Question: Is it the glasses?
When White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers is scuffling at the plate, his struggles do not go unnoticed. For the vast majority of his career, he’s been a well below average major league hitter for the south siders. Because of his normally frustrating play, any Flowers hot streaks always bring about speculation as to whether he has really figured something out and is turning a corner … or if it’s just another hot streak due to end anytime.
The perfect example was the start to Flowers’ 2014 campaign. Fresh off of a dreadful 2013 season (you remember, when he hit .195/.247/.355, struck out in over 35% of the time, and had his year cut short by injury), he came out of the gates hot, exiting the month of April as a .354 hitter.
Problem was, he was blooping in hits here and there seemingly every game, which really stood out to even the casual observer. And if the eye test didn’t convince you that he was poised for a gigantic drop off, his astronomical .560 BAbip had to. Basically what that number means is that 56% of the balls Tyler was hitting into the field of play were going for base hits. For reference of just how high .560 is, we’ll point out that the game’s leader in that department thus far in 2014 is the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig at .379.
Unfortunately Flowers’ drop off over the next two months was far more dramatic than even his harshest of critics could’ve predicted. In May he hit .208/.288/.333 ahead of a disastrous June: .129/.187/.214. Analyze those months any way you want, but the .401 June OPS speaks for itself.
Heading into July, the month always filled with the most talk of roster shuffling, most were calling for Flowers’ exit. Really that exit could’ve been warranted at many times over the past couple years, but with the White Sox in a retooling year, it finally figured to be time to move on, even if only to give underwhelming options of the team’s farm system a shot.
The reason Flowers has continued to stick with the team is his excellent handling of the pitching staff and pitch framing behind the plate. Those two things Tyler brings to the table certainly are valuable, but for someone who’d hit and defended so poorly, they were only justifiable reasons to keep the 28 year old around for so much longer.
Enter a newborn baby and a new pair of glasses.
On Monday, July 21 Tyler’s wife, Nancy Flowers gave birth to their son minutes after a game Flowers caught. Maybe his mind has been in a better place when on the field since that night … of course that’s just speculation, though. However that did come just days after a much more tangible change – the new pair of glasses he’s been wearing on the field.
Since Flowers dumped the contact lenses and picked up the glasses on July 9, he’s hit .353/.397/.618 with three homers and seven doubles. The BAbip, at .447 over that stretch, is again very high, yes … but he has undoubtedly been hitting the ball much harder over the past few weeks. After all the .618 slugging percentage is much better than where it was in April (.415).
Because of the tear he’s been on, his season batting average is up to .248.
So, is it the glasses? Flowers has insisted it is not: “I’m going to listen to the doctors and wear (contacts or glasses), but I don’t think it’s relevant to success or failure.”
Instead, he has said that the hot streak has been a byproduct of continued work with hitting coach Todd Steverson and hours he put in studying tape over the All-Star break.
While that is the reason you need and expect to hear from the man himself, Flowers has been around too long for us to buy in to that without a second thought. His offense is something he, like every other professional hitter, works on continuously. So if it weren’t for the glasses, something tangible that we can point to that could make this hot streak meaningful, chances are we wouldn’t be discussing his recent hot streak and its implications in such great detail. Instead, we’d be dismissing it as just another short-lived hot streak. See April 2014.
At this point, we don’t know whether it is the glasses making the difference or not. We may know in a week or we may not know until the end of the season (technically we may never know, but at the very least we’ll be able to draw fair conclusions over the matter by then). What we can discuss with some certainty, however, is how important the next two months of baseball, and potentially the new Oakley glasses, are for Flowers’ future.
As we’ve mentioned, the club does not have any catching options in the minor leagues that are rushing Flowers out of town. But they do have a few guys that deserve a shot.
Josh Phegley, who burst onto the scene with a few great months in Triple-A last year, has again gotten comfortable with the Charlotte Knights. His 65-game 2013 major league stint that saw him hit .206/.233/.299 seems to be far in the past for the 26 year old Indiana Hoosier.
This year, Phegley is slashing .289/.348/.556 through 91 games with 20 home runs, 51 extra-base hits in total, and a much improved 14.57% K-Rate. He’s fully proven himself in the minors and has done all he can to get another shot in the big leagues.
There are also two less-prominent, yet still “ehh, maybe” names worth mentioning: Kevan Smith and Miguel Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is a 23 year old catcher who actually saw action in five games for the Sox last season. He’s been pretty bad at the plate for Charlotte this year, but is known for his defense. If the Sox were totally stacked offensively at all other positions, Gonzalez would be the guy. But his lifetime .251/.315/.339 leaves much to be desired. He could very well have a long big league future as a backup, so you’ll probably hear his name plenty more.
And then there’s Smith, who like Phegley isn’t known to be a shmuck behind the plate, but is definitely heralded most for his offense. The ex-PITT QB has always been old for the levels he’s played at, as the 26 year old didn’t get a shot in AA until the beginning of this year. He, like Josh, has done all he can with the opportunity, slashing .300/.387/.459 with 31 XBH and a low K-Rate.
So, as far as Tyler Flowers goes, one of two things can happen …
1) He reverts to his old self sooner rather than later and is rushed out of town at or before the end of the season (getting any of the guys mentioned above playing time in September could be wise).
2) He keeps up the good work we’ve seen of late, gives us reason to believe the glasses have made a difference, and pushes to get his job back heading into 2015.
If the most likely scenario plays out and he doesn’t do much to impress from here on out, the Sox could turn to any combination of Phegley, Smith, Gonzalez and current backup Adrian Nieto in 2015. There are no catchers hitting free agency this winter that will appeal to the south siders, so GM Rick Hahn can either select the 2015 catcher in-house or make a deal for a promising youngster. We know he’ll test the waters on the trade market, as rumors have leaked that he pursued Houston’s Jason Castro last offseason … and because, well, why not?
So, for Tyler Flowers’ sake, the final seven or-so weeks of the 2014 season coming up are huge. If he looks like he has for most of his career, chances are you won’t be seeing him in a White Sox uniform come 2015. At that point there would just be no reason not to give the aforementioned catchers patrolling the team’s farm system a shot.
But if he can keep up the good work of late and turn this current hot streak into a good second half of the season … well, those new Oakley’s may just convince the team he’s worth keeping over the Phegley’s of the world until a catcher of the future arrives.
Answer, in short: Flowers better hope it’s the glasses.
Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports