Here’s a fun fact to get us started.
Since the start of 2018, how many catchers have a better fWAR than Tyler Flowers? Let’s set the minimum at 500 PA. Got your guesses in? Is it five? Ten? Maybe even more than ten?
…pause for suspense…
That’s right, girls and boys, only two catchers in baseball have a better fWAR than Tyler Flowers. The guy Twitter and Facebook are convinced sucks worse than any catcher in baseball. Only two other catchers, who are making significantly more money and being appreciated a lot more, are outproducing Flow.
So, you can’t blame the counter-narrative that’s also being presented on Twitter even if it’s kind of obnoxious. Oh, Tyler Flowers is better than his haters want to believe, but this “look how great Flowers is” nonsense is, well, nonsense. Listen, I’ve been a huge Flowers guy for years. When he signed and someone explained to me that framing was the new “it” factor for catchers, I bought in. And he came out and had the two best seasons of his career, finishing 2016 with a .338 wOBA and 2017 with a .358 wOBA. Sure, he wasn’t a full-timer, but he was a Kevin Seitzer miracle. Great framing and a solid stick.
The two follow-up seasons haven’t been as impressive. His wOBA has came back to Earth and settled in the low .310’s. Which is basically where his career average is, by the way. The walk rate has improved and he still shows good pop, but he’s more of a liability in the lineup even if his numbers remain decent for a catcher. Of course, according to his haters, he is an even bigger liability in the field. But he’s a great framer. But he’s a catcher that can’t catch. But Braves pitchers love throwing to him so much that his strikeout rates are noticeably higher than other Braves catchers. But he’s a bad game caller.
The fact is…there is a bit of truth in all of this and rarely more than a bit. Well, except for framing. Dude became a framing catcher and is absolutely a boss at it. Just pointing out facts, but it’s also why he’s allowed so many passed balls. If you set up to give the umpire the best look at a perfect frame job, it limits your mobility when the pitcher misses the spot. Plus, there is a little bit of bad luck tied into it. Sometimes, baseball is funny. When you’re having defensive lapses, the baseball Gods decide to make those mistakes double and triple. Back in 2015, Flowers had 15 passed balls. The next year, it was seven. Last year, he had eight. This year, 16. These dumb things happen.
Overall, Flowers is a decent catcher. I think it’s acceptable to take a bit off for his calling of games and his footwork and arm aren’t all that great, but he’s sound defensively when he needs to come out from behind the plate and has the great framing to fall back on. Offensively, he’s better now than he was before he came to Atlanta, though not as good as he was those first couple of seasons.
And that’s why both narratives are kind of dumb. The counter-narrative is trying to suggest that the haters are all wrong and he’s this better-than-average catcher. They might even do like I did and point out his fWAR. It looks great! Hey, I used it after all. But his real value comes from the defensive component score. Only Austin Hedges and Grandal have a better one over the last two years and why? Because both are amazing framers. What happens to a catcher’s fWAR if his defense isn’t that great? Well, Mitch Garver is having an insane season for a catcher – .274/.366/.634 with 31 homers. Granted, the lack of a full-time gig hurts him, but he should be having a 5-6 fWAR season rather than just south of 4 fWAR. He’s not being appreciated enough in fWAR because his framing, while improved over 2018, is simply not good.
Of course, defense matters and I don’t want to pretend like it doesn’t – especially behind the plate. However, much more goes into being a good defensive catcher than just framing and overvaluing the stat calls into question just how useful your defensive numbers really are. In that sense, Fangraphs’ numbers don’t match reality. But neither do the observations done by his critics that Flowers is one of the worst catchers in baseball. Many foolishly called for him to be released earlier this year. Yeah, passed balls suck. But those extra strikes from framing are important – especially for guys like Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran. Both veterans have notably better numbers with Flowers behind the plate compared to McCann – especially Keuchel. Meanwhile, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried have better stats with McCann behind the plate. It doesn’t seem to matter who catches Mike Soroka because he is a damn rock star and you should know that.
I’m not sure it really matters who catches who, but you can make a bit of a minor observation here that, with control pitchers like Keuchel or pitchers that are nibbling around the strike zone like Teheran, having a guy like Flowers could become important. They are veteran talents that have a good idea of what they want to do. Meanwhile, McCann could be a better fit with younger pitchers who lack the control of their veteran counterparts and need to be directed through a pitching performance a little more. It cannot be stated enough that this is just a theory based on some limited data, but their calling cards (framing for Flowers, game-calling for McCann) would seem to have more importance with some pitchers than others.
But let’s circle back to the core takeaway here: Flowers has value – value his critics ignore. He is a useful and productive player who deserves more respect than he is given. Again, the “omg, his haterz are dumb” narrative misses just as well. His limitations are obvious.
Flawed players like Flowers have the worst time in my view on social media. Unless they get memes about whatever college they came from propping them up as a cult hero, their flaws are often pushed too heavily while their skills aren’t hyped enough. When you accept him for what he is, Flowers is a nice guy to have. If you try to highlight only what he has going for him, you come off as a ridiculous homer. But if you focus only on the flaws, you come off as blindly critical.
To sum up, is Flowers really one of the best catchers in baseball?
Is he a terrible player?
Is he a reason the Braves are making a run at 100 wins this year?