Detroit Tigers’ Alex Avila Dogged By Inconsistency


Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Every dog has his day.

Anyone who has caught even a glimpse of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on the USA Network can appreciate the aphorism. The perennial parade of pampered pooches runs for two nights in February and features the finest specimens the canine world has to offer.

The ultimate “Best of Show” dog even enjoys a gala meal at Sardi’s Restaurant in Manhattan, a venue with a storied history of hosting famous celebrities of every stripe, including a perpetual galaxy of major league baseball stars.

But a major league season is more than a two-night beauty pageant. It grinds out a full 162 games and demands that players wishing to distinguish themselves perform at a high level every day, year in and year out.

Though he has flashed brilliance at times during his five year career with the Detroit Tigers, catcher Alex Avila has lacked the consistency necessary to separate himself from the desultory lot of major-league catchers. He will don the tools of ignorance again in 2014 in another attempt to duplicate his performance of 2011, when he earned his solitary All-Star berth.

Like the proverbial roasted pig with an apple in its mouth, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn Avila was born with a baseball in his. The 5’11”, 210 pound Avila is the 27-year-old son of Tiger Assistant General Manager Al Avila, and the godson of legendary Tommy Lasorda of Los Angeles Dodger fame. He was drafted in the fifth-round by the Tigers in 2008 after playing his college ball at Alabama, where he was wisely converted from an infielder to a catcher.

After a couple years in the minors Avila joined the Tigers in August, 2009, and hit the ground running. Or shall we say he hit the ground raking–as he lashed five home runs in just 61 at-bats, an effort worthy of the great Babe Ruth. (*author’s note: a recent diner at the aforementioned Sardi’s asked the server if Babe Ruth had eaten there. The server’s reply: “I don’t know–I haven’t seen her.”)

Platooning with Gerald Laird in 2010, though, the left-handed hitting Avila suffered from the sophomore jinx, hitting a mere .228, with seven homers in 104 games.

The year 2011, in turn, was Avila’s moment in the sun. He came out of the box hot and was a surprise American League All-Star. His totals on the year were a .295 average, 19 home runs, and 82 RBIs–all in only 469 at-bats–truly a banner year for a man playing the game’s most physically demanding position.

Unfortunately Avila did not recapture 2011’s magic in the succeeding two years. His average dipped to .243 in 2012 and again to .227 last year, and his home run and RBI production dropped off precipitously as well.

On the defensive side, Avila is known as a solid catcher who frames pitches nicely and handles a pitching staff well. That said, though, his defensive metrics have suffered of late. This can be explained in part by the inability of Tiger pitchers to hold runners on base, but not wholly.

Offensively speaking, Avila is known as a “patient” hitter. Translation: he surveys a lot of pitches, which at times makes him appear passive at the plate. In the past, Tiger coaches have worked with him to become more aggressive, with few tangible results.

Though his approach produces a lot of walks, he also strikes out a lot for a hitter with a compact swing. Whereas teammate Austin Jackson is known as a high strikeout batsman, Avila’s career strikeout rate is actually slightly higher (24.6% versus 23.9%).

Looking forward to 2014, Alex Avila remains a conundrum. Naysayers point to the unimpressive offensive production of the past two years and consider his strong 2011 an anomaly. They also take note of his ponderous foot speed and propensity for incurring concussions, and wonder how long new manager Brad Ausmus–a former catcher himself–will stick with Avila.

Optimists, however, contend that Avila is a battle-tested, left-handed hitting catcher in the prime of his career. That commodity is hard to come by, they say, especially when you consider Avila’s economical, powerful swinging stroke and considerable defensive attributes. They also add (accurately) that Avila has not been completely healthy in sometime and should flourish once free of the nagging injuries and freakish concussions he has incurred the past two years.

It’s clear inconsistency has been Avila’s byword throughout his five-year Tiger career. Which gives rise to two questions for 2014:

Will Tiger fans once again yelp in glee as he returns to the All-Star form he exhibited in 2011?

Or will the collective barking gradually grow louder as Avila posts yet another disappointing campaign?

Come the dog days of summer, we should know the answers.