For the second straight season, the White Sox have made a strange decision at the non-tender deadline regarding a player set to make around $4 million. After deciding last December that Dayan Viciedo was worth employing at that price tag, they've concluded this year that Tyler Flowers is not. The Sox ultimately regretted the former decision. Hopefully cutting ties with Flowers won't come back to haunt them too, but given what Flowers meant to the pitching staff, it's fair to say the choice looks no better than "questionable." For now.
Flowers was never popular with a large contingent of White Sox fans due to his inability to make contact. Swinging and missing both looks futile and leaves no possibility for a productive out, which made Flowers especially frustrating to watch late in close games when the White Sox needed to move along a runner. He's a below-average pitch blocker and nothing special (albeit adequate) at gunning down basestealers. Put simply, there's nothing pretty about Flowers' game, and it's understandable to be sick of a guy who has been a constant source of aggravation as a starter across three consecutive losing seasons.
Still, looking deeper into Flowers' performance, there's a strong case to be made that he was more of a scapegoat than an actual problem. His .239/.295/.356 batting line from this past season looks weak, but the average batting line for catchers in 2015 was just .238/.302/.376. It's fair to say Flowers was a little below-average with the bat for a catcher, but suggesting he was hemorrhaging value with it is a stretch.
Even if one believes that Flowers' bat is futile, his value obviously lies on the defensive side. Flowers has a great reputation for working with White Sox pitchers, identifying opposing hitters' tendencies, and calling a good game. There's some evidence, albeit in a small sample, that his catching helped Carlos Rodon's development. Further, he caught every single start made by ace Chris Sale in 2015, which is no coincidence. I don't know what Sale thinks about the move, but it's hard to imagine that the Sox' best player is happy that his personal catcher has been shown the door.
Beyond the intangibles, Flowers has provided real, measurable value with his pitch-framing abilities. Using Baseball Prospectus' model for framing, Flowers saved over 16 runs by getting extra strikes for his pitchers. If you add that (roughly) 1.6 wins to his 0.4 WAR per FanGraphs (which doesn't include framing), Flowers was essentially worth about 2 wins in 2015, making him an average major league regular. Average major league regulars command close to $15 million per season on the open market, which makes a one year, circa-$4 million contract for Flowers an odd thing to reject.
There's obviously asterisks all over this. First, we don't have a great deal of evidence that major league teams trust framing statistics enough to pay for it like they do other forms of value. Second, there's more than one publicly available metric for framing, and there's been mention of the White Sox and other teams developing their own internal statistics to measure it. The two-win valuation for Flowers might be what we think is most reliable, but measurement of framing continues to evolve and it's possible that's generous. However, all publicly available data suggest he's worth notably more than $4 million per season.
This clearly raises a lot of questions, and I'm going to try to provide answers, though we can't do much more than speculate at this point.
Q: Why cut ties with Flowers, given what he's meant to the pitching staff?
A: This quote seems to explain what they're thinking:
Hahn on Flowers: "We saw opportunity to improve club from offensive standpoint. This move done as part of a plan."
— Daryl Van Schouwen (@CST_soxvan) December 3, 2015
It seems unlikely that the White Sox are going to find a catcher that fits their budget, provides a notable upgrade on offense, and doesn't give that value back (relative to Flowers) on defense unless they really swing for the fences in the trade market (Jonathan Lucroy?). Still, it could be that the Sox think that the large number of black holes on offense was so crippling that they want to fix the issue even if it damages them from a run-prevention standpoint.
Q: If Flowers was really a bargain compared to his projected salary, why not tender him and trade him? If it's a good contract, surely another team would take it in trade.
A: It's hard to think of an answer to this question that isn't problematic. This comment from Hahn from the Avila signing might help to explain it:
Hahn said catcher's market has moved a little more quickly than other markets. Avila was a White Sox target
— Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin) November 25, 2015
If the catching market is moving quickly, the Sox might have their replacement already lined up, and if Flowers is still around when that move happens, it'd create a situation where it'd be overwhelmingly obvious that Flowers would be the one to go. In addition to being awkward, that'd hurt the Sox' bargaining position in a potential Flowers trade. Furthermore, if the Sox have their sights set on a free agent, Flowers' exit might be a necessary prerequisite to convince the player to sign. All current free agent catchers should see the combination of Flowers and Avila as a threat to a roster space and/or playing time.
Q: Was this a cost-cutting move?
A: Ugh, I hope not.
The only way that this saves much money is if the Sox' second catcher earns close to the minimum salary. We've already seen them part ways with Alexei Ramirez by declining to pay him a not-unreasonable $9 million on top of his buyout, so there's precedence for budget consciousness. But if they were looking to save a small amount of money....
Q: Why not non-tender Avisail Garcia instead?
A: The Sox might have a great deal of confidence that Garcia can be moved in a deal. Otherwise, I don't have a good answer. Garcia's not going to have any value until he learns to pull the ball in the air, and even then, his ceiling is limited by his defensive futility. At this point, Trayce Thompson looks like a better option even if he doesn't ultimately wind up generating notable production with the bat. As Jim said Monday, Garcia looks like the new Viciedo.
For all we know, the next move could make it all clear, and eliminating our confusion surrounding this dismissal could just be a matter of playing the waiting game. The follow-up move seems to be on its way in the next few days, so we may not have to wait long. It's easy to see the Sox improving on offense by parting with Flowers, but we'll have to hope that such an upgrade is worth a probable reduction in the pitching staff's effectiveness.
Right after Tyler Flowers was non-tendered, scout: "He should tell them thank you. Bet he gets more than his arb raise in this market."
— Dan Hayes (@CSNHayes) December 3, 2015
"Scout" makes a good point. The biggest winner of this decision could very well be Flowers himself.