This is really just story time with Alex Avila, who talked in his first Zoom call with reporters at Spring Training this week about his history with Max Scherzer from the time the two were in Detroit together between 2010-14. Scherzer, an ‘06 1st Round pick (11th overall), was traded to the Tigers in a three-team deal that included the Arizona Diamondbacks, who drafted the right-hander, and the New York Yankees.
Scherzer was just 46 games (37 starts) into his major league career at that point, but the D-Backs reportedly had concerns about his long-term health and role, so they traded him and, five years and one Cy Young award later, he signed a 7-year/$210M free agent deal with the Washington Nationals.
Avila, 23 when he started working with a then-25-year-old Scherzer in 2010 in Detroit, and 34 years old now, signed on in Washington, D.C. this winter, taking a one-year/$1.5M deal that reunites him with the now-36-year-old Scherzer, who won the first of his three career Cy Young awards in 2013 with Avila behind the plate for 18 of his 32 starts that season.
On Wednesday afternoon, Avila talked about the development he saw from Scherzer over their five seasons and 107 starts together with the Tigers.
“Playing with Max in Detroit,” the veteran backstop said, “I was able to see the progression of a pitcher trying to not only get to the big leagues, but stay there, but then also kind of live up to the expectations and pitch to his capabilities, and figure out what he needed to do on a daily basis in order to achieve that.”
Figuring that out wasn’t an easy process for Scherzer, or the backstops and coaches he worked with, but it started with, according to Avila, finding a way to consistently repeat mechanics in his delivery.
“There were some ups and downs,” Avila acknowledged. “You could always tell that he had the ability and the stuff to be the pitcher he has been, it’s just a matter of him figuring out how to repeat his delivery over and over again so that his release pojnt was the same so he could be more consistent throwing strikes when he wanted to, and throwing pitches out of the zone when he wanted to. So that whole progression over the five years that we played together in Detroit, I was able to kind of see that move along until he got to that Cy Young season in Detroit, and then after that you could tell there was a change in confidence.”
Scherzer, the catcher admitted, was always a Type-A personality though, even as he was building up confidence in his game.
“That’s always been there with Max,” Avila said with a smile. But when he started to really find himself on the mound, things did change for the starter.
“You could see someone that really understood himself, his body, his mechanics which is huge for a pitcher,” Avila explained.
“Them knowing their mechanics so well to where they can make an adjustment pitch to pitch, and it doesn’t take an inning or a game to make that adjustment.
“That’s the change that I saw. The confidence-level of just, ‘Okay, I already know now what I need to do and how to be successful and consistent, and it’s just a matter of keeping that up.’”
After he signed on with the Nationals earlier this month, Avila talked about what he saw in their time together with the Tigers, and what’s happened since, as Scherzer’s gone on to a second and third Cy Young award and a World Series championship.
“He was still figuring himself out,” Avila said of their time in Detroit. “I got to see that over the course of five years or so we were teammates and it kind of culminated into a really good year for him in 2013, but then he’s taken it to a whole another level, obviously, after signing with the Nationals.”
Asked about the development of Scherzer’s slider, in particular, Avila said that in their Tiger days the slider was already there, but it was the evolution of the righty’s curve that actually helped him to start to turn the corner in his career.
“I think where he kind of really took off was being able to throw a curveball,” Avila said, “at least in Detroit. It allowed him to be able to throw something breaking in to a left-hander.
“Because he struggled with left-handers quite a bit in Detroit until he started doing that.
“And it helped him progress into being able to throw his slider to left-handers, which I know he’s done that quite a bit here as well. And not just to righties, that’s always been a devastating pitch to right-handed batters, but being able to throw a breaking ball, whether it’s a slider or cutter going in to lefties is something that I know he’s done here to go along with his changeup and fastball.
“But in Detroit we started seeing that progression a little bit, because it took a little bit of time for him to feel comfortable doing that.
“And I think the Cy Young he won in Detroit, you kind of were able to see — it helped him — opened a lot of things up for him as far as pitch selection and game-planning standpoint, and then he’s obviously taken it to another level being here in Washington being able to use all his pitches regardless of what side the batter is on.”
Catching up on how things have changed for each of them since they last worked together is something both Avila and Scherzer are excited about.
“It will be a thrill for me to be able to catch him again,” Avila said.
“I’m excited to be able to work with him again. He was the first guy that actually texted me once the news broke a few days ago, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“I had Alex all those years in Detroit,” Scherzer said this week.
“We did some great things together, but now it’s kind of a different ballgame, and how we’re going to react to that is a challenge. And it’s a challenge I welcome.”