The Chicago White Sox’s season has been...interesting, to say the least. They exploded out of the gates, going 23-10 in the first five weeks of the year, then posted a 15-29 mark since. While the South Siders’ hot start was probably more a product of good luck than a measure of their true talent, one would have still assumed that José Abreu and Todd Frazier would form a solid offensive core, while the the likes of Chris Sale, José Quintana and Carlos Rodon would blossom into the three-headed monster everyone expected them to become. The team wasn’t likely to contend for the AL Central crown, but at the very least, they’d play some entertaining baseball.
Things haven’t gone according to plan. The rotation has been legitimately great, and Adam Eaton has the potential of making the All-Star team. The rest of the offense has been frigid, and the gloves have been mediocre at best, quite poor at worst. Once the team stopped winning one-run games at the beginning of the year, those flaws were exposed. The White Sox must now have a lights-out second half, paired with a collapse from the rest of the AL Central, in order to get back in the playoff hunt. The White Sox refuse to rebuild and don’t have the squad to legitimately challenge for the division. GM Rick Hahn hasn’t decided whether to stick or twist, and nothing has exemplified this more than the crisis of their catching situation.
Hahn didn’t see Tyler Flowers as a worthwhile piece of the White Sox’s future plans once 2015 came to a close. Flowers’s weak bat and bad traditional defensive skills (blocking pitches in the dirt, throwing runners out at second base) got him non-tendered last offseason, apparently part of a bigger plan by Hahn to upgrade the position. That plan was quickly revealed when Hahn snapped up both Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro on cheap, one-year deals. Neither Flowers, Avila nor Navarro are going to get confused with Mike Piazza or Buster Posey, but Hahn clearly valued increased offense and intangibles over pitch framing to get the Sox through 2016. It didn’t cost Hahn much, but has the experiment succeeded?
If we go by hitting performance and pitch framing measurements, we’d have to say that the White Sox got screwed in the deals they made. Indeed, Matthew Trueblood waxed frustratingly about this a few weeks ago, blasting the situation as an indictment of Hahn’s stewardship of the club. But there are other factors at play, including the contracts themselves as well as more ethereal skills, like game calling, that complicate the picture. We’re going to investigate both the pros and the cons of Hahn’s catcher moves, to see if we can shed any light on the increasingly confusing landscape behind the plate at U.S. Cellular Field.
Tyler Flowers certainly fits the profile of a journeyman catcher. The 30-year-old backstop is the quintessential glove-first, bottom-of-the-order guy. Flowers was kicking around the majors for five years before earning the starting job in Chicago. Only thanks to the emergence of pitch framing as a catcher’s most important defensive skill can we measure the value that Flowers has really provided to his team. Flowers snatched 1.8% more strikes than the average catcher with more than 3,000 framing attempts last season, per Baseball Prospectus’s CSAA metric. That made him the seventh-best defensive catcher in the majors last year, even though he only played 112 games. In spite of a .239 True Average, Flowers’s framing alone made him a 2-win player by WARP.
Flowers has maintained his excellent framing skills for the Braves in 2016, getting 2.1% more strikes than average. That’s a top-five mark in baseball, which should come as no surprise. What is surprising is that Flowers is actually producing with the bat, running a 98 wRC+ and a .272 TAv. Both marks are still only about league-average, but both are career bests. Flowers has doubled his walk rate, is getting the ball in the air more, and has seen his average exit velocity jump from 91 mph last year to 94.7 mph so far this season, while carrying a ridiculous hard contact rate of 43.5%. He’s swinging less while making roughly the same amount of contact, too. Translation: He’s walking, being more selective, and is squaring up the ball in ways he never has before.
Flowers’s pace-setting offense may not last, but he is providing legitimate value at the plate. Match that with his elite framing skills, and Flowers is a top-10 catcher in all of baseball, with only 167 plate appearances to his name. The Braves are only paying Flowers $2 million this year, and if he maintains this level of production, he might work out as one of the biggest steals of the past offseason. (It also makes the Braves’ 1-year, $3 million re-signing of A.J. Pierzynski seem pretty stupid. Let’s not give John Coppolella too much credit here.)
Meanwhile, back on the south side, Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro look like legitimate disasters. Avila is currently on a four-week hot streak, but in the first two months of the season, he carried a 60 wRC+. Navarro hasn’t fared any better. He’s hit for a 66 wRC+ throughout the first half of the year. Baseball Prospectus’s WARP is the only wins above replacement model that includes pitch framing in their evaluation of catchers, and by that measure, Navarro has not only been the worst catcher in baseball, he’s been the third-worst regular player in baseball, period. Avila is only a few spots ahead of Navarro on the leaderboard. Avila and Navarro have combined for -1.54 WARP to date in 2016. That speaks volumes.
So much of that negative value stems from pitch framing. Both Avila and Navarro grade out as among the worst framers in the majors. Avila used to be a strong strike stealer in his younger days, but then he suffered three concussions in just over a year, and he's continued to struggle with knee and back problems. He has much less lower half balance and strength, and as a result, he hasn’t been able to get calls on the edge of the zone. Navarro has never been able to expand the zone with his glove, and this year, he’s getting 2.6% fewer called strikes than the average catcher — the worst in the big leagues.
The effects of Avila and Navarro’s framing have been demonstrable and historic. Jeff Sullivan showed last week that the White Sox pitching staff’s strike zone, from 2015 to 2016, has shrunk more than any other team’s from one season to the next in the Pitchf/x era. Chris Sale discussed at length in the offseason that he wanted to pitch to contact more than he had in the past; given the catchers he’s throwing to, can you blame him?
