Catching Hell; Detroit Tiger Alex Avila Takes A Pounding

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As an experienced major league backstop, Alex Avila confidently snares a steady fusillade of 95 mph fastballs.

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What he can’t catch is a break.

The latter circumstance has to do with the unusually high percentage of pitches that rattle Avila’s face mask compared to other catchers around the majors. The result, on all too many occasions, is a blow to the head that causes a concussion.

Avila has endured far more than his share of these brain–jiggling shocks in recent years, which threaten to not only undermine his ability to catch on a regular basis but his career as a major leaguer as well.

Though Avila has a well-documented multi-year history of concussions, 2014 was especially grim for the 27 year-old Detroit Tiger.

On multiple occasions he was sidelined due to a tip off the mask, and even lost time in June after being levelled by David Ortiz‘s backswing, which of course gave rise to yet another concussion.

His season ended on a fitting note in game three of the ALDS loss to Baltimore, when he was felled by yet another foul tip, which staggered him and required his removal from the game.

Though Avila has since been medically cleared to resume full baseball activity, recent studies have warned athletes of the debilitating effects of serial concussions. By any measure, Avila fits the profile of an athlete who is at risk of consequential brain injury should he continue to suffer further blows to the head.

As a player, Avila’s major league career has been distinguished by his overall defensive acumen, and he  is generally recognized as one of the finer catchers in the game.

He deftly handles a pitching staff, throws well, and is especially adept at framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt.

Unfortunately, Avila’s offensive development has not tracked his success behind the plate. Since his promising All-Star season in 2011, when he hit .295 with 19 home runs and an OPS of .895, Avila’s hitting has steadily declined in each successive year.

In the prime of his career in 2014, Avila should have been producing at his athletic peak. Instead, the numbers he posted (.218/.327/.359) represented one of his most dismal years since he joined the Tigers in 2009.

What’s more, he struck out an astounding 151 times in 457 plate appearances, a rate (33%) which was among the highest in baseball.

The Bottom Line

These are not the best of times for Alex Avila.

With his steady offensive decline since 2011 and his propensity to absorb concussions–which looms ominously over his career–Avila’s value to the franchise seems to be waning.

This probably explains why the Tigers have not yet picked up their $5.1 million option for 2015 on Avila, and also sheds light on the recent rumors regarding his availability on the trade market.

As of this writing it’s not clear whether Avila will be assuming his usual station behind home plate come Opening Day, 2015.

It’s obvious, though, the team will need a credible back-up plan in place to cover the real possibility that Avila will eventually be chased down by the concussions that relentlessly pursue him.

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