Apr 30, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Chicago White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers (21) catches a ball in the second inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
When you try a slice of pizza from a new local eatery, it’s only custom to take a few bites before you pass judgement. For the Chicago White Sox, they’ve reached the crust when it comes to the Tyler Flowers.
Flowers assumed Chicago’s daily catching duties after the 2012 season. This marked the beginning of a new regime behind the backstop as the White Sox allowed incumbent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to walk after a career year, in which he hit 27 homers and posted a .827 en route to a Silver Slugger award.
Chicago offered him an insulting $4 million before he took a one-year $7.5 million deal with the Texas Rangers, but that was merely a formality as the White Sox were extremely high on Flowers at the time and never seriously considered retaining Pierzynski.
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The results were dismal. While Pierzynski went on to have a quality year with Texas, Flowers floundered on the South Side. His .195/.247/.355 slash line did little to appease fans who were already missing the fan favorite he replaced.
Flowers was so awful in fact that he lost the starting job midway through the season to prospect Josh Phegley, who despite his torrid start finished 2013 with a .522 OPS, an indication of just how much he struggled down the stretch.
Considering Flowers’ offensive output in ’13 combined with Phegley’s vulnerability to fastballs, it was surprising that the White Sox didn’t make a move to acquire a backstop for the 2014 season. They picked up Adrian Nieto from the Washington Nationals in the Rule-5 Draft, but once again, Flowers was given the nod behind the plate.
Last season was actually a solid year for Flowers, particularly in the second half when he was good for a .280/.337/.553 slash line. Those numbers correlated with Flowers’ switch from contact lenses to sports glasses, and he was certainly seeing the ball better.
The problem was that there was quite the disparity between his first half .577 OPS and his .891 second half mark. The former is unplayable, while the latter is elite for a catcher.
The White Sox brain trust gambled that Flowers could be somewhere between the two in ’15. Unfortunately, he’s been below even the low-end of that range. He’s been fighting the Mendoza Line all season, and a low slugging percentage has put his OPS right in that unplayable territory.
And then there’s the strikeout rates. Flowers’ 2013 was bad as he whiffed 34.2% of the time. Last season was actually worse, as he posted a 36.0% strikeout rate. For perspective, that’s higher than Adam Dunn‘s strikeout rate in 2011, a year that is now a benchmark for “awful” on the South Side.
At least Flowers supplemented that poor whiff rate with a career-high 15 home runs. You can live with the strikeouts if he means Flowers goes yard 20-plus times, but so far in ’15 his strikeout rate is a meager 31.9 percent in adjunct with a mere .326 slugging percentage. So he’s striking out and not hitting for any power.
His 5.5 percent walk rate is nothing to write home about and that’s one of the reasons his OBP is sitting at .253.
Ask the White Sox why third baseman Matt Davidson is still at Triple-A Charlotte and you get an answer along the lines of the inherent need to correct his whiff rate and overall offensive attack, yet you have a player like Flowers with the same problems getting regular at-bats in the majors.
Flowers has been fighting the Mendoza Line all season, and his OPS is entering unplayable territory.
Unlike Davidson, Flowers is 29 years-old. The glimmer of hope that’s been riding behind him his entire career is finally fading. He’s no longer in the “this is a guy who could hit 20 home runs” stage. Now is the time to either hit those 20 home runs or hit the road.
For as much as Flowers has struggled offensively, he was supposed to bring something on the defensive end. While dWAR is a difficult barometer when it comes to evaluating a catcher’s defense, Flowers ranks 76th among 77 active catchers with a -0.3 dWAR.
He also has allowed three passed balls, which places him in the lower half of the league in that category. As far as his ability to manage base runners, there has ultimately been a green light on him all season, as he ranks 20th out of 23 qualified catchers with a .259 caught stealing percentage.
That means you’ve got a 75 percent chance of being safe when running on Tyler Flowers if you consider yourself among the median of base stealers. A base coach is going to like those odds late in a game, and it’s likely to hurt the White Sox as a result.
So why is Flowers still here?
Well, there’s this tidbit from MLB.com’s Greg Garno:
"“Catching has been about handling the pitching staff for the White Sox, with Flowers working well with Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija and Carlos Rodon.”"
There in lies his true value. Flowers does call a decent game and ace Chris Sale does have a nice rapport with him. But is this chemistry great enough to overshadow his offensive pitfalls?
White Sox pitchers still have a 4.36 ERA when throwing to him, and it’s a gray area when determining how much of that stat is caused by pitchers missing their spots or by poor decision-making on his part. The fact remains though that the rotation isn’t excelling with him behind the plate, so it’s becoming harder and harder to find his palpable value.
According to CSN’s JJ Stankevitz, Flowers is trying to add value by enhancing his pitch framing abilities. He even notes that:
"“While Flowers’ offensive production has been inconsistent, the White Sox like his ability to do the things that are required of a catcher that won’t show up on the back of a baseball card.”"
I don’t doubt that Tyler Flowers handles the staff well. In fact, I’ve noticed an improvement in his pitch framing just through the eye test. The issue is that he’s an offensive black hole that simply cannot coexist with a team that is trying to contend.
This would be a moot discussion if there weren’t solutions out there.
Geovany Soto is obviously not a solution to start. His .196/.226/.333 slash line does all the talking.
The new backstop will have to come from outside of the organization and here are two ideas:
Next: Idea No. 1 for a new catcher