February 12, 2014 at 9:35 am

Tigers spring training

New gear expected to help Tigers catcher Alex Avila all around in 2014

Tigers' Alex Avila
Tigers' Alex Avila: Tigers catcher talks about his goals for the 2014 season.

Lakeland, Fla. — First place is easy. Miguel Cabrera always wins. And he was best in show during last season’s second half, when, despite a groin that needed an anesthetic, he still led all Tigers hitters with an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .975.

Where the typical Tigers trivia player stands to make a shekel or two is in guessing the 2013 runner-up to Cabrera in a statistic that best explains offensive prowess.

Those who picked Alex Avila, with his second-half OPS of .876, take a bow. The question, which Avila was inclined to discuss during a Tuesday conversation outside the Tigers clubhouse at Marchant Stadium, is why it took him half a season to get his bat in gear.

Why did he have such issues ahead of July? Why, in fact, had he been off-key at the plate since his 2011 All-Star season, when he hit for an entire season as he hit during the final three months of 2013?

Avila smiled, wearily, as he sat at a black metal picnic table following a morning workout ahead of Friday’s first official spring drills for the 2014 Tigers.

“What I’m working for is more of a complete season,” he said, explaining that those early months from 2013, when he was a mess at the plate, were a product of so many things.

He had too much weight on his back side, which was a result of earlier knee problems. He was taking pitches he should hit and swinging at pitches he should have taken. He was trying to be aggressive. He was trying to use good judgment.

He was in knots. That is, until his stance and his thoughts became simpler, which set in motion better numbers in his final 44 games: .303 batting average, .376 on-base percentage, with a Cabrera-vicinity .500 slugging percentage.

“The biggest difference later in the season is that I tried not to worry about my mechanics and my swing,” said Avila, who in his 2011 All-Star season had an .895 OPS, with .295/.389/.506 splits. “I just concentrated on swinging at good pitches.

“I don’t know what the numbers will be (in 2014), but what I want is to be consistent from Opening Day through the end of the season.”

It would help if he were healthy. Knee tendinitis, chronic and miserable, first surfaced in the 2011 season. The past two years, Avila has become a demolition target for fouled pitches that have attacked him like drone missiles. Making matters worse, hitters on their follow-through have occasionally bludgeoned him with their bats.

Concussions have occurred. Games have been lost. But the battering might have ceased because of the heavier mask and hard-plastic helmet Avila began wearing last summer.

“It took some getting used to,” Avila said of his new armor, “but it seemed to work fine.”

Avila’s piñata-like talent for taking whacks, especially from foul tips, has long been considered unique. Jim Leyland, the former Tigers manager, agreed Avila was in a class by himself. Leyland had no answer, nor does Avila, except for thoughts that Tigers pitchers, with their bedeviling high-speed serves, can create an inordinate number of foul balls.

But the obsession with Avila’s bruises can smother a greater truth about a man two weeks past his 27th birthday: He is regarded as one of the best “frame” catchers in the big leagues, finishing first in research done last season by BaseballAnalytics.org.

Framing a pitch — or “presenting it,” as Avila prefers — is one of baseball’s art forms. It is about catching a baseball with such deftness that a pitch slightly out of the strike zone can appear to the umpire as a strike.

It is about receiving the ball sufficiently in front of a catcher’s body, with the right amount of body sway, to create an illusion that a pitch slightly off-target is, optically, a strike.

“When I began catching, that was the toughest thing to learn,” said Avila, who never caught until he was a University of Alabama junior. “But I knew that it was something most pitchers would take notice of and that they would enjoy pitching to me if I became good at it.

“I’m not gonna lie. If you have a guy 1-and-2 and he makes a heck of a pitch and you stick it (frame it) perfectly, it’s a nice feeling.”

It beats what a battered catcher has too often felt during his black-and-blue seasons in Detroit. At bat, and with his burly new mask, Avila is counting on a more comfortable 2014.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

Tigers catcher Alex Avila chats with the media Tuesday in Lakeland, Fla. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News