Avila: “It’s obvious I’ve been struggling.”
Last Labor Day, Alex Avila was wearing down but not hitting like it. He was literally an everyday catcher, having gone nearly a month without a backup after Victor Martinez injured his knee on an early August slide into home plate, yet he was a .360 hitter in August with seven home runs in 26 games. He was a marvel to scouts and fans alike watching him take his spot behind home plate day in and day out.
This Labor Day, he’s getting the rest to stay fresher, but hits like somebody who isn’t.
One scout tracking the Tigers, and watching Avila’s recent swings at the plate, suggested Avila looks like somebody wearing down as the season hits the final month. He’s in an 0-for-15 slump, having struck out six times in that stretch, and 5-for-49 stretch since Aug. 12. Beyond that, he has been struggling to do much with fastballs in recent days. He has had some awkward swings, and his lone extra-base hit in the last three weeks was his triple that got past Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who supposedly lost it in the lights as he overran it.
In fairness, his 5-for-49 slump immediately preceded a season-high 11-game hitting streak, during which he hit .457 (16-for-35) with four doubles, a home run and eight RBIs. Still, his slump is prolonged enough that manager Jim Leyland is talking about it when asked.
“Well, he’s struggling. I mean, that’s putting it mildly,” Leyland said after Monday’s loss to the Indians. “He hit extra yesterday to try to get some extra swings and get some things ironed out. But it is what it is. That’s the way it is.”
He doesn’t have to worry about offending Avila, because Avila is talking about it, too.
“A hitter knows when he’s not getting hits,” Avila said. “I think that’s more superstitious. It’s obvious I’ve been struggling. I’ve never been a superstitious guy or really cared about that. I know I’m struggling. What do I have to do to fix it? I’m trying to fix it, trying to get better. That’s it.”
In the field, Avila and Tigers pitchers watched an Indians team with nothing to lose steal four bases in four tries Monday. The lone runner thrown out on the basepaths was on an attempt to advance on a pitch in the dirt, not on a straight steal. Opponents are 10-for-10 stealing off Tigers pitchers over the past week or so in games Avila started, though the bulk of the responsibility goes to the pitcher to give his catcher a quick delivery and a fighting chance.
Avila spent some time getting some extra hitting work in the batting cages when he was out of the lineup Sunday, and he also got some treatment on his knees. However, he said, his health is fine. He said it Sunday, and he said it again Monday.
“I check with him every day,” Leyland said. “Physically, he’s fine. I mean, there’s no issues. He’s in a rut right now, obviously, but he’ll come out of it. He’s having a little trouble right now offensively.”
Said Avila: “Sometimes when you fall into slumps and you do all the extra stuff and everything, you think you can get out of it with one hit, and that’s not case. You just have to be able to put at-bats together. It’s one of those things that takes time to get out of. You can’t rush it.”
The issue isn’t as simple as getting Avila more rest. With the rash of left-handed starters the Tigers have faced lately, he’s been getting rest. Plus, some way, somehow, the Tigers need a productive Avila in the bottom half of the order. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago he was protecting Prince Fielder and Delmon Young in the lineup.
It’s also not like the Tigers are holding anything or anybody back by playing Avila. Gerald Laird went into the All-Star break batting .306, but he’s hitting under .200 since. Bryan Holaday just arrived as a third catcher in Detroit after finishing up his Triple-A season in Toledo batting .240.
The Tigers need an effective Avila, a fact that’s as apparent now as it was during the postseason last year, when it was painful to watch Avila run. He was clearly hobbled then. It’s not nearly so cut-and-dry now.