When the Tigers entered Spring Training this year, they knew what they were getting out of a handful of players. Sure, Miguel Cabrera was battling alcohol-related driving charges in Florida, but the team knew his bat was still as sharp as ever. Justin Verlander had enjoyed a Cy Young-esque season in 2010, and there was no reason to think he was going to drop from his ace-status. Victor Martinez was a known entity, and his bat was due to pick up in a park where he could spray to all fields. The biggest question mark seemed to be that kid out of the University of Alabama, who had showed some early life upon joining the Tigers, and is now a bonafide All-Star.
On ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, the discussion between Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine may have been more about the pronunciation of Avila’s last name, but they were also marveling at his style of play. Having to essentially play everyday with a lack of a solid and healthy full-time catcher, Avila has only gotten better with every foul tip of the mask or every contact at home plate. While he may be strung together right now with a mix of ice baths and sheer desire to win, the Tigers are seeing the astounding development of their next franchise catcher.
There are very few baseball towns where the position of catcher has as much meaning as it does in Detroit. For those with short-term memory, the signing of Pudge Rodriguez turned the Tigers from a perennial losing team to one that could contend in the AL Central. Of course, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Freehan and Lance Parrish each defined the position for a generation of Tigers fans. While they don’t have to be known for hitting 30 home runs a year, we loved these players because they were consistent, they were winners and they were gritty players.
When Avila joined the team two years ago in the late summer, it was his sudden bat off the bench that made the fans quickly forget about his family connection to the team. He could have taken his on-again, off-again role and used it as an excuse or a crutch, but has turned it to fantastic success. In only his second full season of baseball (one could argue this is his first “true,” full season), he is staring down a .300 season at the plate with 20 home runs and an impressive rate of gunning down runners from his spot behind the plate. With the Tigers knocking on the playoff door, they have so much to thank their ongoing success on that kid who grew up in the clubhouses throughout the major leagues.