August 11th, 2013

Delayed concussion symptoms, lingering concerns

The day after Alex Avila left the game in Cleveland with dizziness and nausea, I ran into a scout at the airport who had watched the series. He said what several team officials and most any player who has been a teammate of Avila for a decent amount of time has said: Avila takes an amazing number of foul balls off his mask and body. He watches a lot of other teams, and he couldn’t offer up one who takes more punishment.

Teammates who have spent their entire career alongside Avila and teammates who came in from other organizations have said much the same thing. They were saying much the same thing Sunday as Avila dealt with more concussion symptoms. And as players talked, there was a growing concern for Avila, the person as well as the player.

“Obviously, I’m concerned for him,” longtime teammate Justin Verlander said. “I think I’m more concerned personally for him. I’m just really glad the game that he caught [Saturday], he didn’t take one of those patented Alex Avila foul tips right off the face mask. He was able to answer all the questions and he passed his tests, so that’s why he was in the ballgame, but I guess he had some symptoms pop up today. …

“You guys have seen him. He’s taken a beating. He has. Seven days could be really good.”

Scherzer expressed much the same concern Thursday night after the foul tip that caught him in the mask.

There are statistics for a lot of events in baseball, but none for the number of foul balls a catcher takes off his body. You can look at some advanced stats for the pitching staff and try to get clues, but nothing concrete. For instance, Tigers pitchers allow balls put in play on just 37.7 percent of swings that opposing hitters take, the lowest percentage of any Major League pitching staff this year. At the same time, hitters miss on 24.7 percent of swings they take against the Tigers, highest in the big leagues. That adds up to 62.4 percent of swings, leaving 27.6 percent for foul balls. That’s not necessarily a Major League high. The Twins, for instance, have seen 43.4 of opposing swings put the ball in play, but just 18.1 percent of swings miss. However, they’ve drawn more than 300 fewer swings than Detroit pitchers.

Or to use the raw numbers, Tigers pitchers entered Sunday having thrown 17,090 pitches this year. Hitters had swung at 7889 of those, missed on 1945 and put 2974 in play. That leaves 2970 swings for foul balls. Some of them go into the seats, some go into the dugout, some stay in the field, and some obviously go off the catcher.

Victor Martinez was a longtime catcher in Cleveland and Boston before his knee injuries forced his move to DH. He knows the catcher and the position, and he sounded quite concerned.

“I’ve never been around people that suffer concussions. At the same time, I have never been with somebody who gets hit as Alex does, man,” Martinez said. “It’s amazing. He just … “

Martinez paused in mid-sentence.

“It’s not good, man. It’s tough,” he concluded.

Verlander’s point is a good one: Had Avila taken another foul tip off the mask, who knows what would’ve happened?

That sets up the question everyone will wonder out: How was Avila cleared to play? Avila said Friday he passed the tests, and that took the issue too seriously to cheat on them. He underwent a CT scan in Cleveland and apparently passed that. However, he also said he felt terrible after leaving Thursday’s game. He also was initially in Friday’s starting lineup before he had the game off under recommendation. On the flip side, Miguel Cabrera said he saw Avila in the clubhouse Sunday morning — their stalls were next to each other — and didn’t notice anything unusual.

“I saw him,” Cabrera said, “but he looked alright.”

I asked Will Carroll, the sports injury expert who now works at Bleacher Report, about concussion symptoms and Avila’s situation. He confirmed what several medical web sites say: Concussion symptoms can come on days after an incident, sometimes weeks. Other times, the initial symptoms can go unnoticed, including by the person involved.

Whether that’s what happened here or whether Avila tried to play through any symptoms might be tough to clear up, just like quantifying the damage he takes on foul balls. But people know what they see, and they’re concerned right now.

“You have to worry because that’s dangerous,” Cabrera said. “He has to take care of that. Hopefully he can feel better.”

Sunday’s lineups: Tigers at Yankees

Sunday in the Bronx 002

Surprisingly, not a whole lot of matchups for Tigers hitters against Andy Pettitte. The lefty gives Leyland a chance to get Matt Tuiasosopo back into the lineup. Get ready to see a lot of him, because the Tigers will have all lefty starters in Chicago the next three days.

That does not necessarily mean a series full of Brayan Pena, though. Alex Avila got the start Sunday against Pettitte, but it’s likely that has more to do with Justin Verlander being on the mound for the Detroit side.

For those of you out of town, remember that today’s game is the Sunday afternoon game of the week on TBS. John Smoltz has been around this weekend, and should have some interesting stuff for the broadcast.

On the Bronx side, Alex Rodriguez is back in the lineup at third base. Curtis Granderson is the designated hitter, something I never thought I would see but something he has done once in each of the last few years.

TIGERS (career numbers off Pettitte)

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (1-for-4)
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (13-for-49, 2 HR, 3 walks, 14 K’s)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (5-for-22, 2 HR, walk, 5 K’s)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B (3-for-5, K)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (6-for-26, 2 walks, 5 K’s)
  6. Matt Tuiasosopo, LF (1-for-3)
  7. Hernan Perez, 2B
  8. Alex Avila, C
  9. Jose Iglesias, SS (2-for-5)

P: Justin Verlander

YANKEES (career numbers off Verlander)

  1. Brett Gardner, CF (5-for-19, 3 walks, 3 K’s)
  2. Ichiro Suzuki, RF (20-for-61, HR, walk, 13 K’s)
  3. Robinson Cano, 2B (8-for-45, 2 walks, 8 K’s)
  4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B (8-for-30, 3 walks, 6 walks, 6 K’s)
  5. Lyle Overbay, 1B (3-for-15, 4 K’s)
  6. Alfonso Soriano, LF (1-for-3, K)
  7. Curtis Granderson, DH (4-for-23, HR, 3 walks, 9 K’s)
  8. Eduardo Nunez, SS (2-for-6, HR, K)
  9. Chris Stewart, C

P: Andy Pettitte

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