Alex Avila on catching mask, lower profile and pitch clock
Alex Avila is committed to making the hockey-style catching mask work for him. He is open to lowering his profile behind the plate, open to batting second if that’s what Brad Ausmus wants to do with him. He is less enthusiastic about the potential for a pitch clock in the Major Leagues in future seasons.
“I don’t even want to think about a pitch clock,” Avila said, shuddering. “That sounds ridiculous to me.”
The mask, or at least a prototype of it, is already in, sent in to clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel earlier this month. Avila tried it on Thursday. He expects he’ll have other types to try out in Spring Training, but the general idea is the same. He’s done with the traditional two-piece mask.
“It seems like it’s going to help a great deal,” Avila said. “It’ll take a week or so to get used to, but I think the transition will be pretty easy.”
Even if it isn’t that easy, Avila plans on working through it.
“Eventually I’ll feel comfortable with it,” he said. “I will be wearing it full time.”
Whether it makes a difference will be something worth watching. Though plenty has been written over the last few years about catchers, concussions and the role masks play in them, opinions have been mixed over whether the type of mask makes a difference. Catchers have taken concussions wearing the hockey-style masks, and some catchers switched back to traditional masks as a result. Other studies say one mask or the other protects better depending on the type of impact — direct foul tip, foul off the side, or backswing.
Avila didn’t simply change for the sake of change. He looked into it, specifically the physics.
“For me, always to my knowledge, [the traditional mask] was safe, so what was the point [of changing],” he said. “If I’m going to get a concussion with that, I’ll get a concussion with the other one. But just the design, it’s a little bit different the way the hockey mask is angled, so you’re not taking a direct blow. It’s not as flush. It’ll ricochet off it more. A traditional mask is more flat, so when it hits it’s going straight down or going up, so you’re getting a little bit more of a whiplash.”
It’s the foul tip, particularly off to the side, that has been a problem for Avila in recent years.
The other difference Avila noted was inside the mask.
“What’s different about the hockey-style mask is you can adjust the padding to be a little more custom-fit,” he said. “There’s much more padding in that helmet than there is in the traditional mask.”
That might not be the only change Avila makes for his long-term health. Ausmus said he has talked with Avila about setting up lower behind the plate.
“He really sits up high,” Ausmus said. “We’re going to mess around in Spring Training and see if we can lower him, because the higher you are, the more apt you are to get those foul tips off the top of the bat that are moving up. If you’re a little lower, they miss your head.
“I don’t know how effective that’ll be. It’s tough to change that, but we talked about it. We’re going to take a look at it in the spring, because the concussions are something to be worried about.”
Avila is at least open to it, though admitting that could be tough to change at this point.
“The thing is I’ve caught one way the last six, seven years,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure I’m still comfortable. One of the things I take pride in is blocking pitches. Not too much gets by me, and I want to make sure that I’m comfortable and mobile whatever position I’m in. It’ll be something we take a look at.”
That’s a wholehearted openness to adapt compared with his feelings on the pitch clock proposal that will get a test run at Double-A and Triple-A levels this year after its debut in the Arizona Fall League.
“It’s a terrible idea,” he said. “I’m not a fan of it. I can see it now: The clock going down, the fans going, ‘Five … four … three …’ That’s terrible. It’s a terrible idea. To me that’s not baseball. At all.”
His counter to game length is the break between innings, which differs from locally broadcast games to nationally televised ones.
“There’s no reason to have three or four minutes in between innings,” he said. “If you want to make it faster, you have to look at ways of doing that. It’s the stuff that you’re adding into the game that is what’s making the game long. Players have had routines going in and out of the batter’s box forever. The difference between nowadays and the 80s and the 70s is TV.”