A quiet January of free agency came to a close when Alex Avila reportedly agreed to a deal to join the Diamondbacks on Tuesday. Avila is not enough to ease the pain D-Backs fans will feel if they lose J.D. Martinez in the next few weeks, but his recent performance suggests he could be a nice addition to the team and one at a position where they needed the help. With Chris Iannetta signing in Colorado, the D-Back’s remaining trio of catchers from last season—Jeff Mathis, Chris Herrmann, and J.R. Murphy—each played below the replacement level in 2017.
The real question is how much of an upgrade does Avila represent. He was a 2.5-win player for the Tigers and Cubs last season, but he had not reached that threshold in a season since 2011. Dave Cameron explained how Avila transformed himself into a hard-contact savant in 2017, and he ended the year as baseball’s silver medalist in hard-hit rate at 48.7 percent. Fittingly, the man he may be functionally-but-not-directly replacing in Arizona, Martinez, edged him out at 49.0 percent. But in a May interview with Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press, Avila expressed that he hadn’t changed his approach at the plate, and he didn’t maintain his batted ball profile improvements like some of the swing-plane changers—Martinez, Justin Turner, and Josh Donaldson, for example—have in the StatCast era.
What I find interesting is how directly Avila’s rolling hard-hit rate has mirrored his groundball rate. His breakout stretch over the first half of 2017 coincided with an unprecedented for him decline in his groundball rate below 40 percent. In both 2016 and in the second half of 2017, when he made consistently weaker contact, he was routinely hitting 50 percent or more of his balls on the ground.
That mirrored pattern seemed unusual to me, and that intuition proved correct. Over the last two seasons, Avila has been one of the 10 hitters with the biggest discrepancy in his hard-hit rate on air balls versus groundballs.
That discrepancy is not necessarily a bad thing. The two Davises and Ryan Braun have translated similarly extreme tendencies into 196 home runs the last two seasons, and home runs create fantasy value much more easily than groundball outs destroy it. But, Davis, Davis, and Braun have always hit home runs. Since Avila has not, he’s not made a swing change to try to hit more balls in the air, and he has already seen his groundball rate regress to his 2016 levels when he wasn’t an impact fantasy player, I cannot trust his performance from a 2017 season in which his improvements seemed to follow an unsustainable decrease of his groundball rate.
From my perspective, Steamer’s projection for Avila of 10 home runs in 318 plate appearances with a near-60-point decline in his BABIP seems appropriate, and that makes him a borderline starter in 2-catcher formats more so than a borderline starter in 1-catcher formats. And I think I’ll need Avila to play his first month with a groundball rate under 40 percent to change my mind.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt