At the plate or behind it, Tyler Flowers hasn't been easy to watch this year. And yet his bosses are staying the course with their Opening Day catcher, and rather enthusiastically, too.
Robin Ventura has bypassed natural, plausible opportunities to bench Flowers. For instance, he caught the day game after a night game in Houston over the weekend, and he continues to start against lefties, even though his 2013 splits suggest the Sox wouldn't necessarily miss him in the lineup:
- vs. LHP: .167/.231/.271 over 48 AB
- vs. RHP: .244/.288/.423 over 123 AB
No, based on Ventura's quotes from Sunday, it appears he has no plans of taking the game away from him:
"Catching-wise, he's doing a great job calling a game. For me, the hitting has become better," said Ventura. "He's going to run into a guy where he does strike out. But the quality of at-bats has gotten better for me. And that's something we look at too. [...]
"Guys who go out there have to feel confident what he's calling. You see when guys don't gel, you can see how uncomfortable it gets and it becomes more of a grind. When they're in sync, and a pitcher can just throw, it becomes an easier game."
It's true that Flowers has picked it up at the plate in June. He's hitting 282/.275/.513 this month, with a reasonable 11 strikeouts over 40 plate appearances (although the lack of walks is troublesome).
But it's telling that Ventura stressed game management over Flowers' offense and defense. Also it's timely that Jose Quintana and Hector Gimenez teamed up on Monday to paint an example of what Ventura is trying to avoid.
Gimenez was behind the plate as the White Sox and Astros played a 4-2 game that wound up lasting 3½ hours somehow. Quintana got bogged down with massive inefficiency issues, falling one out short of qualifying for a win while throwing 104 pitches.
He also needed a lot of time to throw those 104 pitches. According to FanGraphs, Quintana needed 25 seconds between pitches. That's not normal, because in his start against Kansas City on June 11, he needed only 20.6 seconds -- with Tyler Flowers catching.
That Quintana took significantly longer to deliver pitches with Gimenez behind the plate can't be written off as a one-day anomaly. Gimenez has caught Quintana five times this year, and more helpfully, Quintana has thrown to each catcher twice this month. That provides a decent idea of Quintana's preferred pace in his recent form, and the difference between catchers is ... distinct:
- June 17: 25.0 seconds (Gimenez)
- June 11: 20.6 seconds (Flowers)
- June 6: 20.9 seconds (Flowers)
- June 1: 26.3 seconds (Gimenez)
On the season, Quintana averages 21.7 seconds per pitch with Flowers behind the plate, which is two seconds shorter than his pace with Gimenez (23.7). That's not the biggest divide of them all, either. Looking at the average paces for all starters who have worked with both catchers this season prior to Tuesday's game, this theme repeats itself:
|Pitcher||to Flowers||to Gimenez||Difference|
After separating by pitcher, I clumped them all together and sorted by pace. Out of the 55 games started by those pitchers entering Tuesday, Gimenez has caught seven of the 10 slowest-paced starts ... even though he's only caught 16 of those games. Flowers, on the other hand, has caught nine of the 10 swiftest.
This isn't unexpected for a couple reasons. You can't blame Gimenez for Flowers having stronger relationships with the pitching staff given the inequity of reps. However, Mark Parent foreshadowed Gimenez's propensity to slow games down during spring training:
"They are trying to make the pitchers better. That's what a catcher is supposed to do, day in and day out, try to get that pitcher through the game with a 'W' hopefully. And the best and quickest they can."
Parent believes that one of Gimenez's strongest suits, the in-game time he takes communicating with the pitcher to get him to relax, also is one of his downfalls. That extra conversation or two, which he used beneficially to slow down Sale on Friday and help him find a mound rhythm, also can slow down the game.
"When that's your only minus we see -- he's working on that."
The White Sox preach the virtues of working quickly to their pitchers throughout the organization, so it makes sense that they'd favor a catcher who doesn't get in the way.
Beyond the matters of pace, a recent article by Max Marchi at Baseball Prospectus suggests Gimenez could be lacking when it comes to framing pitches, identifying him as one of the five least-effective framers in the minors last season:
Of the five catchers at the bottom of the minor league framing leaderboard for 2012, four—Omir Santos, Jason Jaramillo, Hector Gimenez, and Anthony Recker—have already spent some time in the majors. [...] Again, the minor league numbers are backed up by the big league stats: according to the PITCHf/x method of quantifying framing, the quartet had cost their teams over 50 runs in over 16,000 career called pitches caught in the majors through the end of May.
It's not hard to believe that Gimenez would struggle in this aspect of the game. Pitch-framing requires subtle movements and a steady hand, and Gimenez is one of the more demonstrative catchers in baseball, for better and worse. We all remember this one:
There isn't a consensus on Flowers' overall pitch framing -- middle-of-the-pack is a safe assumption, with a note that he's pretty good at getting high strikes for his pitcher (and we know he likes calling them).
It's not just the recent statistical developments and possible ephemeral benefits of working quickly that favor Flowers. He also comes out ahead using the more traditional measuring sticks.
For instance, while Flowers isn't moving as well this year -- especially to his backhand side -- he isn't letting pitches get past him as frequently:
- Flowers: 0.47 passed pitches per 9 IP (7 PB, 17 WP, 456⅓ IP)
- Gimenez: 0.53 passed pitchers per 9 IP (4 PB, 5 WP, 152 IP)
There's also the matter of runner-gunning:
- Flowers: 13-for-45 (29 percent)
- Gimenez: 5-for-18 (28 percent)
And a couple stats that should be taken with a grand of salt, opponent batting lines and catcher's ERA:
- Flowers: .231/.298/.370; 3.69 cERA
- Gimenez: .266/.338/.412; 4.09 cERA
You can't draw any real sound conclusions from those numbers alone -- I merely mention them to show that there's no particular hidden skill of Gimenez's to be found in the pitchers' results. At the same time, you can't necessarily say Flowers is better from those stats, if only because their workload isn't divided evenly (or proportionally) among the starters.
That reminds me of one stat that may suggest above all else how highly the White Sox regard Flowers' game management:
Flowers has caught all 12 of Chris Sale's starts.
Sale was one of Flowers' most vocal supporters leading up to the season, and even though Flowers' defense hasn't been nearly as crisp behind the plate, Flowers is still the only guy who handles the team's best starter. It's possible that Sale has an informal personal-catcher arrangement with Flowers, but that doesn't seem to be his style. Maybe it's more likely that there's only one catcher the parents -- Mark included -- trust driving the Bentley.