In 2011, Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila found a mentor and an instant buddy in new teammate Victor Martinez. In Spring Training of ’11, Martinez, a fellow catcher and left-handed swinger, advised Avila to begin using a heavier bat. Avila heeded his friends’ advice and began hitting with more power and driving the ball to the opposite field with authority. Avila ended up posting his best season to date in 2011 hitting .295/.389/.506 with 19 home runs, 33 doubles and 82 RBI and won a Silver Slugger award for his efforts.
In the two seasons since, Avila has only looked like a shadow of the player he was in 2011, save for a few really clutch home runs, and he always seems to be playing dinged up. This coming spring, however, there will once again be a few fresh faces in the Tigers’ clubhouse who are liable to become mentors to Avila. This time, however, they will be in the form of coaches rather than players. Tigers new manager Brad Ausmus and hitting coach Wally Joyner could very easily turn Avila’s career around.
Ausmus, a former MLB catcher who stuck around for an 18-year playing career, is sure to give Avila a few pointers on his defensive game. Ausmus will certainly give him a tip or two about game calling, footwork, etc. Although Ausmus’ predecessor Jim Leyland was a minor league catcher in his own right, Ausmus and Avila will likely develop a bond that only big league catchers can share. Moreover, Ausmus will likely be more of a father figure to Avila whereas Leyland had more of a grumpy grandpa persona.
Therefore, Avila will likely become a better defensive player in 2014 — not that his defense over the past few years was anything to sneeze at. Sometimes when a player begins to play better defensively he carries his new-found confidence into the batter’s box with him and it ends up boosting his offensive game as well. However, if Avila has an offensive resurgence in 2014, Joyner is most likely going to be the largest force behind it. Joyner, a left-handed hitter himself during his playing days, may be able to work wonders with Avila’s swing. He will likely be able to offer him insight that Lloyd McClendon, the Tigers’ previous hitting coach who was a right-handed hitter, simply could not. One needs to look no further than Domonic Brown of the Philadelphia Phillies to see the impact that Joyner can have on a young left-handed hitter.
Avila also needs to work on the mental part of his game this spring — something that the coaching staff can help him with to a certain extent — but at the end of the day the ball will be in his corner when it comes to improving this aspect of his game. To quote the great Yogi Berra, “half of the game is 90 percent mental” and negative thinking and over-thinking can destroy a player. If a player struggles for long enough they begin to believe that is who they are, and in Avila’s case he simply cannot let himself believe that he is a .227 hitter. He needs to remember that he is a guy who put up one of the best offensive seasons of any catcher in the game just a measly three years ago. He can do it again.
Avila will turn 27 later this month and could be on the verge of entering into his prime. He has a real chance to go out and show everyone that Dave Dombrowski made the right call by sticking with him rather than replacing him by signing one of the free agent catchers who was available this offseason such as Brian McCann or the much cheaper Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
However, Avila just needs to relax and not put too much pressure on himself. His 2014 numbers don’t even have to be as good as his 2011 numbers, but if he can post numbers somewhere in the ballpark of a .270 batting average with 17 home runs and 70 RBI it would help the bottom half of the Tigers’ lineup immensely. He just needs to stay healthy, have fun and play hard. The Tigers’ new coaching staff will be there to catch him if and when he struggles.