Alex Avila put together some of the best defensive numbers of his career in 2014, despite suffering several concussions this past season. Avila passed every follow-up test in the weeks after the concussion on October 5, the day the Tigers' were swept out of the ALDS.
Medically, Avila has been given the all-clear but the Tigers remain concerned. The concussions aren't cause for trepidation from a roster standpoint, however, Tigers president and GM Dave Dombrowski worries about Avila on another level.
"I've known Alex Avila since he's about five-years-old," Dombrowski said during the Tigers' end-of-the-season press conference. "And so I worry about him as a human being, when I see something like that happen. And it's a tough situation, as his father sits next to me, or two seats over in the game, and he tries to be as professional as he can — because he's a professional person, and he doesn't want to take it into personal situations — I know it has to be grinding him on the inside, even though he would not acknowledge that at the time."
Avila, who has been nicknamed the "Titanium Catcher" in the past and is known for his resiliency behind the plate — with an ability to put up some of the highest defensive numbers in the American League — is a finalist for the 2014 AL Gold Glove Award.
Avila's father, vice president and assistant GM Al Avila, is used to seeing his son take foul tips to the mask, but the concern over Avila's health is still there.
The foul tips don't bother Al Avila and he understands it's an unavoidable part of a catcher's job. Al Avila remarked after Dombrowski's press conference how he'd noticed Avila has changed his approach behind the plate.
"I've actually observed him where he's catching a ball and there's a batter up that he knows consistently hits him on the head, and he'll actually catch the ball and try to move the head a little bit," Al Avila said. "Really it's something that's unbelievable because you're trying to catch a 96 mph fastball and move out of the way, that's kind of weird."
Incredible as that is, it only helps to a point — when Avila further abandons his personal safety in critical situations to get an extra strike by moving forward in the box.
He often pays for it with a foul tip or a blow to the head from a batter's backswing. More than anything, that's what bothers Avila's father.
"Nobody likes to see a guy get hit, whether it's your son or anybody else, even on any other team," Al Avila said. "A lot of times he's gotten hit, actually one of the most frustrating things for me is the backswing. When you get hit with a foul ball in the mask, there's really, I mean how do you avoid that? We're seeing him every day so we're kind of more geared to him getting hit — what really frustrates me is the backswing."
Avila has admitted to trying to hide the status of his health mid-game (even after being tagged by a backswing), but Al Avila and Dombrowski said that has to change. Avila was more honest with his status in 2014 than in recent years, but a gap is still there.
Moving forward, Avila won't have the option to be upfront about his health, Al Avila said "he's not going to have any choice, this is what you gotta do." The Tigers will watch Avila closely in the future because of his history with concussions. Triple-A catcher, James McCann, is now an option if Avila is unable to play, either for a short time or if he's unable to continue his career behind the plate.
The Tigers believe McCann is ready for the majors, but whether McCann will be with the Tigers (either as the backup catcher or as Avila's replacement) on Opening Day 2015 hasn't been determined yet. The team also hasn't made a decision on Avila's 2015 option.
"I don't know that (Avila's injury history) weighs on my mind from a planning standpoint," Dombrowski said. "I don't know what the final decision (will be). We do have a young catcher in (James) McCann that we like a lot. We think he's ready to be a big-league catcher. Where that will all come into play, we'll find out over the next time period."
One thing the Tigers are not considering (at this point anyway), is moving Avila to another position, something Avila has firmly said will not happen. While a consideration for the future — and other former catchers like Twins' Joe Mauer, have made the transition — those changes were made further along in the players' respective careers.
Al Avila said first base (and third) would be a "viable option," and if the concussion issues continue, moving his son from behind the plate may become a reality. For the foreseeable future though, Avila is the Tigers' catcher.
"As far as life-threatening things or career-ending things at this point, the doctors have given him no indication that that's the case," Al Avila said. "Because like I said, it's not like in football where there's a higher risk, or boxers, these have all been a lot of little hits and then, boom, one big one, and now learning that when that happens you gotta come out."