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Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Avila: The Hidden Component to the Early Season Success

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers have been the hottest team in the major leagues over the past few weeks. They just got off a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles on the road, and now travel further east to Boston, to face the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

The defending champions have had the Tigers number, especially in the post season. The Tigers were unable to get past the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, who eventually would go on to win the World Series.

The Tigers have won 14 of there past 18 games–good for a record of 24-12 (.667 winning percentage, best in the majors)–and have now pushed their AL Central lead to 5 1/2 games over the Kansas City Royals, and seven games in front of the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians.

Defeating teams such as the Houston Astros and beating up on the mediocre AL Central isn’t going to shock anyone, but the Tigers are winning games they should win, something they have struggled with in the past. Last season, the Tigers were 0-9 against the Los Angeles Angels and Miami Marlins combined and went 15-4 against AL Central runner-up, the Indians.

Something the Tigers needed to have to begin their 2014 season–especially under new manager Brad Ausmus–was a hot start to help boost Ausmus’ confidence as a manager and for the team to build great chemistry. The chemistry looks as if it’s there and winning helps that cause tremendously.

The Tigers haven’t been the team who gets off to a hot start in April and coasts through the late summer. Instead, the team battles injuries, poor starts to seasons and cold weather to hover around the .500 mark until weather heats up. Here are the Tigers past five seasons’ records in he month of April and May combined:

2014: 24-12 (through May 15)

2013: 29-24

2012: 24-27

2011:28-26

2010: 26-24

Rarely, the Tigers will finish under .500 through the first two months, but they do come out of the gates a little slower than some other contenders. This season has been a different story. The 2014 Tigers are just five wins within last years’ mark of 29, thanks in part to many different components of the team.

To me, it has all started with the catcher, Alex Avila. He is the de facto leader on the field, controlling the game through his pitcher on the mound and vision behind the plate. Avila has had an up-and-down career in the major leagues, though.

In 2011, he had a slash line of .295/.389/.506, which is good for an OPS of .895 and an OPS+ of 142. Statistically, Avila was the best catcher in the American League.  His 4.6 WAR was tied with Matt Wieters for first in the AL, per baseball-reference.com.

SInce then, the 27-year-old catcher has seen a decline in his numbers across the board. The beginning of this season hasn’t been particularly better. He’s batting just .225 at the plate with two home runs and eight RBI. But, one number sticks out like a sore thumb, his on-base percentage. During his whole career, the man has been able to get on base.

His OBP currently sits at .354, which isn’t quite as high as his .389 OBP during his All-Star campaign in 2011, but still is respectable. These days, Avila is accumulating walks at a career-high rate. Avila is also walking more than he was in 2011. His walk rate in 2011 was 13.2%; today, he improved to 15.5%. Avila might not be the best batter regarding average, but he has made more timely hits in his career than one would think.

Before the year began, I wanted to make a conscious effort to really watch Avila and what his value really is to the team, and I sure have underrated him. He leads the best starting rotation in the big leagues, quarterbacking the play inning by inning and dissecting hitter after hitter, but that isn’t even his most impressive feat with the pitchers. The winner their is Robbie Ray, who has allowed just one earned run in 11 1/3 innings to begin his major league career after the trade in which we inquired him in was one of the most scrutinized moves this past offseason.

He also finds a way to get on base, usually via the walk. Avila works counts into double digits and helps the Tigers get into a team’s bullpen faster, something every team strives for.

The whole team respects Avila,especially what he has done with the pitching staff which includes the bullpen since the beginning of May. For the Tigers to not just win the division but make a deep run in the playoffs, Avila will be more integral to the team’s success for the 2014 season than what the box score will show.

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