Braves 2016 Preview Series: Catchers

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. A new preview will be released each Monday, with accompanying podcasts featuring special guests coming out each week as well.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

 

The Atlanta Braves embark on the 2016 season with a veteran duo expected to handle the duties behind the plate. Just one year after hoping a highly touted prospect and a veteran back-up could get the job done, the team reassessed its strategy, doubled down on the elder statesman, imported another experienced catcher to share the load and shipped the younger backstop to the San Diego Padres.

Yes, by the time last season came to a close, the Braves had lost faith in Christian Bethancourt, but been rewarded for their one-year deal with A.J. Pierzynski. The reasons for the former were many, underscored by defensive ineptitude and a questionable work ethic. As for the latter, Pierzynski’s surprising season was one of the few highlights in a 67-95 campaign. This was not how Atlanta drew it up, but he turned out to be a more than capable stopgap. With the addition of former farmhand Tyler Flowers through free agency, the Braves believe they have a solid tandem to handle a rather unproven pitching staff in 2016.

A.J. Pierzynski | Age: 39 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3 million

When Pierzynski signed with the Braves last winter, it was expected he’d serve as a mentor for Bethancourt while netting perhaps 50-60 starts behind the plate. He ended up wrenching the starting job away before April was in the books and went on to hit .300/.339/.430 in 113 games. Just how good was last season for Pierzynski? He turned in his first .300 season since 2009, his .339 OBP was his highest since 2003 and his 114 OPS+ was the third highest of his 18-year career.

Pierzynski has proven his durability with 1,872 games caught – 11th on the all-time list. Still, Atlanta made a conscious decision to pair him with a catcher in Flowers who is capable of logging his share of innings behind the plate. Flowers also provides a level of glove work that Pierzynski has never been noted for. Defensively, Pierzynski is not winning games with his pitch framing or his arm. He gunned down just 23 percent (21-of-88) of would-be base stealers in 2015. That said, several of Atlanta’s young pitchers – most notably Shelby Miller – had high praise of Pierzynski’s game planning, execution and considerable knowledge of opposing hitters and situations. That’s not negligible.

While thrilled with the job he did last season, both GM John Coppolella and President of Baseball Operations John Hart have said that having Pierzynski make 105 starts again is not the ideal scenario. Used in tandem with Flowers, the lefty swinger should be able to provide some value both on the field and in the clubhouse, where he was lauded for his work with a young pitching staff last year. While Pierzynski is at the tail end of what could be called a colorful career, the sometimes polarizing catcher has drawn nothing but positive reviews from teammates, coaches and executives during his time in Atlanta.

Tyler Flowers | Age: 29 | Contract Status: 2-years, $5.3 million (3rd year team option)

The Braves brought back one of their own when they signed Flowers in December. Originally drafted by Atlanta out of Chipola Junior College in the 33rd round of the 2005 draft, Flowers is enjoying a homecoming on multiple fronts. He grew in up in nearby Roswell, where he attended Blessed Trinity Catholic High School. The Braves dealt Flowers to the White Sox as part of a 2008 trade that landed Javier Vazquez. There was a time when the emergence of Flowers may well have served as a catalyst for Chicago to cut ties with Pierzynski following the 2012 season. As fate would have it, the two men have been reunited in Atlanta some four years later.

Soon to be 30, Flowers was non-tendered by the White Sox and reached a two-year deal with Atlanta just after the Winter Meetings concluded. The righty hitting Flowers has shown some pop but little else at the plate over the course of his career, slugging 46 homers and putting up a .223/.289/.376 line with 464 strikeouts in 1,395 career plate appearances. He batted just .239/.295/.356 with nine homers and 39 RBI in 112 games in 2015. League average was .238/.302/.376 last season, so Flowers falls somewhere in the middle of pack offensively. He has averaged 11 home runs per season since 2013, but that comes with an average of 119 strikeouts per year. Given his career 33.3 K% and paltry 6.7 BB%, Flowers is very much a feast or famine hitter.

However, the Braves are eager to see what Flowers can do behind the plate, where he demonstrated improved pitch framing and served as Cy Young contender Chris Sale’s personal catcher. While the White Sox made the choice to part ways with Flowers, it doesn’t undermine the quality of the work he provided in several important areas from a defensive perspective.

Shortly after the season, Fangraph’s David Laurila posted some interesting insight on Flowers’ prowess. He noted that Flowers was ranked as the best pitch framer in the American League last season (per StatCorner). In addition to speaking to the catcher directly about his mindset in attacking hitters, Laurila got some background from Chicago GM Rick Hahn, who said Flowers possesses an invaluable skill set:

“I don’t know how many fans are tuned into the types of things he does well,” Hahn told me. “They’re not as easy to put on a scoreboard as batting average or home runs, which are what the eyes are more commonly drawn to. I think people are probably tired of me talking about his framing, and how he calls games, but that doesn’t make them any less important.”

Eno Sarris, also of FanGraphs is among those who believes Flowers adds value defensively, particularly with his pitch framing ability:

“Maybe Tyler Flowers should just go back to gripping it and ripping it. A four-year low in reach rate may have helped him to a career-best strikeout rate, but it also had something to do with a career-worst isolated slugging rate. He’s turning 30 next year, but he was sixth in Baseball Prospectus’ framing runs last year, and there’s still potential for a win in that bat. There’s a decent catcher pickup on the non-tender market about every other year, and Flowers looks the part.”

The Braves believe they’ve found a steady glove in Flowers, and are maintaining the same approach they’ve employed for years when it comes to catchers. That is to concentrate on handling the pitching staff and playing the positon, with any offense coming as an added bonus. By employing Flowers as one half of a platoon with Pierzynski, who does more of his work with the bat, Atlanta has put together a relatively dependable duo to enter the 2016 season.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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