in ghost mode is Avila. Detroit’s unwavering faith in Alex’s ability gave them the gumption to trade away Rob Brantly last summer in the Anibal Sanchez/Infante deal and they let fast-riser Curt Casali go this spring in the Kyle Lobstein deal.
Some reassurance is being provided by 2011 2nd round pick James McCann who is hitting .342 in the early going at AA Erie after a dismal 2012 with the stick. He hasn’t shown any power yet though with just 3 homers over parts of 3 seasons in the system.
For now, and for lack of any viable alternative, Avila is the guy and needs to start playing like it before he Boesch’s himself out of favor with the organization, no matter how closely tied in he is.
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