The Remarkable Rise of Alex Avila

Although Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera are the indisputable superstars of the Detroit Tigers, a case can be made that catcher Alex Avila was the unexpected linchpin that has led to the team’s success in 2011. (ok, let’s not forget Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta)

In just his second full season with Detroit and his first as the regular backstop, the 2008 5th round draft choice has batted at or near .300 most of the year, caught Verlander’s second career no-hitter, and was voted the starting catcher by the fans for the All Star game.

Without question Alex Avila is one of baseball’s great stories.

Remarkably, the 24-year-old did not become a catcher until his junior year at the University of Alabama when he traded his third baseman’s glove for catching gear.

Avila, the son of Tiger Vice President /Assistant General Manager Al Avila and the grandson of former Dodger Vice- President Ralph Avila (one of the pioneers who helped lead the charge in major league baseball’s Latin revolution) believes part of his ability to develop so quickly was due to his baseball upbringing.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Avila the other night prior to his first 4-hit game in the majors.

“I was a baseball rat,” said Avila. “My grandfather ran a baseball camp in the Dominican and every summer I spent two months there hanging around the clubhouse. When my Dad was with the Marlins as a kid I was shagging balls and hanging out at the ball park. It was a privilege I never took for granted and those experiences absolutely helped me know what it would take to get to the major leagues and stay there.”

Avila’s transition from a third baseman to a catcher resulted from his desire to help his University of Alabama team and understanding that a left handed slugging catcher was a rare commodity in the major leagues.

When the Tigers drafted Avila out of college in the June 2008 Amateur draft, (and when he was called up to the majors so quickly the following year), some people wondered if the moves were based upon nepotism since his father was the assistant general manager.

“I understand why people thought that but actually my Dad didn’t want the Tigers to take me just because of that. But it never bothered me because I grew up with it my whole life and I knew what kind of player I was,” said Avila.

After playing the 2008 season for Single A West Michigan where he batted .305, Avila was promoted to Double AA Erie.

We were treated to a glimpse of things to come when Avila doubled and drove in a run in his first major league at bat on August 6, 2009 and collected two hits in each of his first three games. In 61 at bats for Detroit, the rookie hit .279 with five home runs, four doubles and 14 RBIs.

Last year Avila only batted .228 while splitting the catching duties with Gerald Laird.

“Sometimes with new players people overestimate and underestimate and judge too quickly,” said Alex Avila. “I know it is rare for someone new at a position to not spend very much time in the minor leagues but like any new job there is on the job training. As a young player you have to be able to withstand the grind of a whole season and learn how to play baseball in the major leagues. And last year I learned the most I’ve ever learned about the game.”

Thank God.

Alex Avila is a special player and may go down as one of Detroit’s best catchers ever. Cochrane, Freehan, Parrish, and Avila sounds about right.