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Adventures in pitch framing: Tyler Flowers did what he could

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Chris Sale struggled against the Tigers, but it wasn't for a lack of extra strikes

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It's not easy being Tyler Flowers, this year or any other. Not just because he's hitting .200/.239/.300 through the first month of the season, and not just because he just got past the flu.

Flowers is still compared to A.J. Pierzynski after all this time, and while he made dramatic improvements behind the plate when nobody expected them, it's hard for fans to get past his prolonged slumps at the plate.

He's come to accept this:

"His skillset was maybe a little bit more, I don't know if it's the right word, but glamorous," said Flowers, in his second fully healthy year as a starter. "Very well known because it's on the back of baseball cards.

"Some of my strong suits aren't necessarily in statistical categories. Maybe things, outside of people working in the game, they may not really notice a lot of the things. That's part of the gig."

Those predisposed to disregard Flowers might see this as some weak cover-up, but it's basically true. Flowers is one of the best at getting his pitchers extra strikes, and it's the most tangible reason why pitchers appreciate throwing to him.

The problem is that it's a hard skill for fans to embrace, and it's not their fault. For one, you have to dig into Baseball Prospectus' sortable stats to find the advanced metrics. Those who get there would see that he's among the best catchers in baseball in terms of extra strikes and framing runs ... even though he's had by far the fewest chances to catch extra strikes. Entering Wednesday:

Chances Predicted Actual Extra Runs
1. Yasmani Grandal 1181 460.4 488 27.6 4.1
2. Francisco Cervelli 1117 437.9 464 26.1 3.9
3. Caleb Joseph 1272 479.0 501 22.0 3.3
4. Mike Zunino 1410 570.7 592 21.3 3.1
5. Tyler Flowers 831 315.9 337 21.1 3.1

Another sticking point -- the borderline pitches he receives can be easily overshadowed by mistakes he has little, if anything, to do with.

Wednesday night provided a great example. The White Sox pulled off a startling comeback against the Tigers, but thanks to an erratic-at-best start, Chris Sale couldn't take as much pleasure in it as his teammates.

Some people will look at Sale's line (5⅓, 7 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 5 BB, 6 K, 1 HR, 1 WP) and think that Flowers caught a mediocre game. But watching the reactions of Detroit hitters over the course of the evening, Flowers was doing all he could for Sale and the other White Sox pitchers -- and the charts say the Tigers earned their gripes.

The Tigers fielded an entirely right-handed starting lineup against Sale and friends, and take a look at this strike zone plot for home plate umpire Jim Reynolds:

Strike zone 05-06-15

If you're unfamiliar with BrooksBaseball's strike zone maps, the red squares represent received strikes by White Sox pitchers, and the green squares are balls. The Tigers' strikes are red triangles, and green triangles are balls. The black zone is the standard strike zone.

Counting up the strikes that touched the edge of the zone, Flowers caught 17 borderline-or-worse pitches for strikes, while only seeing four such pitches called for balls. It might have been one of Flowers' best performances, even though it might've occurred concurrently with one of Sale's most frustrating.

Let's take a tour around the strike zone. Or "strike zone."

Highest strike

With a runner on third and two outs in the fifth inning, Flowers caught this 2-1 fastball for a strike, even though it was higher than the traditional zone, and certainly higher than Yoenis Cespedes' comfort level:

Flowers Cespedes High Strike

That evened the count, and Sale struck out Cespedes to strand the runner.

(Flowers caught a higher strike than this, but with Jake Petricka pitching.)

Lowest strikes

Flowers snagged these two pitches in the second inning. Here's the 0-1 pitch to Nick Castellanos, which was at that point the lowest strike Reynolds called for either side.

Flowers Castellanos low strike GIF

Two SEASON TICKETS PLEASE-- I mean, two batters later, Flowers expanded the zone an inch lower on an 0-1 changeup to Jose Iglesias. Iglesias might be too green to turn to Reynolds, but his face said it all:

Flowers Iglesias strike

Outermost strikes

Nothing better explains the tenuousness of Flowers' perceived value behind the plate than these two pitches. Twice, Flowers put Sale in favorable counts against Victor Martinez, the hitter who torments the Condor the most.

Here's the 1-1 pitch to Martinez in the first inning, which Martinez did not appreciate:

Sale-Flowers outside

But Martinez ended up doing well enough by lifting a sac fly to right.

Two innings later, Flowers expanded the strike zone even more with by catching strike one, and Martinez was not any more pleased.

Flowers Martinez outside 2 GIF

Sale pushed Martinez further against the ropes with two more pitches out of the zone. Two outs, an 0-2 count -- that's exactly the situation you want to guide your pitcher toward as a catcher.

And then Sale went and this plate-splitting changeup on 0-2.

We can reasonably conclude that Flowers didn't call for it there, but that's the pain of hanging a hat on framing. Even during one of his best days catching, he'll still be most associated with a pitch that never got to him.