Does that look like an uppercut to you? (Minda Haas)

Mike Aviles' Rough Start

Mike Aviles makes the play. (Minda Haas)

I’ll confess that I’m a big booster for Mike Aviles, Kila Ka’aihue, Alex Gordon, and all the other guys that have toiled in Omaha when they likely could’ve warranted a roster spot in Kansas City. With the likes of Rick Ankiel, Jose Guillen, and Yuniesky Betancourt spending time on past Royals rosters, it’s been hard for me to watch the younger guys get shoved down to AAA. I think many other fans can agree with me.

So, it was fun to see those guys get a shot in the second half of last season. Even though they didn’t completely succeed as much as I had hoped, it was still nice to get them time in the starting lineup.

Aviles was one of the Royals that finished 2010 with an extremely hot streak. Through September and October, he hit .333/.364/.568 with 13 extra-base hits in 27 games. Even though his BABIP over that streak was way over average, it’s still an impressive performance. And, as always, people started to hope it would carry over to the next season.

Well, as of six games into the season, it hasn’t.

But why?

There are many things that have looked off for Aviles. I think we’re all aware of the defensive issues that have plagued him to start the season. After making just one error in his previous 14 games at third base, Mike made three…in his first four starts of the season. Two of those errors were particularly egregious.

Perhaps this is a sign to Ned Yost that Aviles should simply be a second baseman. It’s a difficult decision, as the heir apparent would be Wilson Betemit, who is no dream defender. Still, Aviles has made 27 errors in 1007 chances at second base and shortstop over his career. For third base, that number is 4 errors in 30 chances. I know errors aren’t necessarily the best statistic for defensive ability, but these do reveal Aviles’ comparable defensive prowess (or lack thereof) at each position.

Should Aviles be a second baseman? All signs point to yes. With Chris Getz firmly anchored as the normal starting second baseman, however, this gets to be complicated.

I can’t really comment on exactly why Aviles’ defense has been so rough this far. He may be, as the Royals’ brass used to say, “too amped up” to start the season. Maybe he’s just getting all of his errors in early so that he doesn’t make any later (Ryan Lefebvre’s favorite reason). Maybe someone out there can comment on just what it is, but Aviles just isn’t handling grounders as smoothly as you’d expect from someone with even moderate fielding ability. We’ll see what happens, but it’s definitely a point of concern.

The biggest thing I want to focus on is Aviles’ batting. He’s started the season with a ripe .115/.179/.346 line, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in him as the leadoff man. I started to think that batting leadoff was Aviles’ main problem, but he owns a line of .335/.361/.468 in 167 plate appearances there over his career. So, even though that isn’t a huge sample, that theory should be shot.

One thing to consider is that Aviles is taking more cuts in the zone than in any year before. It’s not a huge difference, but it is there. This hasn’t affected his contact there, though, as it’s right on par with what we’ve seen in the past. The most alarming change is that his contact outside the zone is a full 30% lower than in 2010. I don’t know if the pitchers he’s faced so far have been smart enough to make Aviles swing at pitches far out of reach, but something is amiss. Still, that doesn’t exactly make up for the big change so far.

So, I looked at the pitch types that Aviles has seen so far. Depending on where you look, this can vary, but I’m using FanGraphs’ data to get a handle on it.

Aviles has received roughly the same number of fastballs and curves as the rest of his career. He’s gotten a few more sliders and cut fastballs and fewer changeups. He’s made contact on most of these except the cut fastballs, which elude him 35% of the time, according to Texas Leaguers (they also induce a swing 75% of the time compared to 45.5% on fastballs).

When he makes contact in play, Aviles has a 0.64 groundball/flyball ratio. This is about half of his career ratio. He’s hit far fewer liners and groundballs and far more flyballs. 27% of his at bats result in flyouts or popouts. However, he has managed all of this without hitting a single infield fly, which is always nice.

I don’t know if something changed with Aviles’ swing in the offseason, but he’s getting under a ton of the pitches he sees. When 55% of your hits are in the air, compared to 36% over your career, something is different. Maybe he’s trying to do too much. He knows Mike Moustakas is likely to steal his place sometime this year, so he could be pressing to try to hold onto a starting spot. Anyway, what he was doing before was just fine. Hitting more into the air isn’t the answer to that.

It’s worth keeping an eye on in his next game. Look at the swing and see if Aviles might be trying to launch the ball instead of making straight contact. I’ll acknowledge that a small sample size warning applies here, but, after seeing some quality effort at the plate to end 2010, it’s fairly alarming to see such a dive this season.

Maybe Yost needs to implement the Willie Mays Hayes rule: Aviles has to do pushups whenever he hits one in the air.

Post any ideas that you have about Aviles’ lack of production so far in the comments section.

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  • Tom Barkwell

    In addition to the errors, Mike has also made several other fielding mistakes already.

    But as bad as he’s been on third, he was equally atrocious on second last year. And second is a more important position defensively. Mike has trouble getting in the right position when covering stolen base attempts, and turning double plays, in addition to his lack of range and stone glove.

    My guess is Yost will run out of patience with Mike fairly quick if he doesn’t pick it up on defense, even if his bat comes to life (as it probably will). With our lack of strength in the rotation, sound defense is crucial.

    • Gage Matthews

      I agree that he didn’t necessarily look good at second last year. If I remember correctly, he may have even looked worse there than at short. I can’t imagine he’d be worse at second than he has been recently, but I agree that Yost will probably have a short leash on him. Even though I have no expectation that Betemit can even remotely duplicate last season’s offensive performance, he’ll likely take Aviles’ spot if Mike can’t clean it up.

  • jwgeist

    I’m sure launching a HR to left on Opening Day felt GREAT, but I can’t help but wonder with all of those fly balls if he’s now chasing that feeling in every at bat. As a leadoff batter, and with the ridiculous amount of clutch hit attempts he had in the last 2 games, obviously he’s got to get over this and just get a damn base hit.

    I’m not gonna start yelling MOOOOOOOUSE at him yet when I’m there live, but I probably will in May if he doesn’t wake up.

    • Gage Matthews

      I don’t know if he’s going for the leadoff jack every time, but whatever he’s doing, it isn’t working. It’s time to change his mindset or approach if that’s really the issue.

      It could always just be a cold spell to start the year, but it does concern me a bit.

  • Michael Engel

    It’s also clear that he’s getting frustrated, both with himself and the situation in general. He got called out on a phantom check swing, then on an iffy called third strike and the other day made a clear tag and the ump even called that runner safe (the pickoff of Lillibridge which was overturned, as it should have been, to become an out).

    I think he’s pressing.

    • jwgeist

      Yeah one of those close ones was in the late stages of that Angels extra innings game. I think the Royals had just used their last bench player (maybe Maier was still there?) but Aviles started jawing with the umpire, and my brain immediately started wondering what kind of defensive alignment we’d see if he got tossed (and if it’d be better or worse…okay that’s just mean)

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