This is the year Tyler Flowers might take the reins of the starting catcher job from A.J. Pierzynski. Well, good. Someone probably should.
AJ bounced back well enough from a poor 2010 campaign to hit .287/.323/.405 last season. That’s well, alright, and pretty much in line with his best work as a member of the Chicago White Sox. His all-hack approach is a remarkable show of contact ability, but it also means he never walks, and doesn’t get a lot of pitches to drive. The result is below-average seasons with the bat in every years since 2003 according to Weighted Runs Created.
That’s normal to expect from the catcher’s slot, but it doesn’t make him an asset either. A.J.’s game management skills are revered, but canceled out by his abysmal work against the running game, as his already shoddy 20% success rate in 2011 was inflated by pick-offs counted as ‘caught stealing’.
He’s alright, I guess.
This franchise, in it’s current briar patch of a situation–if it’s not going to upgrade the position–would at least be better off paying the league minimum for ‘just alright’.
Enter Tyler Flowers, the 26 year-old former top prospect who’s been the catcher of the future ever since coming over from Atlanta for Javy Vazquez after the 2008 season. Since then, the ‘little bit of swing-and-miss in his game’ has fully bloomed into a prominent hitch in his swing that means he’ll push for the league lead in strikeout rate, and threatens to be the ruin of his career.
But Flowers also does everything Pierzynski doesn’t. He’s exceedingly patient at the plate, waits for pitches to drive and flashes good power when gets them. He’s too big and creaky to be a particularly effective stopper of the running game, but has a stronger and more accurate arm than A.J. He even seems to get along with Jake Peavy better, thanks to their days in Triple-A when Peavy was rehabbing, even if Peavy being closer to the catcher he rehabbed with than the actual major league starter says all you need to know about how that tenure has gone.
The striking-out-all-the-time thing is pretty much the opposite of A.J. too.
Flowers used this Nega-A.J. approach to produce a .209/.310/.409 line in a teeny tiny sample of 129 plate appearances last season. Which is, you know, fine. Just enough power and patience to make him a viable player so long as he can keep his average over the Mendoza line. The .261 BABIP suggests some improvement through regression, but his flyball heavy approach suggests probably not.
If this holds, Flowers can stay on for a little while. He can replicate Pierzynski’s production, which again, doesn’t make him an asset, but more of a half-decent player for a fully-decent wage. If hitting 20 HRs in a year pumps up his arb-years’ salary, or free agency price tag, or the White Sox find themselves suddenly in the possession of real live, walking, breathing, above-average catcher, that’ll be the end of Flowers in Chicago. Unless of course he develops some sort of reputation for being a “gamer”, or “warrior” that extends beyond his production. It happens sometimes.
There are worse major league trajectories for a player, and a fine recovery for Flowers given in response to his disastrous 2010 debut into AAA that nearly derailed his career. There’s just a certain bit of doubt about someone carving out a steady existence while striking out 3 out of every 10 plate appearances. His 29.5 K% would have been 3rd in all of baseball if he qualified (no, Adam Dunn didn’t qualify), so would his 66.1% contact rate.
Colin of South Side Sox summed up Flowers’ conflict thusly:
"“T-Flo needs one out over the plate or down and in and he does his best to wait for that pitch. Whereas Paulie can cover pretty much any fastball anywhere and makes great contact with regularity, Flowers seems to realize he can only handle them in about half the strike zone and even then often misses. So he’s hyper-aggressive on those pitches that seem like his, but he’s otherwise very patient. If he can cluster his swing around the pitches he can hit hardest, he can keep his BABIP and ISO high enough to offset the whiffs.”"
Flowers needs to remain ultra-disciplined in abstaining what he can’t reach, and pound the crap out of what he can. Any slippage in either threatens his viability. While much of his game relies on testing the command of the opposing pitcher, how Flowers adjusts to the more extensive scouting and awareness of his approach across the league will make this season his big audition for the role of Space-Filling Starting Catcher.
A cratering strikeout disaster, or the grind of a full season sapping his power is the worst-case scenario, and that gaudily optimistic .241/.350/.474 line that Bill James projects for this season is the absolute impossible ceiling, but most likely it’s the same A.J. Pierzynski production in an enormous preternaturally bald package.