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New mask is only part of Avila's concussion-free plan

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers catcher Alex Avila is sporting a new mask this year.

Lakeland, Fla. — Alex Avila looked comfortable wearing a hockey-style mask Friday as he caught a bullpen session from rookie Angel Nesbitt. He was also catching with his left knee down in an effort to stay lower.

If you look closer, too, he's a bit thicker in the chest and neck area from all the offseason strength and stabilization work he's done.

These measures, of course, are designed to prevent further brain trauma. It is not an overstatement to say Avila's proclivity for head shots are, if not career-threatening, certainly putting his future as a catcher at risk.

Avila, struck in the head with foul tips and back swings more than any other catcher in recent years, was diagnosed with concussions three times last season, including in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.

"I'm not going to put a number on it," manager Brad Ausmus said when asked how many games he'd expect Avila to catch this season. "The concussion issues play into that. If he feels concussion-free, he plays more."

Thus, the extra neck and chest strength work. He did his physical therapy at the same place former Lions running back Jahvid Best did his. Best's career was ended by brain trauma.

They didn't work out together but they did see each other in passing. Best, though it wasn't enough to get him cleared for NFL-style contact, dramatically built neck strength during the time he was trying to come back.

"The feeling is it helps you stabilize and lessens the whiplash effect," Avila said.

The hockey-style helmet, Avila believes, will protect him more against hitters' back swings than foul tips. Ausmus, who wore hockey-style masks as a player from 1997-2010, agreed.

"I don't know that there is any empirical proof that these masks are any safer," he said. "I used it. I liked it better than the traditional catcher's mask, but I liked it because the sight lines were better. Hockey-style masks protect against the back swing, but there is no evidence it's safer when it comes to foul tips."

Which brings Avila to the third protective change — setting up with his left knee down when there are no runners on base and less than two strikes on the hitter.

"It's just an effort to get lower and avoid foul tips," Ausmus said. "Foul tips generally come off the top half of the bat in a very slightly upward trajectory. The feeling is if we can get him lower he will get more of a glancing blow or get missed all together.

"He said he felt comfortable. Obviously, if there are runners on base or he's worried about balls in the dirt with two strikes he won't catch that way."

For years, Avila has listened to people tell him he stands too close to the hitter, that he needs to back up. For years, Avila has patiently explained that his position in the box wasn't causing him to get hit.

"The thing is, where I set up is where you are supposed to set up; it's where catchers are taught to set up," he said. "You want to be at arm's length, just a tad more than arm's length, from the hitter. Some hitters you have to adjust because they have really long back swings. And sometimes you angle yourself around the plate to frame pitches."

Avila, Ausmus and bench coach (and former catcher) Gene Lamont agree the problem isn't proximity to the hitter, it's the height of his crouch.

"One thing we are looking at this spring is my setup as far as how high I am," Avila said. "I tend to set up, not real high, but I tend to set up high and wide to give a good visual for the pitcher. I may have to adjust that depending how comfortable I am with it.

"I want to make adjustments to see if it helps, but at the same time, I don't want to take away from pitchers or take away my mobility and ability to block pitches."

Besides worrying about his health, Avila could also find himself in a battle to remain the Tigers everyday catcher. Highly credentialed rookie James McCann will be pushing Bryan Holaday for the back-up role and both Ausmus and general manager Dave Dombrowski have hinted he could play himself into a platoon role with Avila.

None of this is news or overly worrisome to Avila.

"Our job is always based on performance," he said. "That doesn't change anything. The times when McCann plays or Holaday plays, that's the way it is. Brad's got to be able to know when to put guys out there, not only to give us a chance to win but also to keep everybody fresh."

Avila and McCann are both SEC guys — Avila from Alabama and McCann from Arkansas — and have a good relationship. Avila has mentored and worked with McCann the last couple of years.

"That's the way this game goes," Avila said. "You get to a certain point and guys come up. You want to be able to help them because if they can help you win, that's the ultimate goal."

Since playing in 141 games in his All-Star season of 2011, Avila has missed an average of 48 games over the last three. It could be that at age 28, his days of playing 140 to 150 games a season are over, though he's not conceding that.

"At the end of the season, whether I caught 110 or 130, I don't know if that makes a difference," he said. "I think you feel the same either way."

As much as his health will have a say in how many games he catches, so too will his offensive production.

"He got into some bad habits mechanically from a hitting perspective," Ausmus said. "He's aware of it and he's working on a number of things that he and (hitting coach) Wally Joyner have talked about — trying to get back to where he was early in his career using more of the whole field.

"It can be a process. Don't expect results the first week of spring training. Let it play itself out. Don't get frustrated if you don't see immediate results."

Avila can abide by that — he's not much for individual statistics anyway.

"Everybody wants to hit .300 and hit as many homers and RBIs as you can," he said. "There are so many other factors that play into attaining numbers. Really, what I try to concentrate on is making sure I am prepared physically. What I am going to do, what I always try to do, is whatever I can to win that game that day. That's it."

Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky