Revisiting the Infamous Catcher Decision

In their efforts to piece things together and stay competitive in the 2016 season, the White Sox made a big change at the catcher position. Tyler Flowers had been the starting catcher since the departure of A.J. Pierzynski, but the team opted to replace him with a platoon of veteran catchers in Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila. All season long the White Sox were roasted and toasted for this decision. More than a year removed from the decision itself, lets look back and see what the process of making that decision was like. The reasoning is easier to see, but the results are still just as disappointing and disastrous.

First and foremost, the decision was made with increasing offensive production in mind. Flowers hit an abysmal .239/.295/.356 with a wRC+ of 79 in 2015. With patchwork being done elsewhere on offense, the White Sox simply didn’t believe they had any path to success with Flowers in the lineup on a daily basis. That’s certainly a fair assessment. However, Flowers went on to have the best offensive season of his career in Atlanta in 2016. Perhaps the automatic reaction is that Flowers went to a somewhat weaker National League, and the White Sox had no way of predicting that a breakout was coming.

That is not necessarily true. While Flowers wasn’t great during the 2015 season, he showed some shockingly good improvements in areas that sometimes go unnoticed. From 2014 to 2015 some serious improvements were made in his contact and swing rates. He lowered his swing percentage on pitches outside the zone from 34.1 to 29.5 percent while keeping his swing percentage on pitches inside the zone relatively the same. Laying off the garbage helped him raise his contact rate on pitches inside the zone by 7.9 percent. Even more noticeable was the drop in strikeout rate from 36 to 28.8 percent. That adjustment seemed to stick around in Atlanta where he held a 28 percent strikeout rate while raising his walk rate a bit to become an above average hitter, which is not often seen from catchers.

The success of Flowers only compounded the issues that the White Sox saw from their decision to change things at catcher. While they were looking to make an offensive improvement, neither Avila nor Navarro held up their ends of the deal. Navarro’s slash line was horrifying. He hit .207/.265/.322 with a 56 wRC+. He was disastrous at the plate, which was where he was supposed to excel. Avila faired slightly better, mostly due to his ability to take a walk. Avila had a walk rate of 18.2 percent, which helped him reach above average wRC+ (104). The offensive production was bad and disappointing. However, the White Sox can be mostly forgiven for that part of it. They expected success at the plate (although perhaps that’s a poor reflection of their scouting department), but they got failure. Where the White Sox were really burned for their decision was behind the plate.

Tyler Flowers was coming off his best defensive season, in which he had an FRAA of 11.0 and ranked third in framing runs with 15.2. The misconception appears to be that the White Sox weren’t even aware of this impressive framing ability, especially in the year before his release. Rick Hahn put those suggestions to bed with his comments during a conference call in March.

“I think there’s an unfortunate perception out there that we let Tyler Flowers go because we don’t believe in or perhaps are even not aware of framing data,” he said. “Hopefully people realize it was a little more of a sophisticated decision than that. We certainly have, I believe, owned the fact that it did not pan out with (Dioner) Navarro and (Alex) Avila the way we had hoped.”

Hahn makes two things clear with this statement. First, the White Sox do consider and value framing data. Second, he owns up to the fact that the decision to move from Flowers to Navarro and Avila was not a success. He went on to talk in a little more detail about framing and the things the White Sox consider when pursuing a catcher.

“We do very much value catcher defense,” he said. “We spend a great deal of time on framing and teaching framing at the minor league level … In fact, you will recall that Tyler made great advances as part of our organization in his framing metrics. When it does come to evaluating a catcher’s defensive ability, we don’t limit it strictly to framing. We would like to also have their ability to control the running game be evaluated, their ability with lateral movement to handle passed balls in the dirt, to a lesser extend wild pitches and the effect a catcher has on that, as well as their ability to work with a pitching staff and manage a pitcher’s compliance with their game plan as well.

“So it’s easy to look at the decision on Tyler and think it was us not understanding or appreciating framing data, however, nothing could be farther from the truth.”

First off, he’s right about the fact that Flowers learned his framing skill in the White Sox minor league system. When he was acquired, he was actually considered an above-average hitter with questions about whether he could stick behind the plate. (Sound familiar?) What is more interesting is that he goes on to describe the other aspects of defense that they do value. Specifically throwing runners out and blocking.

Using numbers from Baseball Prospectus, Flowers had -2.8 blocking runs and -0.6 throwing runs in 2015. Being in the red on any defensive metric isn’t a great sign, but certainly those small negatives are outweighed by the +15.2 runs he produced by framing. It becomes even more questionable when the unimpressive -0.8 blocking runs and -0.6 throwing runs from Navarro in 2016 come into play. His numbers before the addition were very similar, so there wasn’t a drastic change year to year after joining Chicago. Avila wasn’t much better in 2016 with 0.0 blocking runs and -0.6 throwing runs. It’s easy to deflect the displeasure over framing away by mentioning other aspects of defense. After all, framing just happens to be the in vogue stat. However, neither Avila nor Navarro was an upgrade defensively outside of framing.

Add on the poor framing from both Avila and Navarro and the decision becomes even more mind-boggling. It’s not often that an inability to frame is readily seen day to day via the eye test. Navarro made that possible. His -18.8 framing runs in 2016 only backed up what the eyes told us right away. It would’ve been hard to be worse than Navarro behind the plate. In fact, nobody was worse. Avila, however, did his best to catch up by producing a -6.5 framing runs.

The decision to move from Flowers to Avila and Navarro was a bad one. It was made even worse by an inability to identify improvements from Flowers on the offensive side of the ball. The biggest discrepancy, however, was on defense. While Avila and Navarro failed most excessively at framing, they weren’t good in any aspects of defending.

Does this matter anymore? Hahn has owned up to the lack of success they saw from the move. Hahn has expressed a desire to have catchers excel behind the plate. It really shouldn’t matter anymore. However, it continues to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Flowers wouldn’t have cost much at all for the White Sox to retain. They failed to see that he was on the verge of a good offensive performance in addition to his consistent ability behind the plate. While Flowers is long gone now, the impact of this catching decision will continue to reverberate.

Rehashing the details of the catchers added last year can be painful, but it perhaps gives us an insight into the mindset of the team going forward. Omar Narvaez appears to be the guy the White Sox are going with for now. At least until Zack Collins can work his way up in the next few years. Narvaez isn’t egregious behind the plate like Navarro and Avila were. However, he’s not going to help his pitchers out nearly as much as Flowers did. The White Sox must deal with the consequences that has for their pitching staff. They must also consider how that affects their decision making in regards to the catcher position going forward. It doesn’t appear as though Narvaez or Collins is going to be impressive on defense, so what are the White Sox going to do if they continue to fall behind the league in catcher defense? The answer to that question remains to be seen. It is, however, certainly a question that must be answered.

Lead Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports Images

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