Saturday, June 18, 2011

Alex Avila Coming Into His Own in 2011

Last season he drew the ire of Detroit Tigers fans; batting just .228 in 2010 Alex Avila did not look like the future every day catcher that he was supposed to be. Playing behind Gerald Laird at catcher helped to acclimate Avila to the big leagues and in 2011 he was christened the every day catcher. Some in Detroit questioned this move and as Avila started the season off slow the chatter about him grew louder, until he stepped up and silenced it.

Many doubted his abilities but Avila has quickly developed into a superb all-around catcher, in 2010 he struggled defensively behind the plate, finding himself unable to block a ball in the dirt or to corral wild pitches. His struggles behind the plate allowed runners to reach base or move up on the base paths; ultimately costing the Tigers runs and possibly games.

Offensively, Avila seemed to be thinking too much at the plate often reaching for pitches that were unhittable or allowing strikes to come across that he had thought would be balls. These struggles caused manager Jim Leyland to place Avila deep in the batting order, routinely seventh or eighth each night. While many managers would have given up on a struggling prospect and shipped them back to AAA to work on their mechanics, Leyland stuck with Avila giving him as many opportunities as possible to get behind the plate and to work on his hitting.

By the end of the 2010 season Avila had shown flashes of what he could become and Leyland had seen them; he had made Avila the top catcher on the depth chart and was getting him in nearly every game. Each time Avila went out he seemed to improve both defensively and offensively, though many in Detroit still saw him as a weakness instead of an asset to the club.

At 24 years old Avila is a youthful talent that has successfully navigated his way through the Tigers farm system, making it to the big leagues and showing the Tigers that they used their draft pick wisely. Avila attended the University of Alabama where he played baseball all four years, but only started catching in his junior season. In his first two years Avila played both first and third base, but his coach told him he would be a better fit behind the plate and he obliged, eventually being drafted as a catcher.

Avila's father, Al Avila, serves as the Detroit Tigers Vice President and Assistant General Manager, but when the Tigers were considering calling his son up from the minors to the big league club the senior Avila was disallowed from joining the meetings between Leyland and General Manager Dave Dombrowski as to avoid any conflict of interest.

In 2011, Avila was officially the Tigers every day catcher, despite their off-season signing of veteran Victor Martinez. While his season started slowly Avila has hit his stride and is showing no signs of slowing down, putting up career numbers this season. His ability to call games has improved significantly; he caught Justin Verlander during his no-hitter this season and again in his other two no-hit bids so far this season.

In his second year in the major leagues Avila seems to have found his groove and refuses to let anyone knock him out of it, through June 18th he leads all major league catchers in slugging percentage (.541), batting average (.301), doubles (14) and RBI (39). Avila has become an invaluable piece of the Tigers offense this season, leading Leyland to shuffle his lineups in a way as to keep his bat in the lineup as much as possible.

In the Tigers opener with the Colorado Rockies, Leyland started Avila at third base in order to keep his bat in the lineup. Avila was receptive to his appointment and was practicing short hops at third before the road trip, although he was missing one key piece of equipment. A third baseman's glove; Avila said that he never thought he would be playing third so he didn't have a glove; Tigers third baseman/outfielder Don Kelly lent Avila his glove for the game.

Throughout the game Avila fielded his position admirably for a guy who hadn't started a game at third base since his sophomore year at Alabama. He did commit one error while at the hot corner, but drew an early walk in the game that scored a run for Detroit. It is unsure how often Leyland will try to utilize Avila at third base during interleague play, but it is tough to see him keep a bat like Avila's out of the lineup for too long.

His popularity has grown, not just in Detroit, but across the nation. During a recent Fox Sports Detroit telecast one of the hosts went to the Tigers souvenir shop inside of Comerica Park on a mission to find an Avila jersey for her father for father's day only to be told they were back ordered because they can't keep them in stock. Nationwide, Avila is garnering respect in All Star balloting recently passing Joe Mauer for second place among American League catchers. As the season progresses Avila may pose a threat to Yankees catcher Russell Martin for the starting job in the Mid-Summer Classic.

Regardless of if Avila is named the starting catcher on the All Star team, he has proven that he is the Tigers catcher of the foreseeable future and will provide Detroit with the offense it needs as well as being the defensive wall every good catcher needs to be.

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