DETROIT — What the fans saw Wednesday: With Alex Avila catching behind the plate, Tigers starter Max Scherzer struck out seven batters against the Dodgers, allowed one run in seven innings, and picked up his 11th win of the season. What the fans didn't see: All the work that goes on away from the field that allowed the battery to make the start look so smooth.
To do so, Avila spends countless hours in the video room in order to help refine a pitcher's strengths, and countless more hours spending time with his pitchers to figure out what makes each tick.
"That's where it becomes very good teamwork on how to sequence hitters the correct way," Scherzer said. "You've got to really trust your catcher, and that's what Alex (Avila) and I have really developed over the past four years now. He understands my strengths and tries to match that up to what we need to do to get guys out."
Knowing that, however, comes as a result of time spent away from the field. Dinners, hanging out, and spending time with each other's families and friends may seem unnecessary, but Avila believes those are the key pieces to building that trust and knowing each pitcher's personality on the mound.
"There has to be a comfort feel there, a certain trust, just like you have with friends or family that you trust," Avila said. "Out there they have to be able to trust you to make decisions and adjustments; that you're doing what you can for their betterment. That could be a difference between making a strikeout pitch or hanging a breaking ball. That type of trust, that feel, to have that much confidence in me, and I have that much confidence in myself."
Recognizing the unique ways in which a pitcher prepares for a game become important for Avila to be able to identify when something changes in a pitcher during a game. Being able to use that information correctly allows Avila to make quick and accurate adjustments behind the plate.
"(A catcher) knows what you do, they know what you like, they know how your pitches break, how you sequence hitters and what you throw in different situations," Scherzer said. "You have to trust that what (Avila) sees is right because we don't always get to see every swing and what (a hitter is) doing in the box."
Regardless of how much preparation is put into an offensive plan, however, situations arise that require additional adjustments not easily agreed upon. When being shaken off requires a visit to the mound, sometimes a discussion is all it takes to come to an agreement, but there are times when Avila needs to reciprocate that trust.
"The pitcher has the ball," Avila said. "He's the one that's throwing it and he has to feel 100 percent confident in the pitch he's throwing. I tell every guy that I catch, ‘I don't mind if you shake me off, you have to feel comfortable and 100 percent confident in that pitch you're throwing.' If not, it's not going to work."
Beyond what places a pitcher in his comfort zone in a given situation, Avila's approach needs to be unique for every pitcher. However, an exchange of trust isn't something that develops overnight. Scherzer has noticed how he and Avila have gotten better at working together each year.
"I've given him more and more trust," Scherzer said. "You're calling for this pitch and I'm going to execute it. I'm not going to sit here and make up my mind, I'm going to trust what you're going to call and that's a sign of a great relationship between a pitcher and a catcher."
Just as calling a game requires a certain rapport between Avila and his pitching staff, that same aspect plays a large part in Avila's ability to catch runners attempting to steal. Knowing a pitcher's strengths and how each pitcher reacts on the mound translates directly into Avila's success in eliminating runners on the base paths.
Tigers bench coach Gene Lamont believes Avila's success this season has been as a result of a combined effort. Between pitchers holding runners better, and Avila's improved accuracy and quickness of movement, the Tigers have been able to cut down their opponents' running game.
"Justin (Verlander), his strength might be he's got quick feet, a good pickoff move, where Sanchez, that might not be his strength," Avila said. "Maybe you have to call some more pickoffs for (Sanchez) to do that, where maybe in Justin's (Verlander) case, maybe you don't have to do that because you know he has a good one, he'll use it. You have to know which guy you have out there, what his strengths are. Whatever his weakness is, help him with his weakness so that he doesn't have to go away too much from his strengths."
Countless adjustments mean nothing is the same from inning to inning, let alone pitch to pitch. But the relationships Avila has carefully constructed are an integral portion of what will successfully carry a pitching staff through the season.