There was a time, briefly, when Detroit Tigers’ catcher Alex Avila was one of the best in baseball at that position. In fact, looking back at the 2011 season, you could argue there was a time when he was the best, full stop.
In that year, Avila put up 4.6 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs’ version of that statistic. He was 24, walked 13 percent of the time, and put up a 140 wRC+ in 551 plate appearances. In short, he was really freaking good.
Since that time, however, Avila has never quite lived up to the potential he showed that year. That’s not unusual, of course — baseball history is littered with outlier seasons — but that doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing. Avila had a couple of above-average seasons post-2011, but whenever a guy has a season like that so young, the bar gets raised. Unfortunately, Avila was never able to clear it after that year.
Toward the end of his first stint with the Tigers, in 2015, Avila hit rock bottom, slashing .191/.339/.287 in 219 trips to the dish. That offseason saw him ship off to the White Sox, where he had a solid-if-abbreviated season.
Flash forward to 2017, and Avila’s one-year exile not only has him back in the Motor City but appears to have cured all ills. Thus far, Avila isn’t just back to his 2011 form; he’s having easily the best season of his career. Through almost three months of play, he’s been worth 2.3 WAR as he’s hit for a 176 wRC+.
And before you make the obvious objection, I know... his BABIP is crazy high, as it currently sits at .427 for the year, the fourth-highest in the majors among players with at least 150 plate appearances. And that has been a large part of his success, to be sure. But this breakout (re-breakout?) is about both luck and genuine improvements.
Dig a bit deeper into Avila’s statistics and you’ll notice that he is a perfect candidate for baseball’s fly ball revolution, assuming it exists. His fly ball rate is over 40 percent, which is nearly double what it was last year. The last time it was that high? You guessed it: 2011.
Likewise, Avila’s launch angle has taken a massive leap. At the moment, Avila’s average launch angle is 16.6°, up nearly 10 degrees from last season. Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, of course, but it’s worth mentioning that Avila is hitting the ball an average of 93.6 miles per hour. That’s fourth-best among major leaguers who have seen at least 500 pitches. Only Miguel Sano, Aaron Judge, and Tigers teammate J.D. Martinez have posted a better mark.
Take a look at Avila’s swing and you won’t notice much of a difference. His mechanics look largely the same as they have in the past. As Avila told the Detroit Free Press last month, ““The ball is just finding the holes. I haven’t changed anything, really.”
Despite that quote, it’s hard to believe that Avila isn’t at least somewhat conscious of his newfound propensity to put the ball in the air. The numbers just jump out too much to declare that as the most likely outcome. There is likely something going on with Avila’s approach, whether it was a change he consciously made or not.
Of course, it could all come crashing down at any time. Avila has certainly been through that experience before, and .400+ BABIPs don’t stay .400+ BABIPs for long. With that said, perhaps the speed with which he’s hitting the ball combined with his launch angle provides a softer landing in that scenario. We simply don’t know at this point.
What we do know is that Avila is having a monster year, and whether it’s luck, skill, or a combination of the two, the Tigers will absolutely take it. For a guy who looked like he might be heading out of the league, it’s undoubtedly a great story, and one that should be appreciated while it lasts.
Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.