Family ties run deep for Tigers' Avila
By STEVE KORNACKI
Special to FOXSportsDetroit.com
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Four years ago, Tigers catcher Alex Avila was beginning his junior season at the University of Alabama and watching videotape of Twins All-Star catcher Joe Mauer to learn the fundamentals of his new position.
Now he is the reigning American League Silver Slugger Award winner and All-Star Game starter. And with his catching model he earned a spot in Baseball America's defensive rankings that had Matt Wieters of the Orioles first, Mauer second and Avila third.
Avila, in a very short time, has become the best all-around player on the Tigers roster. The challenge now is to maintain the hunger that got him this far.
Complacency has never been in Avila's vocabulary. But just in case he discovers it, he knows who will be in his ear. His grandfather, Ralph Avila, a retired vice president with the Los Angeles Dodgers who ran their Latin American development program, doesn't settle for imperfection.
"My grandpa has a constant reminder for me: ‘Never be satisfied,' " Avila said. "I was batting in the .280s and having a pretty good season. He's telling me he thinks I can hit .320! I go 3-for-4 with a walk and he'll talk about the one at-bat where I didn't get a hit."
Avila, seated on a bench outside the Joker Marchant Stadium clubhouse, smiled and shook his head.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland boosted his confidence with a pep talk on the season's first road trip, when he could see his young catcher pressing, and he relaxed to perform up to and beyond expectations.
He led all American League catchers in 2011 with a .295 batting average, 137 hits, 33 doubles, 82 RBIs and a .506 slugging percentage. And he added 19 homers to become Detroit's first Silver Slugger catcher winner since Ivan Rodriguez in 2004.
Avila said, "I'm very proud of that award -- to be voted the best hitter at my position by the coaches in the game."
It was a season of great firsts for Avila.
There was the first no-hitter caught for league MVP Justin Verlander on May 7 at Toronto.
"The no-hitter was great," Avila said, "but it was not just about that game. It was about the whole year Justin had, and being part of that historic season. That was special for me."
There was his first All-Star Game.
"The best part of the All-Star Game experience was just being in the clubhouse with all those guys and seeing the company you are in," Avila said.
There was the first Central Division title and post-season play.
However, Avila was hurt and worn down by catching 141 games by the time the playoffs began. He batted .063 against the Yankees and .080 against the Rangers.
"I can't lie and say I was not tired," Avila said. "But everybody's tired at that time of the season, and you just have to find a way to get through it.
"I sprained my left knee in July and kept playing because it was not as painful. But then I re-injured it. Then in the playoffs against New York, I stepped on (Robinson) Cano's foot while running to first on a bunt attempt. I jammed it and felt some pain."
Injuries are unavoidable, but would playing 10 fewer games help in improving his endurance?
"No," said Avila, "the number of games I played last year is the amount I want to play. When Victor (Martinez) was hurt, I caught for a long stretch. But now maybe I can have more games off spread throughout the season with Gerald (Laird) back with us to catch."
Laird also is a top defensive catcher who knows the pitching staff very well from his previous time with the Tigers in 2009 and 2010.
Avila was learning from Laird the last time they were teammates, and now is one of the best himself.
"What Alex has done is just amazing," said Detroit pitching coach Jeff Jones. "His defense came so far so fast. His most improvement came in blocking balls and throwing. And the pitchers are very, very comfortable with him. They love throwing to him. He works so hard and the pitchers know that.
"Now, Alex is the complete package."
That work ethic came from his father, Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila. He recalled discussing a future in pro baseball with him as a junior in high school.
Avila said, "My dad said, ‘If this is what you want to do, this is how hard you have to work.' I wasn't gifted with the best tools, but that drove me."
They have a three-generation connection to Major League Baseball and a family love affair with the game that now extends to the parents of his wife, Kristina.
"Family is everything to us," Avila said, "and we have a very close family. Our dinner conversation is about baseball. Even my wife's mom and my father-in-law (Isabel and Luis Perez) have gotten into it.
"My mother-in-law didn't know anything about baseball at all, and now she's second-guessing Leyland."
Smyly takes the fifth
Tigers rookie fifth starter Drew Smyly is an inspiration for every high school baseball player who doesn't think he has the tools or size to make it in pro baseball. He was 6-foot, 150 pounds as a high school senior and went undrafted before making a name for himself at the University of Arkansas.
"I was a late bloomer," said Smyly, now 6-3, 190 pounds.
Detroit drafted him in the second round in 2010 and he pitched for Lakeland and Erie last season, going a combined 11-6 with a 2.07 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 126 innings.
He won the competition for the starting role by beating out Andy Oliver, Adam Wilk, Duane Below and Jacob Turner, who dropped out after developing shoulder tendinitis.
Each of the other candidates has limited major league experience, and so Smyly was asked about being confident he would win the job at the beginning of spring training.
"I wasn't that confident that I would be the guy," Smyly said. "But I was confident that I could be the guy. I wanted to show them I could be the guy."