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Washington Nationals’ Alex Avila on strike zone discipline; Ted Williams & the Science of Hitting...

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Get to know the new Nationals’ catcher, who learned his strike zone discipline from a fairly well-known book...

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Milwaukee Brewers v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

In the press release announcing their signing of 34-year-old catcher Alex Avila, Washington Nationals’ PR folks highlighted the fact that the 12-year veteran, “ranks fourth among Major League catchers in on-base percentage (.354),” since 2019, while noting that, “[b]ehind the plate, [Avila] ranks second among Major League catchers [minimum 75 games] in caught stealing percentage (43.8%),” in that same period, over which, “he’s thrown out 14 of the 32 runners attempting to steal off of him.”

The plan in D.C. is to pair Avila with incumbent catcher Yan Gomes, (who’s under contract for 2021 after two seasons in D.C., including the 2019 championship campaign). So what’s Avila bringing to the catching mix in the nation’s capital?

He put up a .184/.355/.286 line, two doubles, and one home run in 23 games and 62 plate appearances in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign, over which he was worth 0.2 fWAR for Minnesota’s Twins.

In his last full season’s worth of at bats, Avila posted a .207/.353/.421 line, eight doubles, and nine home runs, in a 1.3 fWAR run in Arizona in his second season with the D-Backs.

He brings a .348 career OBP at the plate, and he talked in his introductory Zoom call with the D.C. press corps this week about how he developed the disciplined approach.

“That’s something that I’ve always had I think,” Avila explained.

“Even from high school and college, just an emphasis on swinging at strikes. That was always something that was embedded.”

Avila put up a gaudy .405 OBP in three seasons and 187 total games at the University of Alabama in college, and he has a .373 OBP in 181 games over six seasons in the minors.

The catcher traced the patience at the plate to some advice he got from a Hall of Fame hitter...’s book.

“A long time ago when I was a kid, I read ‘The Science of Hitting,’ Ted Williams’ book. That was one of the things that he preached in that book and that was something that always stuck with me. I always felt that gave me the best chance to be successful. To make sure that I was swinging at pitches in the strike zone and I wouldn’t go out of the strike zone.

“And that’s resulted in quite a few walks,” he added. Avila’s 17.9% BB% in 2019, was tops in the majors, among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, and in 2020 he led MLB catchers with a 17.7% BB% (min. 60 PAs — he had 62 in the abbreviated season).

His approach, he acknowledged, has its drawbacks.

“At the same time it’s a give and take, because sometimes — especially with the pitchers nowadays and the kind of stuff they’re featuring, you’re going to end up striking out a little bit more than you would like to. So there’s a balance there to try to limit those strikeouts, but also still be patient enough to be able to draw walks and get on base as well as be able to get the hits when you need them and drive in runs.

“That’s really kind of the basis for it, where I just try to stay in the strike zone as far as choosing the pitches I swing at.”

While his defense is likely the more important consideration for the Nationals, Avila did talk about where he sees himself fitting in on the offensive end.

“I think most likely I’ll be hitting towards the bottom of the order,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to be hitting fourth for this team, but my job at that point is to turn the lineup over.

“Over my career I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum as far as hitting value to the team.

“I’ve been at the top at my positions, and I’ve been towards the bottom and a lot of in-between. I try to stick to my strengths. I’ve got some power, so probably going to run into a few homers. I get on base, that’s probably been a strength of mine, and turn the lineup over.”