He supposedly was gone from Detroit. For good.
It ended up being a single year.
Not, it seems, that Alex Avila ever truly left the Tigers. Or disengaged from a fan base, which, for all its impatience with him, deep down liked the man. In fact, prepared to like him again — a lot — if he could ever reunite with a bat that six years ago made him an All-Star starter.
It has happened. Take a peek at those numbers from 2017. Not bad for a guy whose job title carries the words “back-up”: .360, with four home runs in only 50 at-bats, spiced by a particularly pungent on-base percentage of .467 and an OPS of 1.104, which is Miguel Cabrera altitude.
But by no means was his route back to Detroit a matter of simple science.
“I’m not gonna lie — there were reservations,” Avila was saying last week, a cup of Starbucks in hand as he sat in a richly upholstered booth in the Westin St. Francis Hotel lobby, where the Tigers were lodged during a series against the A’s. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
He was talking about his decision, two days before Christmas, to sign again with the Tigers after a one-year relocation with the Chicago White Sox.
How would a noisy fan base react? The squawkers, anyway. Avila didn’t need another dose of the “nepotism” slop that stemmed from his Dad’s role as Tigers general manager (assistant GM before Aug. 8, 2015).
So he talked about it with Kristina, his girlfriend since high school and wife since 2010.
“It’s always been there,” he said of bleacher-creature cries from the time he was a kid that he was on a particular team only because of blood. “My dad being GM was going to draw attention there I wouldn’t have someplace else. We’ve dealt with it our entire lives.”
But he had gotten perspective on something a year ago with the White Sox. How when the team checked into the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, with Avila now another team’s employee, there was no sense of detachment.
“Just walking around town, it was ‘welcome home’ from everyone I came in contact with,” Avila said. “Even now, we go out to eat, to the park, see our neighbors — it’s been amazing. I can’t tell you how great it has been.”
It was as if everyone knew this would happen. That he would again work for the Tigers once baseball’s financial realities made Detroit the practical stop it wasn’t when he became a free agent at the end of 2015.
Avila might have known it subconsciously. He never sold the house in Birmingham in which he, Kristina, and their two young daughters lived. He rented it last season to Ian Kinsler. Then, while his dad and mom were relocating from Shelby Township to new digs in Bloomfield Hills, they lived there temporarily between moves.
Still, the decision to partner again with the Tigers was no slam-dunk. Two other teams had interest. Avila won’t mention names, but one suitor is known to have been the Blue Jays.
There was another new reality with the Tigers, or with any team in 2017. Avila’s days as a starter were history. James McCann, 26, was the new everyday choice in Detroit.
Or, is that truly the case?
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus acknowledged during the weekend series in Oakland a single concern about playing Avila regularly. He wants to be careful with a 30-year-old man who was pummeled during his previous Tigers days. Overwork him at baseball’s toughest position, re-introduce him to some old concussion horrors, and you could damage a left-handed hitter who has been one of the lineup’s steading pluses.
Ausmus was asked about differences in the 2015- and 2017-model Avila. What had changed during that White Sox interlude?
“Really, the only difference so far has been the consistency of his swing and the contact he is making,” Ausmus said, noting Avila’s 16 strikeouts in 19 games, which, given his past, is significant progress. “He seems to be swinging and missing much less.
“He’s also using the whole field better. Something, he said, he started doing last year in Chicago. He hit that way early in his career.
“Defensively, he seems to be the same guy, for the most part. Being concussion-free certainly helps.”
Two years blessed, Avila has been, following those seasons of battering when it seemed every foul tip hit him in the face and head like a Civil War cannonball.
He remembers 2013 and a night at Louisville when he was on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo. He had been concussed for the umpteenth time and was on a recovery program.
“I came out of a game, dizzy, lightheaded,” he recalled. “I remember sitting in my hotel room after the game, and that’s kind of where I hit my low point.”
