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Better know a Tiger: Alex Avila

Alex Avila walks, slugs, and frames pitches. If he can avoid taking foul tips in his mask, he could reestablish himself as one of the game's most valuable catchers.

Alex Avila dons the tools of ignorance before the second game of the spring
Alex Avila dons the tools of ignorance before the second game of the spring
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Alexander Thomas Avila hails from Hialeah, Florida and played high school ball at Archbishop McCarthy High School. The Tigers' brass likely had their eyes on him for a while since his father, Al Avila, joined the front office in 2002. There are various prospect types that the Tigers sign. Type A is a Venezuelan teenager. Type B is a hard-throwing college reliever. Type C is related to someone already with the club, preferably out of a Catholic high school.

The Tigers first drafted Avila in the 34th round of the 2005 draft, down where picks are sometimes made as favors. Ben Verlander was first picked in the 46th round. Patrick Leyland went in the 8th round, out of Bishop Canevin High School. Alex turned down the Tigers' initial offer to play instead for the Crimson Tide. After his junior season, his only season catching, he was drafted again by the Tigers. This time it was in the 5th round, and he had earned it after hitting .343 and knocking 17 home runs. Barely a year later, Avila made his major league debut.

Year Age Games PA BB% K% BA OBP SLG
2009 22 29 72 13.9 25.0 .279 .375 .590
2010 23 104 294 10.8 21.3 .228 .316 .340
2011 24 141 464 13.2 23.8 .295 .389 .506
2012 25 116 367 14.1 24.0 .243 .352 .384
2013 26 102 330 11.6 29.6 .227 .317 .376

Nearing 500 games played in his major league career, we know what to expect from Avila. He will not likely hit for a high average, but will draw walks for a good on-base percentage. He will hit doubles and home runs supplying power from the catching position. He has a significant platoon split over 1769 plate appearances with an OPS of .809 when facing right-handed pitching and only .629 against southpaws.

Where Avila is really starting to shine is in helping his pitchers gain extra strikes. By this measure, he was best in the game last year. Brayan Pena performed well too, so this could be partly due to the quality of the pitching.

Contract status

Avila was eligible for arbitration but settled for $4.15 million with a club option for 2015. The Tigers need some players like Avila to earn less than market rate, as the club ranks among the highest in team payroll.

Keys to Success

It is frequently discussed, and not just in Detroit, that Avila needs to avoid concussions from foul tips. Is this a result of the Tigers’ pitchers being hard throwers and generating more swings-and-near-misses than average? Does Avila set up a little closer to the plate than the typical backstop, or a little farther away? His propensity for taking pitches in the face was analyzed during the offseason. This study was interesting though inconclusive. Avila switched mask styles late last year during a fantastic second half, slashing .303/.376/.500 versus an abysmal .177/.279/.293 first half. I recommend whichever mask gets dented and needs frequent replacement. You want the metal in the mask to absorb the energy of the ball and transfer less energy into his skull. He could also let the beard grow Duck Dynasty style for even more padding.

Odd Numbers

21%: The frequency with which Avila swung at pitches outside of the strike zone in 2013, typical for his career. The major league average was 31%, justifying his reputation for patience. With pitches in the strike zone, his swing rate is near average.

2014 Outlook

The various projection systems expect about a .235/.340/.400 slash line. Frequent walks, occasional power, and excellent receiving provide above-average value for a catcher. Bryan Holaday will provide a needed holiday against some southpaws. Brad Ausmus has mentioned having Victor Martinez catch in National League parks. He could have Avila start at third base against a right-handed pitcher and give Castellanos a day off.