April 5th, 2011

Avila takes self-critical look at wild pitches

Just got back from the Tigers workout, which is basically an afternoon for guys to hit in the cages and work out in the weight room. The weather is cold and rainy, and while it isn’t as cold as Opening Day was in New York, it has that feel. But hey, it was an optional workout, and it beats hanging around the hotel all day or trying to be a tourist in the rain. That probably explains why a surprising number of players were there today.

Among them was catcher Alex Avila, who had a pretty self-critical take on the Tigers’ spat of wild pitches through four games. He spent part of his postgame time Monday looking at replays. At least from Monday’s game, he didn’t like what he saw on some pitches.

“That’s one thing that I focused on a lot in the offseason and the spring,” Avila said. “I blocked the crap out of balls this spring, and I did a really good job. I feel really comfortable back there, and the ball that got by me yesterday — I mean, that’s a ball that I block easy nine out of 10 times.

“What I was looking at on the video was my technique. It wasn’t what I’ve been doing recently. I’m definitely pretty hard on myself when something like that happens, especially with a guy on third base. That’s something I take a lot of pride in.”

The difference, he said, was the angle he took on pitches in the dirt. With the angles he has been taking, he believes, he’s deflecting some pitches instead of blocking them.

“Looking at it, the ones that I do right, they’re right in front of me,” Avila said. “When they’re skidding off to the side, it’s because I’m getting too much of an angle. I’m going too far. … It’s almost like a mindset that you’re catching with your body.”

As mentioned before, the Tigers lead the Majors with six wild pitches entering play Tuesday. Five of those have come with Avila behind the plate, and to him, they go on his record.

“To me, they’re all passed balls,” he said.

He hasn’t had that problem on every pitch in the dirt. He saw another pitch from Monday’s game that he blocked because he took a good angle and got out in front of it in good time. Now he wants to do that consistently.

He worked on it this spring not seeing it as a weakness, but as something he felt he could improve with some work.

“It’s something I’ve been working very hard [to improve],” Avila said. “In the spring, your bullpen sessions, you set up like you’re in the game. A lot of times, I would use it like it’s a game situation, practice my positioning and stuff like that. It’s something that I got really good at in the spring. I think in the spring, one ball got by me, and it was a tough one. And the last couple days, I’ve had some balls get by me. It’s been eating at me because I know I’m good at it.”

The reason isn’t just for him. It’s for the pitchers. This is a pitching staff with a lot of potential for wild pitches, from Rick Porcello’s sinker and slider to Justin Verlander’s curveball to Max Scherzer’s developing slider to Brad Penny trying to keep everything low and around the strike zone.

“We don’t have too many finesse guys,” Avila said. “It’s not something I was bad at. I just wanted to improve so they can have the confidence to throw whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, and it’s going to be caught or blocked.”