Tyler Flowers squares up his grand slam on Sunday.
"Can't-do" doesn't apply to Flowers personally, mind you. He has exceeded just about everybody's expectations thus far, as he's hitting .273/.375/.473, with six of his 15 hits going for extra bases. Every time he appears set to crash -- such as a pair of silver sombreros against the Angels -- he bounces back.
Flowers even earned the A.J. Pierzynski Badge by catching a day game after a night game this weekend. He was on the receiving end of two great starts, and he hit the White Sox's first grand slam of the season in the series finale.
I bring up Flowers because he's doing the kinds of things that made Pierzynski irreplaceable in the minds and hearts of the people in and around the Sox. Hawk Harrelson is the chief cheerleader for Pierzynski's smarts, and many consider him the hardest White Sox player to replace. Kenny Williams has said he was uncomfortable with giving the team a rookie catcher; they re-signed Ramon Castro because they didn't want a rookie to be Plan B in the event of a Pierzynski injury.
Mark Buehrle, in particular, was adamant that a rookie catcher could hamper a veteran pitching staff. From the Sun-Times on Feb. 22, 2010:
''We can tell them, 'Hey, [Pierzynski] makes our team better, we want him back,''' Buehrle said. ''Tell them that if we go with Flowers, he's a young guy who has to learn a whole new pitching staff. In the long run, though, it's a business, and they're not going to listen to us all the time. I think everyone here would like to have him back. I know I would.''
Well, in Flowers' 15 starts this season, the White Sox are 9-6. He owns a 3.38 catcher's ERA, compared to Pierzynski's 3.74. Among the notches in his chest protector:
- John Danks' best start of the year (Aug. 27).
- Jake Peavy's best start since April (Aug. 7).
- Back-to-back high-quality outings by Gavin Floyd (Aug. 21 and Aug. 28)
Don't take the particulars too seriously. For one, catcher's ERA is a sketchy-at-best stat, and Flowers has to play a solid month before his sample can be deemed even slightly comparable.
And most of all, I don't care to make this a Pierzynski vs. Flowers battle, because I'd still go with Pierzynski if I needed one catcher for the rest of the season. Flowers' problems with contact can sink him in a hurry, and the Sox need left-handedness with Adam Dunn on bedrest.
But it's important to note what Flowers is doing for posterity. Pierzynski's had the position in a headlock since he came to Chicago; in fact, he's the team's only catcher for an entire generation of Sox fans. Before his injury, you had to go back to 2006 to find a time when Pierzynski missed two consecutive regularly scheduled games. No matter how bad he's been -- and he's been outright terrible at times with his swing-at-everything approach -- Guillen feels compelled to write his name in the lineup card because of Pierzynski's veteran presence.
Granted, some of it's been due to the lack of a credible backup, but that doesn't explain all of it. Even when Ramon Castro became Ramon Blastro while Pierzynski 4-3'd himself into the ground last year, Castro couldn't club his way into starting two games in a row. Not even once. Guillen can't bench Pierzynski for even a short spell. Intangibles were cited as the official reason; Guillen's reluctance to upset a veteran or consider changing a "role" is more likely.
Pierzynski's injury allowed Flowers to establish a precedent. We've been told the Sox can't do without A.J., but we can point to this three-game sweep and say the pitching staff will not disband if somebody besides Pierzynski catches consecutive games. Pierzynski probably can game-call circles around Flowers, but Flowers found a way to catch two dandy starts, and he guided Jake Peavy to victory when he didn't have all his pitches. The Sox have options, even though they seem averse to them.
This will be more of an issue next season, when Flowers is the presumptive backup to Pierzynski for a full slate. Pierzynski didn't handle his contract year well in 2010, and he pinned his miserable start on his uncertain future. Should similar pressures sink Pierzynski for a month or two in 2012, there's finally ironclad proof that the Sox can survive without him for a few days.