The Case for Alex Avila

With the offseason in full swing, there are a number of contenders looking to fill their vacancies at catcher. After surveying the market, the most common names featured have been Brian McCann and an injured Wilson Ramos. After that, you hear rumblings of the Athletics dangling Stephen Vogt and another exercise in how teams value pitch-framing with Jason Castro. There is a player, however, I feel is being overlooked and could provide value to a contender. Alex Avila isn’t the sexiest name on the free-agent market but could be a sleeper candidate for a team willing to roll the dice.

When combing through the free-agent leaderboards, I discovered a couple of interesting data points that show how Avila could break through with the bat. First, I calculated “Good Contact %” by adding together Medium and Hard Contact %. Alex Avila was the leader at 91.3%. Other notable players on this list include Justin Turner, fifth at 87.9%, and the recently-signed Kendrys Morales, seventh at 87.2%.

So we have a 29-year-old left-handed-hitting catcher who makes good contact and plays the toughest position on the defensive spectrum. So why isn’t there more chatter about Alex Avila? The two biggest culprits lying in the stat line would be his groundball and strikeout tendencies. In 2016, Avila ran a 52% groundball rate and a 37% strikeout rate. Even then, Avila still managed to produce a 104 wRC+ which, given the low bar for catchers, is excellent. Diving into Statcast, we find that Avila had an average exit velocity of 92 MPH, which groups him in the same bucket as J.D. Martinez and Chris Davis. The disclaimer here is Martinez and Davis had over 300 batted balls and Avila had fewer than 100.

This is where there may be hidden value waiting to be unlocked. Avila has an average launch angle of 7.5 degrees, which is suboptimal for a slow-footed catcher. Given his exit velocity, if he could increase his average launch angle into the 15-30 degree range he could exponentially improve his offensive production. If he shifted his approach to drive balls in the air to his pull side, he could unlock additional power and maximize the contact he does make. Last season, Avila ran a pull percentage of 38%. Given his left-handedness and groundball tendencies, he is easily shiftable, which depresses the value of his bat. Avila only managed to hit seven homers last year, but with an offseason to work on a change in approach, I firmly believe he could unlock additional power.

Avila would definitely benefit from being the strong side of a catching platoon. If I am Dan Duquette and the Baltimore Orioles, I am moving to sign Avila to be the strong side of a catching platoon in hopes he could undergo a Trumbo-esque transformation by maximizing contact in a hitter-friendly environment. At present, Steamer projects Avila for 1.2 WAR in 2017, which on the open market should garner a commitment of just under $10 million on a one-year deal. If nothing changes, Avila can still be a serviceable option in a platoon, but if these changes were to take hold, we could be looking at the steal of the offseason.

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