New mask, catching style, hitting approach for Tigers’ Avila

Tigers catcher Alex Avila suffered three concussions last season.


Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

LAKELAND, Fla. — It’s an important spring and season for Tigers catcher Alex Avila.

Not only is Avila’s wife about to give birth to their second daughter within the next few weeks, Avila is making some significant changes in his game.

He suffered three concussions last season and has had others in previous years, so the Tigers are trying to do as much as they can to help Avila avoid future ones.

On Friday, while catching Angel Nesbitt’s bullpen session, Avila wore his new hockey-style mask for the first time.

"I think (in) a few days, I won’t realize it’s on," Avila said. "The only things I gotta get used to is figuring out what I’m going to do on pop-ups, bump plays, things like that.

"Normally with the old mask, you take it off. (I have to decide) whether I’m going to take it off or just leave it on."

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus doesn’t think changing masks will be a tough transition.

"I’ve made that same move, almost 20 years ago, but I made that same move from the traditional catcher’s mask to the hockey-style catcher’s mask," Ausmus said. "I think he’ll probably be fine with it."

Something that might take a little longer to get used to is putting his left knee down on the ground in certain situations in an attempt to get a little lower.

"Foul tips generally come off the top half of the bat and they’re traveling slightly upwards, so if we can get him lower, we hope those foul tips are more of a glancing blow or missing his mask altogether," Ausmus said. "He was messing with that. He said he felt very comfortable with that.

"Of course, if you have runners on base or if you have to worry about a ball in the dirt with two strikes, you wouldn’t be able to catch that way. At least, hopefully, it reduces the number of opportunities for him to be hit."

Avila said the move didn’t feel foreign to him.

"Hopefully, that reduces the number of times I get hit," Avila said. "The only way to find out is during the season, but (for now I’m) just seeing what ways are comfortable, at least when there’s less than two strikes and nobody on.

"Once there’s two strikes and there’s guys on, that completely changes because I have to be able to move, block pitches and throw guys out."

The other thing Avila is working on this spring is hitting.

In 2011, Avila hit .295 with 19 home runs and 82 RBI. Since then, he’s fallen off:

— 2012: .243, nine home runs, 48 RBI.

— 2013: .227, 11 home runs, 47 RBI.

— 2014: .218, 11 home runs, 47 RBI.

"One thing last year, I didn’t have any home runs to the opposite field, which — probably over the course of my career — half of them have gone that way," Avila said. "Really, I just kind of lost the feeling on how to hit that way, or hitting for power that way.

"So I had to make some adjustments, get out of some bad habits that have been in the last year or so. Hopefully, I’m able to continue that, and get comfortable with it and be consistent with it."

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