Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland is interviewed before Saturday's game against the Rays at Comerica Park. Robin Buckson / Detroit News
Detroit — Let’s start with the numbers. Because they are eye-popping.
Alex Avila, among major league hitters with at least 150 plate appearances, has the highest hard-contact rate (57.5 percent, according to FanGraphs.com). Chasing him on that list are Miguel Sano, Nick Castellanos, Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Judge and Miguel Cabrera.
His line-drive percentage (27.1) ranks eighth in baseball.
Avila’s wRC-plus (adjusted runs created) of 176 ranks fifth. He ranks eighth in on-base percentage (.430), ninth in slugging (.611) and has an offensive WAR of 14.6. More traditionally, he is hitting .311 with 10 home runs, 27 RBIs and a 17.1 percent walk rate (which is third in baseball).
“He has a good argument to be in the All-Star game,” manager Brad Ausmus said.
In the early going, with J.D. Martinez on the DL for six weeks and sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Nick Castellanos scuffling, Avila has been a godsend for the Tigers. Signed to a one-year, $2 million deal to backup catcher James McCann, he’s become a prime producer, an indispensable bat at the top of the lineup.
This from a guy who from 2013 through last season hit .216 with a .331 on-base percentage, .354 slugging and .686 OPS.
“I think health is a big component of it,” Ausmus said. “I think he’s a little bit more aggressive in the strike zone and I think he’s using the whole field more. That’s probably the three things (that have led to Avila’s offensive resurgence).”
Avila doesn’t dispute those factors, especially the good health. But there is more to the story.
“I would say the biggest key is that I am healthy,” he said. “I haven’t had any issues with my knee since 2015 and I haven’t had the concussions since 2014. Last year I dealt with a hamstring for two and a half months and I couldn’t get rid of it.
“That being said, the injuries I’ve had were things you can’t necessarily control. It always seemed I had to deal with them for a period of time every year.”
He said, particularly earlier in his career, he often played through pain and injury, something he regrets now.
“I played at times when I shouldn’t have and I compensated for it — and that’s something that will put you in bad habits,” he said. “And it took a while to get out of it.”
Other than minor adjustments to his hands and feet, Avila’s swing mechanics are the same as they’ve always been. A surprising fact since his fly ball percentage has nearly doubled (from 23 percent the last two seasons to 42.4 percent this year) and his ground ball rate has dropped (from 52.2 percent to 30.6 percent).
“I haven’t changed anything with my swing,” he said. “It’s the same, it really is. I haven’t tried to make any adjustments with it.”
The increased fly ball rate and the harder contact are certainly by-products of having two strong, healthy legs. But they may also be a by-product his new mental clarity at the plate.
“One thing I have done is not cared if a team is shifting against me,” he said. “When teams first started to shift on me, I mean, subconsciously that would get to me. You would hit a ball, you’d get out front and hit it where normally it’s a base hit and somebody is right there.
“It gets to you and you start to manipulate your swing to force the ball into an area where they’re not playing. One or two times you might be able to do that, but that’s not a good way to approach it on a daily basis.”
That’s one of the reasons Avila balked during spring training when the Tigers tried to get him to bunt more against the shift. His mindset now is to just blast his way through them.
“Toward the end of last year and going into this year, I was like, ‘I really don’t care. I am just going to hit it hard,’” he said. “I’ve got balls through the shift and I’ve hit balls the other way. My focus now is just hitting the ball hard and let whatever happens happen.”
An incredible .313/.430/.611 slash line happened. He’s hitting screamers through the shift and he’s pounding his patented opposite-field home run blasts to left and left-center field.
The mission now is to sustain it. His .413 batting average on balls in play seems a tad unsustainable. But with his high hard-hit and line drive rate — he’s earned the high BABIP.
Avila and Ausmus are walking a fine line between taking full advantage of his hot bat and making sure he stays hot, and healthy, for the full six months.
“I don’t think he’s going to get overworked,” Ausmus said. “He’s been a starting catcher before and McCann is going to catch a good chunk of the games.”
Ausmus said he will try to rest Avila on day games after night games and monitor how many games he plays in a row. He will also play him some at first base to give Miguel Cabrera a day off his feet.
“I’ve been playing quite a bit, mostly every day,” Avila said. “I feel good. As long I continue with what I am doing, that will allow me to stay fresh and strong and feeling good.”
Avila is only 30 years old. The concussions and leg injuries have aged him more than the actual years. But he still maintains a vigilant and carefully crafted workout plan that to this point has been effective.
“Every day I have to do something to keep my body strong and flexible and with the same range of motion I had to start the season,” he said. “A lot of that tends to go away or deteriorate over the course of the year.”
He works out with less weight and higher repetitions. He does more stretching than he’s ever done in his life. And, the key, he never spends more than a half-hour on a workout, which keeps them from being counter-productive.
“I usually do something every day, but not for more than a half-hour,” he said. “Each day I have a little program where I do my two, three or four things as far as weights or stretching and mobility exercises.
“Seems to be working.”
He was an All-Star for the Tigers in 2011. He’s on the ballot again this year. What a story that would be.
“I’ve always known (that he could still produce like he did in 2011),” Avila said. “There were times when I wasn’t hitting well, but I was still producing, still getting on base and still hitting some home runs here and there.
“It definitely feels good to produce how I did earlier in my career — the way I know I am capable.”