An Acceptable Level of Failure

In a surprise twist of fate, Tyler Flowers has not become a scrappy, high-average hitter by simply willing it. His adjustments were championed, and acknowledged even here, that I donno, something's working, when Flowers was hitting .373/.413/.440 through April 28.

The very clear warning signs were present in hilariously obvious degrees (36.3% strikeout rate, .600 BABIP), but he was doinking singles. Maybe he would keep doinking singles after the magic died.

Instead, Flowers is looking to have normalized his numbers by the All-Star break. He's hitting .165/.248/.303 since April 28, striking out over 40% of the time with a .255 BABIP. Flowers can't cover the strike zone, make consistent contact due to the hitch in his swing, and only possesses a good batting eye and enviable strength. At least he started using that a bit.

Walks and power are what made Flowers a nice backup in 2011 and 2012, but that tends to get ignored when a guy goes two weeks without a hit, like Flowers has, and strikes out in 19 of his last 28 trips to the plate, like Flowers has. It's likely Flowers just transforming back into the terrible hitter he was in 2013, but such a stress gets read as an immediate crisis during the season.

‘I’m not Miguel Cabrera. He probably doesn’t go through this,’ Flowers said. ‘But a lot of people go through it. I was talking to Robin, he went through it. It’s not uncommon. Of course, when you’re in this spot it feels like you’re the only one that’s not having good at-bats and all that.’

’The reality is, everybody kinda goes through it. Just trying to stay positive and continue to work.’
— JJ Stankevitz

Meanwhile, encouraging things continue to be said about the blatantly too raw Adrian Nieto, who despite being hopeless at the plate, could very easily clear the bar of being less hopeless than Flowers if he develops even the slightest bit.

I have never been a great fan of carrying along a woefully under-qualified catcher and have him get blitzed by major league competition all year just to hoard a semi-prospect, but so low is the standard of White Sox catcher production that it could become a choice of Flowers being reliably terrible at the plate, and passable behind it, or Nieto being a mystery--but a mystery worth figuring out--all over.

Nieto is striking out in over 35% of his plate appearances, and has somehow drawn a few walks in 57 trips to the plate, which basically gives him the same results of Flowers' once inscrutable approach without the power.

Behind the plate, beyond what's probably plenty of work to do in pitch-calling (we've mostly only seen him call Danks and Rienzo, and I'm not even going to touch pitch-framing data), Nieto is pretty brutal at stopping pitches at the moment.

He's allowed 12 wild pitches and three passed balls in 144 innings, which is about a fourth of the playing time that MLB innings caught leader Miguel Montero has logged. If you multiplied Nieto's numbers by even a factor of three, he'd be leading all of baseball in wild pitches and  tied with Flowers in passed balls*. Snapshots of Nieto's misplays show bad technique and a lack of recognition of when to drop and block, which at least offer opportunities for improvement.

But the short of it is that more Nieto playing time would start quickly costing the White Sox runs and games, in a way that might make it hard to keep up illusions of chasing some stray second wild card spot. His hitting is bad, but comes out of an inability to deal with major league stuff. Actual scouting attention on him could be harsher.

The savior of this whole process is Flowers' badness. He's revered by his pitching staff, and a heavy sampling of Josh Phegley as a handler showed why, but Flowers was near the top of the sport in passed balls just as a part-time last year, and leading the American League this year. The leap down to Nieto's performance is very noticeable, but it certainly could be larger.

The question is in the vein of Courtney Hawkins' 2013 season. Playing the young guys a lot is always good, and having opportunities for them to learn by doing is always optimal, but how much raw and overpowering failure can there be before it comes detrimental? What bad habits emerge when Nieto becomes desperate just to put the ball in play? Perhaps this kind of test of his mettle is always necessary for a prospect, but it could also be unfair to ask a young player to get a handle at the most complicated position on the field while playing two levels over his head.

Tyler Flowers is quickly hitting lost cause status, but turning a harsher spotlight than what's already on Nieto could push him on the path of being the same.

And, that, is the White Sox catching situation.