Last off-season, the White Sox made a pretty good bet that I had no interest in them seeing through. They bet Flowers probably couldn't do worst than 59 wRC+ (That's 40% below league average) while allowing more passed balls than half the AL despite only playing 84 games.
It was such a cynical bet I wasn't even convinced they were really making it. It seemed like more of a statement of "You gotta commit murder to find a decent catcher in this league, and this team isn't worth dropping a body over."
For their show of faith, the White Sox have been rewarded with substantial, uh...end result improvement. After slamming his 11th and 12th home runs of the season Tuesday night, Tyler Flowers is hitting .240/.298/.380, which in this wondrous era of offense, is good for a 88 wRC+.
He's a below average hitter--solidly below--but rapidly approaching the territory of Not Bad for a Catcher. The AL average backstop hits .243/.303/.379 in 2014, no small thanks to Brian McCann not being good anymore. Speaking of McCann, who is hitting a nearly identical .234/.287/.384, he was the big money upgrade that was available. The Sox couldn't quite talk themselves into making that financial leap for 2014, and wound up getting the same offensive production. This sets an...interesting and inexpensive precedent. The Sox would really rather not pour money into a doomed search for a serviceable catcher, so if Flowers could even fake it for another year or two, it'd be a boon.
The problem is, Flowers' improvement is almost entirely due to a nearly 95-point jump in BABIP. His strikeout rate is just as awful, walk rate has negligibly improved, power is worse, even his infield fly rate is worse, he's just dropping in singles like mad. His .356 batting average on balls in play is also almost 50 points over his career mark of .307. Hitters can control their BABIP to a degree, and such a jump is not automatically meaningless, but it's hard to trust a sudden jump in any one single category, let alone the most unstable one.
Flowers is also connecting for line-drives at a career-high rate (23.5% after not cracking 18% any year before that) and putting a ton of balls on the ground, which is probably helping him get more singles, but dinking singles is probably not a great angle to pursue for an enormous man with enormous raw power. While the Sox made a sound bet that Flowers wouldn't be worse than 2013, another good bet would be that he's not as good next year as he was in this one, glasses aside.
It's a mixed bag whether Flowers makes it up behind the plate. He's revered by pitchers and shows a lot of flexibility with pitch calling, pitch-framing stats commend him, and he's even been good against the run this year (31% thrown out), but pairs that with regularly appearing at the top of the league leaderboards in passed balls and wild pitches. The last edition of Matt Klaasen's catcher defensive rankings I could find came out at the end of last August, when Flowers was at the height of his troubles, and even they think he was doing about an average job with what he had to face.
"Much improved," "capable," these are both labels we'd be comfortable slapping on Flower's defense, but propping him up as someone who earns his keep with glovework even if his bat is nonexistent is overstating his skill.
The free agency crop of alternatives has stayed static, or even gotten worse from last year. There will be a similar, McCann-like feeding frenzy for Russell Martin, too much interest in Geovany Soto, and back-ups.
Maybe Flowers isn't the best bet to stay start-worthy--he's not--but the Sox have plenty of incentive to take his word for it. He's been healthy this year, which is something that can't be minimized, or fully appreciated due to Flowers' tendency to downplay the hindrances he faces.
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