Tigers seeking bounce-back performance by Avila
An All-Star starter in 2011, catcher regressed in '12, partly due to injuries
DETROIT -- Physically, the Tigers should have what they need to keep Alex Avila in good shape, now that they've added switch-hitting catcher Brayan Pena to back him up. Now comes the technical part.
That's a little tougher to define.
For all that was written about Avila's midseason bout with patellar tendinitis, and the near-platoon situation they developed at catcher to help manage his workload behind the plate, his struggles at the plate were no less of an issue. After a breakout 2011 season that earned Avila a starting nod in the All-Star Game, the Tigers saw his offensive numbers drop across the board.
His 52-point drop in batting average was the second-largest of any Tigers regular from 2011 to '12, eclipsed only by Jhonny Peralta's 60-point decline. Avila's 159-point drop in OPS was even bigger than Peralta's, accentuated by a home run total that fell more than half and two-thirds as many doubles as the year before.
The downturn progressed into outright struggles during the postseason. After hitting a solo homer and a double during the American League Division Series against the A's, he did less and less with each round, to the point where he played in just two of the four games in the World Series. By the time the Giants completed their sweep, Avila was 6-for-29 for the postseason, walking just once and striking out 12 times.
Simply put, he wasn't the same hitter as last year. He was better than he looked at the end of 2011, when he faded under the exhaustion of everyday playing time and the discomfort of balky knees.
For many team officials, it was a conundrum.
"That's a hard thing to answer totally. I mean, he just didn't have the same offensive production from the year before," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said during the Winter Meetings earlier this month. "Sometimes it's an adjustment aspect. We go back and forth on him being aggressive, not being aggressive, but I think we've said the same thing at various times.
"He got out of his swing a little bit. His swing was not quite the same as the year before. I don't know if coming off the knee problem hurt him some. I'm not saying it did, because he said he was fine. But it was really a combination of things, to me."
Manager Jim Leyland had some theories on what accounted for the difference, and it wasn't just health.
"To be honest with you, I think aches and pains were part of it," Leyland said. "I think coming off a big year, expectations were part of it. Adjustments were part of it. All of a sudden, here's a young catcher that comes in and basically the year before set the world on fire. All of a sudden, he's looked at a little bit different when he comes up to home plate. He's got a little more respect all of a sudden, and they start to fool with him. He's more than capable of making those adjustments. He's a very good hitter.
"I'm not saying anything I haven't told his dad [assistant GM Al Avila]; I'd like to see him more aggressive. I felt like there were too many times this year he was hitting with two strikes on him, and he was only getting one swing. That's just my personal opinion. I'm not a hitting coach, but he's a very selective hitter -- I felt a little bit too selective."
The secondary stats back up Leyland's premise. Avila saw a slightly smaller percentage of strikes compared with 2011, and his walk rate and pitches per plate appearance average both improved, but his percentage of called strikes rose to 32 percent of all the strikes thrown to him this past season. By comparison, called strikes accounted for just 28 percent of his total strikes the previous season. His percentage of strikeouts that came on called third strikes rose from 24 to 27 percent.
Yet he had about the same percentage of 0-2 counts in both seasons -- 94 out of 551 plate appearances in 2011, 72 out of 434 plate appearances in '12.
Recapturing that aggressiveness will probably be a topic of conversation in Spring Training, especially with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. However, Leyland believes health could help that along.
"I think there were times because of the injuries that he didn't play with quite as much energy as I would've liked," Leyland said, "but I think part of that was due to the aches and pains. And I think that he's going to be totally healthy now, and I think you'll see Alex somewhere in between what we saw this year and the year before, which would be very pleasing to me."