White Sox spring training battlefields: Catcher

Rob Tringali

Tyler Flowers gets a second chance to hold down a starting job after Josh Phegley let him off the hook

It's hard to call anybody in the catcher position a "favorite" because of the supposed fondness implied, but Robin Ventura says Tyler Flowers enters spring play as King of the Hill, and he'll give others an opportunity to take a run at him.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura wouldn't go as far as to state the starting catcher's job is Tyler Flowers' to lose before Cactus League action even begins. But it clearly looks as if last year's Opening Day starter behind the plate has a strong chance to repeat such an honor this year based upon Ventura's comments Saturday after the team's workout.

"More or less," Ventura said. "We know what we get with Tyler, and I like the way he calls games."

Flowers seems to understand that:

"Super! I guess that’s good,’’ Flowers said, not reading too much into it. "I still have to get ready either way no matter what position I’m in, no matter where I’m at.’’

(Daryl Van Schouwen's account was the only one to put an exclamation point on "Super!" Given that Flowers answered a question last year with "quacktastic," I'm guessing the sarcasm was correctly emphasized.)

Even if Flowers' shoulder really was the root cause of all his problems, he still played poorly enough to lose benefit of the doubt. He should have also lost his spot in line, but the White Sox awarded him (or were resigned to) the rare do-over. At least he does some things well, or well enough.

While his bat never came around, he did shore up his defense after struggling with pitch-blocking over the first two months, cutting down on his passed balls and errors by the time Phegley showed up. And even when he had problems getting his butt down for pitches in the dirt, pitchers still liked working with him.

That wasn't the case with Phegley. He was criticized for his game-calling in a way that Flowers never was -- and remember, people were primed to expect little from Flowers because A.J. Pierzynski supposedly handled pitchers beyond reproach.

Josh Phegley’s every move is being watched as he tries to prove he’s starting-catcher material.

The White Sox would like to see more hits. They’d like to see fewer passed balls. And some pitchers wouldn’t mind seeing him call a few more pitches that work to their strengths rather than stick exclusively to what the scouting report shows about hitters’ weaknesses.

Other than that, the demands aren’t too high.

The defensive gap between the two was perceptible, but Phegley had the fortune of a major offensive opening. All he had to do was approach average to make up the difference at the plate.

The shape of Phegley's season allows us to treat it like Olympic judging minus the bribes: Throw out the best stretch and worst stretch, and see what's left in the middle.

There's no fruit inside:

Games PA H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
First 10
37 10 3 0 3 10 0 8 .278 .270 .611 .881
Middle 45
146 30 3 0 1 12 3 23 .214 .229 .257 .486
Last 10 30 2 1 0 0 0 2 10 .071 .133 .107 .240
65 games
213 42 7 0 4 22 5 41 .206 .223 .299 .522

It's not fair to Phegley to write him off after a half a season, but 65 games is a healthy sample, especially since it wasn't the usual mixed bag. His problems mounted as the season wore on, and he crossed the finish line with an 0-for-23 skidmark. The game log starkly states the more he played, the worse he played. That doesn't mean he'll never hit again, but he doesn't have the safety net of a well-rounded defensive game to make further hacking endurable.

At BrooksBaseball.com, the Pitch f/x landing pages for each player generates an automated report of their tendencies based on the plate discipline and contact data. Neither grades out well, but Flowers has more of an idea.

Against all fastballs

Flowers Phegley
Eye League average Exceptionally poor
Approach Aggressive Very aggressive
Whiff? High likelihood Below average likelihood

Against breaking pitches

Flowers Phegley
Eye Poor Exceptionally poor
Approach Aggressive Steady
Whiff? Exceptionally high likelihood High likelihood

    Against offspeed pitches

    Flowers Phegley
    Eye Very good Exceptionally poor
    Approach Very aggressive
    Very aggressive
    Whiff Above average likelihood
    Above average likelihood

    Somewhat counterintuitively, Phegley saw the most fastballs in September. They were just attacking him, and he was in over his head.

    Phegley says he pressed and allowed his problems to snowball on him:

    "I started off really well when they called me up, then I was struggling, pressing, trying to do too much."

    His lessons weren’t just limited to what was happening on the field. He learned a little about the team dynamic as well.

    "Kind of the attitude surrounding the club last year and how negative it was, everyone was out there trying to do way more than they were capable of instead of just playing the game," he said. "So what I got out of last year was, I’m a big leaguer, I can play up there and just trust myself."

    And that could be true. Unfortunately for him, when your struggles at the plate stand out even on a team like the 2013 White Sox, that does some damage to his credibility.

    He can come back from it, and maybe Todd Steverson has some magic words to calm him down. But concerning his immediate future, he'll be under a microscope during Cactus League play, and probably more intensely than Flowers, since Ventura is comfortable with at least one aspect of his game. The dog ate Phegley's meal ticket last year, and he's going to have to show the concept of pitch recognition in order to restore that credit. The numbers might not matter in spring training, but the coaches can probably see if he's throwing his entire person at sliders and changeups again.

    Other catchers

    Rule 5 draft pick Adrian Nieto hasn't played above High-A ball yet, so it's hard to see how a major league job makes any sense. The pressure to find a role for Nieto should be diminished since the Nationals acquired Jose Lobaton. If the Sox have to offer Nieto back, Washington has no real place for him.

    Hector Gimenez and Miguel Gonzalez both spent time on the 25-man roster last year. They come to Camelback Ranch off the 40-man roster, so that gives you an idea of their stock. Still, if Nieto isn't around (or isn't ready), they're technically one injury away from returning.

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