The way that Hahn and White Sox manager Robin Ventura have used Avila and Navarro also beggars belief. It appeared that Hahn had hoped Ventura would platoon the two catchers, given Avila’s extreme splits and Navarro’s switch-hitting capabilities. Since Avila came back from his hamstring injury in early May, however, they’ve shared time more or less evenly behind the plate. While Avila exclusively hits against right-handed pitching, Navarro has still inexplicably earned plenty of plate appearances against righties in the last several weeks. If Avila can maintain league-average production with the lumber for the rest of the year, there’s absolutely no reason for Navarro to be playing as regularly as he has been. Why he’s been allowed to do so up to now is beyond me.
So is that all she wrote? Ever since these deals all went down last autumn, I was prepared to dismiss Hahn as misguided at best in the way he was handling his catcher situation. And yet, the White Sox aren’t really overpaying for the position this year. Both Avila and Navarro are on one-year deals, and they cost $6.5 million combined. Given the going rate for a win, they would only need to produce about a win of combined value in order for their contracts to be worth it. There was no reason in the offseason to automatically assume that Avila and Navarro couldn’t do that. PECOTA projected them to be worth about a combined win-and-a-half. One could argue that they would have actually been worth more than their contract value, had they hit that mark or exceeded it. By contrast, PECOTA believed that Flowers, even with his pitch framing, was most likely a hair above replacement level. Hahn could hardly be blamed if he thought that it was time to move on from Flowers. Flowers is on pace to exceed even the 90th-percentile projections PECOTA assigned him. That is the textbook definition of an under-the-radar breakout year, and those are generally difficult to sniff out before they happen.
It’s not as if there were too many terrific free-agent catchers on the market last year, either. The White Sox have no major league-ready backstops in their farm system. They also didn’t have enough prospects to try and trade for somebody like Jonathan Lucroy, who, despite an injury-plagued 2015, would have still cost a lot. Hahn wanted to get rid of Flowers, and given the White Sox’s available resources and what the front office knew at the time, Hahn probably did the best he could.
It’s possible Hahn did even better than that. There’s another wrinkle to this whole discussion that often goes unnoticed in analytics circles: Game calling. Almost everyone seems to agree that the management of a pitching staff is a crucially important part of a catcher’s skill set, but given its seemingly intangible essence, nobody has been able to measure it properly. Harry Pavlidis, Baseball Prospectus’s Director of Technology, published an article in ESPN last year addressing the issue. He directed the development of a metric he dubbed Game Calling Above Average (GCAA). Using the linear mixed model framework they had used in their new catcher defense metrics, as well as cFIP and Deserved Run Average for pitchers, Pavlidis and his team looked at the potential elements of game calling that a catcher might affect, adjusted for appropriate contextual factors. Those elements included "everything from stolen-base prevention and directing pace of play to identifying hitter tendencies like swing behavior in various game situations and knowing which batters expand hit zones in RBI opportunities." GCAA could potentially go some distance toward explaining why light-hitting, poor-framing catchers like A.J. Ellis and Salvador Pérez still have steady major league jobs, and why a guy like Yadier Molina is even more valuable than we’ve already assumed.
Lo and behold, Alex Avila was rated as one of the best game callers in baseball with the Tigers from 2012 to 2014, saving 31 runs more than the average catcher in that timeframe. That would certainly back up Avila’s reputation as a catcher with a good head on his shoulders. Navarro seems to be viewed the same way. Avila’s game calling, if it was as valuable as Pavlidis’s model suggested, would go some distance toward justifying Hahn’s decision to sign him. Hell, it might even make Avila’s contract an underpay. Maybe Hahn wasn’t so crazy after all.
Before we rush to exalt Rick Hahn as having discovered a new market inefficiency, though, we have to take these results with a large amount of salt. I had assumed that since game calling was largely a mental skill rather than a physical one, it probably peaked later than other catcher skills and didn’t degrade. It might possibly even continue increasing in value as a player ages and gains more knowledge. As Pavlidis told me in an e-mail, that wasn't actually the case in the seasons he studied. In fact, GCAA is pretty unstable and lacking in much predictive value.
"It's very strange," Pavlidis wrote. "The issue is the indirect means of measurement, which is why the real big next step is figuring out what observable behavior (pacing, sequencing) correlates to the value that isn't otherwise accounted for in the model." GCAA may reveal some information about a player’s game calling, but in its current form, it’s still too unstable to really tell us anything definitive about game calling as a skill. We’re still a ways off from knowing just exactly how game calling contributes to a catcher’s value and to his team’s results.
Furthermore, Pavlidis’s published results were very limited. We don’t know what kind of game-calling value Flowers has offered in the past few seasons. Given that so many within the White Sox organization appeared eager to cut their ties with him, we might have concluded that Flowers didn’t handle a pitching staff well. We can't say anything conclusive, however. Game calling remains a fog that may be parting soon, yet still prevents us from seeing the light.
That leaves us with what we can measure, and the White Sox come out looking foolish. They let an elite pitch framer, who went on to have a breakout offensive year, walk away. Tyler Flowers may still only be a league-average hitter, but he doesn’t need to rake, since he’s getting Julio Teheran and Co. all kinds of extra strikes. Meanwhile, not even Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro’s super-cheap contracts can justify their performances on both sides of the plate so far. It’s awfully difficult to imagine that Avila will continue to hit the way that he has in June, and if Robin Ventura continues to platoon him with Navarro, the White Sox will continue to get negative value from the catcher position. Rick Hahn may have been justified in cutting ties with Flowers and snapping up Avila and Navarro last fall, but it’s hard to see how that decision has been anything but a failure.
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Evan Davis is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. His work has appeared in Amazin' Avenue and BP Bronx.Follow him on Twitter at @ProfessorDobles.