Avila making adjustments to deal with harmful foul tips

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) The difference is a subtle one, and it barely stands out to the untrained eye as Alex Avila sets up behind the plate at spring training.

While preparing to receive a pitch, the Detroit catcher lowers one knee to the ground, a move the Tigers hope will help Avila avoid harmful foul tips by keeping his head lower.

”Foul tips generally come off the top half of the bat and are traveling very slightly upwards,” said manager Brad Ausmus, himself a former catcher. ”We get him lower, we’re hoping those foul tips are more of a glancing blow, or completely misses his mask all together.”

The 28-year-old Avila has caught nearly 5,000 innings in his career, helping the Tigers to AL Central championships in each of the last four seasons, but that run of success has come with a cost. Avila has faced concussion problems over the last few years, and although he’s been cleared to keep playing, he’s also taking steps to protect himself.

Avila is now wearing a hockey-style mask while catching, but no matter what’s on his head, the more palatable solution is to avoid getting hit in the first place. That’s where his new stance comes in. There’s not usually much variety in the way catchers set up behind the plate, but occasionally someone will come up with a quirk or two. Tony Pena, who caught nearly 2,000 games from 1980-97, used to extend a leg in an almost split-like stance.

The technique Avila was using Saturday wasn’t nearly as exaggerated, but it did make it easy for him to scrunch lower to the ground. It remains to be seen whether this will significantly reduce the number of foul balls that bounce off Avila’s mask.

”I don’t know if it’s going to work or not – we’ll find out in the games,” he said. ”But at least I want to get to a point to where I know I can be in certain positions and be comfortable to catch just fine – and have those options.”

Avila has started 449 games at catcher since 2011, tied for the fourth most in the major leagues in that span. He’s taken plenty of punishment – for reasons that are still unclear, he seems to be hit in the head with an unusual number of foul balls. He’s spent time on the disabled list for concussion-related problems, and in Detroit’s final game of the 2014 postseason, Avila had to leave after taking a foul tip off the mask.

”Anybody that’s had concussions, you get concerned about,” team president Dave Dombrowski said. ”Hopefully he’s in a spot where we can protect him as much as possible. You can only do so much. The doctors have cleared him. They think he’s fine. We think it’ll help with the new mask. They’re doing some things to try to get him lower, to not have quite as many foul tips.”

Avila says he’ll be back in a more conventional crouch if there are men on base or if there are two strikes on the batter.

”You can’t move on one knee, so I’ve got to make sure I’m mobile, to be able to block and throw,” he said.

Last season, only 41 percent of major league pitches were thrown with nobody on and fewer than two strikes, according to STATS. So Avila may be using his new stance less than half the time.

A career .247 hitter who can draw walks and hit his share of home runs, Avila is fine offensively for a catcher, but a move to another position might leave him looking less adequate – and would force the Tigers to find another everyday backstop who can replace his dependable defense. There’s a chance he could play first base while Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez recover from injuries, but the best option for Avila and Detroit is for him to stay healthy and behind the plate.

Avila is willing to be creative to try to protect himself, although true to his down-to-earth nature, he won’t be trying to draw much attention to his new catching style. No fancy logo for his new helmet, for example.

”That is not me whatsoever,” he said. ”I’m not going to have a tiger coming out of my mask or anything like that.”