FORT MYERS, Fla. — After spending the first seven seasons of his major-league career with one team, the Detroit Tigers, Alex Avila has found himself on the move nearly every offseason since.
The Twins are the fifth team he’s played for since the beginning of 2016 after stints with the White Sox, Tigers, Cubs and Diamondbacks (two seasons), and with all that movement comes a steep learning curve, especially for a catcher. Luckily for Avila, 33, a sharp memory has come in handy as he works on familiarizing himself with pitchers in his new organization this spring.
“I feel like I have a pretty good memory as far as remembering once I catch somebody … what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard from (pitching coach) Wes (Johnson) and Mitch (Garver) and some of the other coaches about that particular pitcher or from what he’s told me,” Avila said. “Usually I have a pretty good understanding going into it and then after that first, second, third time going into it, I have a pretty good idea that I can kind of hold onto that memory.”
That process began this offseason when Avila watched over some video of pitchers he knew would be on the team. But video is no substitute for the real thing, and Avila has spent this spring bouncing around from pitcher to pitcher trying to get to know his new teammates, both on and off the field.
Avila caught starter Jake Odorizzi before his first start of the spring, and Odorizzi said the two spent time talking before the game and found themselves on the same page throughout the game.
“We’re just trying to learn each other’s tendencies. There’s a few times … I was thinking things and he was already in that mode,” Odorizzi said. “He’s a veteran guy, he knows the racket pretty well, a good receiver back there. So, we’re pretty fortunate to have him and Garv, pretty fortunate as a pitching staff to have those guys back there.”
The process has included plenty of time with Johnson and Garver, among others, as Avila gets their insights to supplement what he has seen on video and in person early this spring.
“(They) may give me something else to help him, help that guy along, like if he’s struggling with a certain pitch or struggling with his command to try to get him back on track,” Avila said. “That will be the important part — knowing the guys well enough to when they’re struggling, to try to help them get back on track or minimize damage or to be able to get through an inning that may not be their best.”
Learning a new pitcher is highly dependent on the person. Some guys, he can get a feel for almost immediately, and if they’re real sharp when he catches them, he can glean a lot of information right off the bat, he said. Other guys, it might take longer.
When he hasn’t been playing this spring, he has tried to just watch pitchers throw to get a feel for them.
“We will try to get Alex out there with as many of our pitchers as we possibly can throughout the spring. Hopefully he sees everyone,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Hopefully he will see most of them multiple times. … The more they can work together, the better off we are going to be once the season starts.”
The Twins signed Avila, an 11-year veteran, as a left-handed complement to Garver. And while Garver is expected to see most of the playing time, the Twins consistently preach the importance of rest and recovery, which is especially important at such a taxing position. That means Avila will see his fair share of playing time, too.
Garver has been an important part of Avila’s learning process, and as the season goes on, Avila is expected to be an important part of Garver’s development, too.
“We’ve been out to dinner together on a few occasions already, just us trying to not only get to know each other but also him helping me try to get a feel for the team and the pitchers,” Avila said. “And another part of my job is helping him continue to get better, and that aspect we’ll both be learning from each other quite a bit. I’ve got quite a few games under my belt, but when it comes to being able to help someone, being a good teammate, you end up learning something yourself.”