Over the last couple weeks, we've been raising -- and further elevating -- the idea that Alex Avila should catch Carlos Rodon for the foreseeable future.
The reasoning is fairly simple: Last year, Rodon's starts lined up with Geovany Soto's, and he struggled to find a groove. Then the White Sox paired him with Tyler Flowers, and he finished the season looking like a Cy Young contender.
So far this year, there's that same massive disparity between Rodon's starts favoring the better framer:
And while that's a small sample size in and of itself this year, we know enough about his stuff to understand why this would be the case. Avila is only an average framer, but Navarro grades out as the worst receiver in the American League when it comes to framing runs, so a similar disparity exists.
Let's get this out of the way: It's easy to sympathize with Navarro. I can imagine that Rodon is a difficult assignment, because he's not great at hitting the mitt, and he throws his breaking ball at multiple speeds, planes and overall nastiness levels.
The same thing that makes Rodon tough on catchers also makes him tough on hitters, though, so he needs a catcher who's up to the task. What's more, Navarro specifically makes Rodon's tougher in two ways.
No. 1: He struggles catching low strikes.
On Friday, Mark Simon at ESPN Stats and Info illustrated this case with a one-two punch of tweets.
Dioner Navarro has MLB-high 64 pitches called a ball on which strike probability(based on count/location) was 75%+ pic.twitter.com/hI23a8seVd— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) May 13, 2016
Pitchers most hurt by getting fewer called strikes than avg- 2016— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) May 13, 2016
Carlos Rodon (by a lot)
R.A. Dickey & Steven Wright
Rodon is losing more strikes than knuckleballers, and the strikes Navarro is missing were the kinds of strikes Flowers prioritized.
No. 2: He keeps calling low pitches.
The biggest difference in Rodon's pitch selection is a surge in sinkers, while every other pitch has dropped in its usage:
I'm guessing this is an inadvertent consequence more than Plan A -- Rodon falls into unfavorable counts, which means hitters are less inclined to swing at his slider, so he has to resort to throwing a fastball. However, it wouldn't be great to throw a straight fastball in a fastball count, so they try something with some sink.
Whichever factor comes first, the effect is that they're turning the boat into the storm, except this one never really clears up. It just comes back every five days. The missed strikes are probably both exacerbating the situation, and being exacerbated by the situation.
Now, the Sox haven't had much of a choice in the matter the last few weeks, as Avila required a trip to the disabled list for a strained hamstring. Navarro has also pitched in offensively after a slow start, hitting .308/.333/.558 in 57 plate appearances since Avila went on the shelf, which mitigates some of the pain.
I'd hoped that Avila could catch Rodon's last start against Texas, but I understood why it might not have been possible. He had just come back from the DL for a leg injury, and it might not be the wisest thing to play him in back-to-back games, especially with a lefty on the mound.
But now that Avila is back in the fold and the Sox have a little time (including an off day) to make arrangements, now should be the time to make the switch. It's possible that Rodon's problems extend beyond the catcher, but since we've seen this movie before, the Sox should try to simplest answer first.
With neither catcher tearing it up offensively, it's easy to wonder whether Flowers' skills would have made a successful pitching staff even better, since Rodon wasn't the only pitcher to see vastly different results (John Danks also benefited from his services). I get the sense that Rick Hahn wanted a different presence behind the plate regardless, and with the Sox humming along at 24-12, it appears the clubhouse won't reject the leadership transplant this year.
Then you look at the other incumbents, and Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are certainly no worse for the wear, so it's possible the Sox hardly miss Flowers when assessing the team as a whole. Still, they should still keep him in mind for this year's team, because if a switch to Avila is what cures Rodon, then they might not miss Flowers at all.