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Maybe Tyler Flowers' magic glasses are for real

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White Sox catcher's offense has spiked since sporting spectacles, so is there some magic in those glasses or are we just seeing things?

Brian Kersey

The first half of the season wasn't great for White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers.  After a bad 2013, he seemed to be struggling under an increased workload with Adrian Nieto with his backup.  While he was OK behind the plate -- the shoulder surgery did seem to help in that regard -- his offense clearly lagged behind, hitting a .218/.273/.304 line with a 60 wRC+. In full working order and with years of experience, the supposed offense-first catcher that was always supposed to be there never materialized.

During the All-Star break Tyler Flowers took advantage of the time off.  He dedicated some time to work in the cage and change his swing. He also started wearing glasses during the game. So, what has happened since?

A .299/.360/.591 line.

Homers.

Smiles.

Hugs?!?

All of this is nice, and Flowers has certainly improved over the past two months to the point that maybe getting a new catcher in the offseason isn't that important.

Problems remain, though. Even with Flowers' first half struggles, he benefited -- yes, benefited -- from a .338 BABIP.  In the second half, it's a stratospheric .408.  Obviously, BABIP-based improvements will eventually regress.

The problem with the magic glasses theory is that it's a classic case of confirmation bias.  "Tyler is hitting better, the glasses must be the cause" is a classic case of this.  The simple way to show confirmation bias is to look for some other place where there is no improvement.

With catchers, there are some stats that would help to show there's confirmation bias:  wild pitches, passed balls, and blocking.  If Flowers' hitting improves, but wild pitches and passed balls don't, it should be pretty easy to say the glasses aren't helping his hitting.

G WP PB
First half 78 38 7
Second half 37 8 1

Since the All-Star break, the wild pitch rate with Flowers catching has dropped from nearly one every two games to just over one every five games. Still, this isn't enough to show the magic glasses are saving the pitchers.  The White Sox rotation has been stable since June, and the crazy rotating door in the bullpen has mostly come to a halt in the second half.  The pitching staff now may just be better at hitting the glove. That I can't rule out. I also still can't rule out that the glasses have corrected a vision problem that improved Flowers' hand-eye coordination.

There is another way to look at this; it's not perfect, but it might do for the circumstantial case I'm working with anyway.  Pitchf/x data doesn't record wild pitches or passed balls, but it does record "balls in the dirt." Sure, some wild pitches are over the catcher to the screen and some passed balls nick the glove while going down the middle of the plate. Still, there is a high degree of correlation between balls in the dirt, wild pitches, and passed balls.  Also, we sort of have a control in Adrian Nieto.

First half
Total pitches Pitches in the dirt Percent WP PB (WP + PB) / Pitches in the dirt
Tyler Flowers 11485 315 2.74% 38 7 0.143
Adrian Nieto 3213 89 2.77% 14 4 0.202

Second half
Total pitches Pitches in the dirt Percent WP PB (WP + PB) / Pitches in the dirt
Tyler Flowers 5369 116 2.16% 8 1 0.078
Adrian Nieto 1564 31 2.17% 6 2 0.258

Again, we have a case for improvement for Flowers. Actually, he's cut the ratio of wild pitches and passed balls to balls in the dirt about 45 percent. What has this looked like historically for Flowers? The ratio for his career is 0.155 with a significant increase coming last season when he was battling back and shoulder injuries. From 2009 to 2012, Flowers was at 0.135 over 11149 pitches and 215 in the dirt. That's essentially within spitting distance of how Flowers did in the first half of the season.  Flowers had settled back to his healthy norms in the first half of the season, but has dropped significantly below them after the All-Star game, and the arrival of the magic glasses.

Nieto, on the other had, has seen a 25 percent increase in his ratio. He has been catching Scott Carroll and Hector Noesi primarily in the second half, so you would think this could be the cause in his increase and Flowers' decrease. Noesi has had two wild pitches in the second half, and one was on July 19 with Flowers catching (Flowers went 3-for-3 with two RBIs in that game). Noesi's other wild pitch was on July 24 ... and Flowers caught that game, too (he went 0-for-3 with a bases-loaded walk).

Carroll's lone wild pitch of the second half was when Nieto was catching on Aug. 3.

If it was only Flowers' offense that improved after the All-Star break, we'd have a good case for confirmation bias.  Flowers gets new glasses and starts hitting better. Steak. Dinner. Boom. There are still other possibilities like an undisclosed injury or really good luck among other things, but adding in the improved blocking skills and the similar hand-eye improvements required to the improvements at the plate, the circumstantial case for the magic glasses gets a bit stronger.