June 11, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Lynn Henning

Alex Avila's slump a major mess, but Tigers can't replace him right now

Alex Avila has just 26 hits in 151 at-bats this season. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

No, I don’t believe Alex Avila’s circumstance -- his dad, Al, happens to be the Tigers assistant general manager -- has a thing to do with him remaining on the roster as he slogs through one of the uglier slumps a former All-Star Game starter has endured.

But fans are right to wonder if having family on the field and in the front office has made a difficult situation even less comfortable for the Tigers.

The latter point is probably irrelevant, apart from sensitivities that must be observed on the part of Avila, his boss Dave Dombrowski, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

Blood indeed is thicker than water. A father cannot divorce his relationship with his son from analysis of said son’s professional struggles. But blood doesn’t explain Avila’s ongoing role with a Tigers team that desperately needs him to shake a two-month lull and begin bashing the baseball with his old flair.

The Tigers are, well, caught -- for now -- with a player they cannot easily replace. And that reality, as opposed to a starting catcher’s DNA, is why Avila remains with the Tigers and has not been shipped to Triple A Toledo for work on his swing and on tweaks the Tigers staff has been trying to make.

Big-league catchers have a particularly complex and delicate role. They are partners in the pitching process. They must know the guy on the mound -- his strengths, his weaknesses, his idiosyncrasies.

They must also know the hitter who stands at home plate. They must have a sense for what pitch to call and for how that pitch feeds into the rhythms and psychology of the man throwing it.

And this is no assignment for a minor-league catcher who looks as if he would be a jim-dandy option because the guy in the bushes happens to be hitting at a decent clip.

In fact, even on offense the Tigers have no compelling options as Bryan Holaday endures his own batting chills at Triple A Toledo and as James McCann, who is only two years out of college, deals with a sometimes harsh apprenticeship at Double A Erie.

Brayan Pena, the Tigers back-up catcher, has done a remarkable job at handling platoon shifts with Avila. But there is a reason back-up catchers are back-ups. And the Tigers know that making Pena an everyday choice would wear him down and compromise the pluses they have realized from a man who, quietly, was one of Dombrowski’s best offseason acquisitions.

Just the facts

The facts, having nothing to do with father and son, are these:

Avila is batting .172, with a just-as-crazy on-base average of .270, and an are-you-joshing-me slugging percentage of .291. He has an OPS of .561 -- 200-300 points beneath the levels at which Avila at age 26 would have been estimated to produce in 2013.

This is serious offense for a big-league team to yield. And it is one big reason why the Tigers lose games such as Monday’s 3-2 affair to the Royals. They need their starting catcher to provide the occasional double, home run, or two-single night, which can alter the complexion of a low-scoring affair in which the Tigers starting pitcher (hello, Doug Fister) has done his customary noble job.

If he were any other player -- meaning, if he played any other position -- Avila by now probably would have been given a chill-out assignment at Toledo. At a less pressured venue he theoretically could incorporate the swing adjustments Leyland and his hitting coaches (Lloyd McClendon, principally, with Toby Harrah also sharing a voice) have been attempting to install during Avila’s long and tortured spring.

The swing adjustments, simply explained, are designed to make Avila’s once-short and fluid path to the ball more streamlined. He has been working to eliminate the front-foot toe tap, which is akin to abandoning the front-leg kick that became Austin Jackson’s nemesis until he and McClendon were able to overcome it during the 2011-12 offseason.

Here is where the process has gotten complicated. Here also is where there is disagreement among the parties involved as to how to fix a guy who two years ago batted .295 in 141 games, with 19 home runs and 82 RBIs.

On the plus side, there is nothing wrong with Avila’s bat speed. Fans who believe he has simply lost it at age 26 are mistaken. He turned last week on a 99-mph fastball from Fernando Rodney -- immediately after a Rodney change-up -- and rifled a single to right field. The bat is not slow. The swing, though, is not exactly where Avila or his bosses want it.

Psychological warfare

The question deep in Comerica Park’s offices is to what degree mechanics or psychology is Avila’s primary enemy. And this, too, is where tensions have naturally occurred.

Leyland made a point ahead of this season saying that Avila -- a picky shopper at the plate -- needed to be more aggressive, that he had been looking at too many good fastballs a hitter with his punch should be slamming.

Sound thought, it seemed, when Avila’s OPS last season fell from .929 in 2011 to .736 in 2012. In fact, Avila’s on-base percentage, which is a product of swinging selectively at pitches, remained a healthy .352 in 2012. It was his slugging percentage that tumbled 122 points as he hit only nine home runs and knocked 12 fewer doubles than in 2011.

Leyland wanted him crushing some of those fastballs Avila had ignored. And so now we have the possibility that Avila is caught in hitting limbo, worried about being aggressive, anxious about not swinging at low-percentage pitches, etc., and with numbers that are 100 points below his norm in all categories: average, on-base, and slugging.

Factor it into a swing the Tigers are trying, properly, to smooth, and you have, for now, anyway, a major mess in the back end of Leyland’s order.

The Tigers are hanging onto convictions Avila will snap out of this funk and return to more normal activity. There are signs it is happening. He has struck out only six times in his last seven games and has drawn four walks. Encouraging, given the rate at which he was whiffing during April and May.

June traditionally has also been Avila’s month. It was this way in the minors, and it has been pretty much the story since he was signed by the Tigers in 2008.

But he needs to begin hitting at his old clip if the Tigers are to get from their catcher the brand of offense absolutely essential to a playoff team. Until then, if the slump continues, opinions on what to do with Avila, and how to fix his offense, will be many and not always in unison.

In other words, it will be like any other baseball debate. With the exception, of course, that this also involves a relationship. We don’t have to go to a boxscore to appreciate the degree to Avila’s slump has made it rough on the Tigers. We need only consult the calendar. Sunday is Father’s Day.