- The Washington Times
Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Over the course of five seasons in Detroit, Alex Avila learned the subtleties of Max Scherzer’s game. The catcher noticed how the right-hander dug into the data between starts, before analytics came to rule MLB. And Avila discovered Scherzer pitched his best when he was fired up.

“That’s something I’ve always enjoyed when I’ve watched him pitch,” Avila said. “You see that coming out of him, because he definitely wears his emotions on his sleeve.”

No catcher in the league is more familiar with how Scherzer ticks than Avila. He caught for the ace 107 times with the Tigers, the most of any catcher in Scherzer’s career. Avila was the backstop for Scherzer’s first Cy Young award in 2013.

Now, after Avila signed a one-year deal, Avila and Scherzer are reunited in Washington. Avila knows Scherzer isn’t the same pitcher he was back in Detroit seven seasons ago, and that’s part of why Avila is eager to join the Nationals.

“He’s taken it to a whole nother level, obviously, after signing with the Nationals,” Avila said. “It will be interesting, and part of the excitement for me is to see what he’s learned over the last few years and what he’s been able to do. And to be honest with you, I’m just going to try to continue that for him.”

The 34-year-old catcher played 23 games for the Minnesota Twins last season, finishing with a .184 batting average with two RBIs. He’s been a more productive batter in the past, with a .207 average for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019. His best season came in 2017, finishing with 14 homers and a .264 clip at the plate.

That 2017 season was split between the Tigers and Chicago Cubs — he was traded by his dad, Al, who is the general manager in Detroit. Avila said there was interest from the Tigers this offseason, but he turned down his dad’s advances to head to the Nationals.

“I’m still kind of looking for that ring,” Avila said. “And I thought Washington might be that good fit where they might have some interest, and they have a good team and in position to make a run at the playoffs.”

Avila figures to be the backup for catcher Yan Gomes, who general manager Mike Rizzo said in December is capable of catching 90 to 110 games. That leaves Avila to give Gomes days off, or perhaps he’ll catch exclusively for Scherzer. Avila, a left-handed batter, could also see some starts against right-handed pitchers if manager Dave Martinez wants to create different matchups.

“Whenever Davey needs me in the lineup, I’ll be ready to go,” Avila said.

While Avila knows Scherzer best, he also caught briefly for Jon Lester in Chicago and Patrick Corbin in Arizona. He’ll still need to learn a new staff with spring training fast approaching.

That process begins with Avila studying pitchers on tape and having conversations to get on the same page. He’ll talk to pitching coach Jim Hickey, too. But he’ll rely on Gomes most, he said, learning from the catcher who’s entering his third season with the Nationals.

Avila already has a bond with Scherzer, though, and that could be useful for Washington. Scherzer has won two Cy Young awards since arriving in D.C., but in the shortened 2020 season his ERA elevated to 3.74 and his WHIP was a career-high 1.381.

Scherzer was the first player to text Avila once the news broke that he was signing for the Nationals, happy to have his old catcher aboard. And immediately, the competitive spirit Avila got used to in Detroit shined through in that text conversation.

“You get on,” Scherzer’s text read, “I’ll drive you in.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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