He wasn’t sure, at that moment, if he would be playing baseball in another year or selling insurance. Or whatever a business major at Alabama might do in his next job.
“But once I had consulted with the doctors,” he said, “I knew I’d be OK.”
There were knee and neck issues. And more foul-ball artillery threatening concussions.
Avila made adjustments.
He began wearing a hockey-style mask that carried significantly more padding than his old aluminum model.
He also changed his stance. Rather than catching out of a crouch, he would occasionally balance himself on one knee.
“It lowers my head about six inches,” he said. “I’ve noticed that balls that used to hit me now are going over my head.
“And I notice I haven’t been getting hurt as much. Every once in a while I go back to my original stance. But there are more times that I catch on one knee.”
Avila isn’t sure if two years minus a concussion is behind his wicked spring hitting. He rather believes it’s his health overall — no knee or neck or back issues — that, along with the fact his head is clear after those early bludgeons, has made him an even better hitter than he was in 2011 when he started in the All-Star Game and that year batted .295, with a gaudy .389 on-base average, and .895 OPS.
“I’m seeing the ball better,” said Avila, who on this May morning was pre-game casual in jeans and a soft blue striped shirt, sleeves rolled to his mid-arms. “I don’t know if that (no concussions since 2015) has had much to do with it.
“I do know that the knee (in 2015) was a factor. I would compensate to avoid pain. I’d get into bad habits. There was no consistency in making contact.”
He was a free agent after the 2015 season and signed with the White Sox for the simplest of business reasons. They could afford $2.5 million for a back-up catcher. The Tigers, by then, were at their payroll ceiling and signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia for the major-league minimum.
This year, with a tighter catchers’ market, the Tigers got Avila for $2 million — less than he made in 2016 and more than the Tigers paid Saltalamacchia. But the upgrade has been dramatic, not only because Avila’s bat has been so surprisingly strong, but because his defense and pitch-calling skills are regarded as a heavy bonus.
It’s his bat that has won over fans who two years ago made Avila wonder if he should step to the plate wearing a helmet with earmuffs. But things changed that year with the White Sox.
“Something clicked,” Avila said. “I felt similar to the way I did earlier in my career as far as being ready to hit. I took it into the offseason, and I felt comfortable going into this season.
“I simplified some things. There were no more bad habits. I started to hit the way I have since I was a kid. Being healthy has certainly helped.”
Quite an eye
If there is one truly amazing facet to Avila’s play, apart from how a man 5-foot-11 can hit a ball so far to all fields, it’s The Avila Eye. He has an astounding ability to judge pitches. What’s a strike. What’s a ball. And to do it in a blink. With precision.
Avila smiles. He knows Fox Sports Detroit’’s FoxTrax graphic, which shows if pitches were in the strike zone, typically confirms his judgment over an umpire’s.
“Early on,” he said, “it was always drilled into me: Swing at strikes My grandfather (Ralph Avila, longtime Dodgers scout) gave me the Ted Williams book ‘The Science of Hitting,’ and I guess it started there. I want a ball in a certain place, or I’m not going to swing.”
This is judgment easier explained than achieved. Avila’s pitch discernment is simply from another realm. His approach involves a mental grid in which he tracks a pitch’s accuracy its entire path. The strike zone’s perimeter is clear and distinctive.
“I try to visualize home plate, where the ball is crossing,” says Avila. “If it’s not there (a strike), I just hold up.
“It’s kind of hard to explain.”
At times it also has driven some fans, and maybe a manager or two, nuts.
Jim Leyland, to name one exasperated critic.
Avila remembers Leyland once saying to him: “You’ve got a good swing. Use it.”
Avila’s doing just that in 2017. And taking his walks. And chopping down on the whiffs. And driving the ball — often far, often to all fields. It’s good to be home again, Avila says.
Not only in terms of residence and his and Kristina’s and the girls’ home in Birmimgham. But at the plate, catching or hitting, knowing the peace that comes from doing a job — well.