Rick Porcello and Alex Avila are the future of the Detroit Tigers. A pitcher catcher combo can solidify a team’s hopes better than any other position. Think Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, Jack Morris and Lance Parrish or Mark Buerhle and AJ Pierzynski.
Porcello and Avila broke into the league together in 2009. Porcello was the USA Today and Gatorade High School Pitcher of the Year in 2007. He threw a 77-pitch perfect game. The Tigers signed him to the largest contract ever given to a high school player.
The gamble paid off and, after only one year in the minors, Porcello broke in with the Tigers at the age of 20, going on to win 14 games. Last season, several magazines had Porcello listed as the top young pitcher in baseball. With all that pressure on a 21 year old with very little major league coaching and seasoning, Porcello took a step back, winning only 10 games with an ERA that ballooned to 4.92. Early in the year, after several bad starts, he was sent down to Toledo to work on his mechanics, a tough pill to swallow for the already anointed, top young pitcher in baseball.
|Rick Porcello and Alex Avila|
“I just needed to go down to Toledo and get my confidence back and pitch with conviction,” he said last month while visiting Toledo with several other Tigers. “When I came down I was obviously disappointed. I tried to maintain the mind set that I was going to use this time to redeem myself and to correct the things I needed to fix with my mechanics and pitches.”
Most players take their lumps in Single A in front of 500 fans, but Porcello had to endure on a national stage. Porcello returned and showed some improvement going 6-5 with a 4.00 ERA after the All-Star break.
Manager Jim Leyland explained the transition this way, “He’s gonna level off and be a good big league pitcher. The players have to go through a period of time. They’ve been stars everywhere they go their whole careers. It’s the same thing that happened to Justin Verlander…You have to let that happen, there’s no miracle formula.”
Porcello is hungry to prove last season was a fluke and that he is indeed a main cog in the Tigers’ future.
“I embrace the expectations. That means I have an opportunity to make a difference. I enjoy the fact that’s being said about me…I’m not going to forget what happened the previous year. Just remembering the ups and downs, improving that, and getting mentally stronger are my goals. I feel hungry. I’m excited to prove the fact that I can be consistent…I’ve been working on my slider to complement my sinker. It keeps the hitter off-balance. It’s one thing to be able to throw it for a strike, its another to be able to consistently put it down and away for a strike or locating it down in the dirt.”
Alex Avila was a strong hitting third baseman at the University of Alabama. He was originally expected to go around the 10th round of the MLB draft, but during his senior season he converted to catcher. Avila. Known for his strong arm, his hard work showed last season as he finished second amongst AL catchers, throwing out 31 percent of would be base stealers.
This season will only be Avila’s fourth behind the plate. “I’m still learning how to catch. It’s still a fairly new position for me. I’m getting used to handling the day to day grind. I really had to learn on the job.”
After only one and half seasons in the minors, he broke in with the Tigers in 2009 and hit well as a late season call up, .279 with 5 HR and 17 RBI. Last season, like Porcello, he didn’t live up to the lofty expectations offensively. His average dropped to .228 with 7 HR and 31 RBI. The ball just didn’t seem to have the same pop coming off his bat. But to his credit, Avila kept adjusting and as his plate appearances got more consistent, his bat perked up hitting .302 in the month of September.
“The league adjusted to me and had time to scout me. At the end of the year I got consistent at-bats and was able to get in a rhythm. I admire the utility guys like Ramon Santiago, it’s very difficult to play at that level playing every three days. Its amazing what they do,” says Avila.
Avila hopes the lessons learned last season will help him moving forward.
“If you want to last in the big leagues its all about staying mentally prepared and consistency, staying confident even when you’re failing and slumping. If you fail 70 percent of the time, you’re in the Hall of Fame…In the minors the adjustments are series to series, game to game. In the big leagues everyone is more consistent and you’re adjusting pitch to pitch.”