Tyler Flowers: Anatomy of a Breakout

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Who was the second best catcher in baseball by bWARP in 2017?  If you’ve read the title of this post, you probably guessed that it’s Tyler Flowers.  Signed as a backup catcher in 2016, Flowers has become one of the Braves’ biggest assets, but will he remain a solid contributor to the team in 2018?   

Like many of the other catchers to achieve unexpected sabermetric prominence over the past few seasons, a primary factor in Flowers’ rise has been the framing prowess he displayed this season.  He ranked as the best framer in the game per StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus. That’s likely a large part of his 5.8 bWARP, which accounts for framing.

But even in fWAR, which doesn’t account for framing, he was worth 2.5 wins this season.  Beyond his tremendous framing ability, he’s also turned himself into a solidly above-average hitter over the last two seasons, posting a career-high 120 wRC+ in 2017.

Yet once upon a time--for most of his career--Flowers was a consistently below-average hitter.  Strikeout rates well over 30%, low walk rates, and a low contact rate were the norm.  He flashed a little power at points, but he never turned heads.  What’s behind his sudden offensive breakout?

The first puzzle piece falls into place when you look at his strikeout numbers.  As I mentioned, the early section of his career was marred by strikeout rates often well-above 30%.  He finally put up sub-thirty percent numbers for two consecutive seasons in 2015-16--around 28%.  And in 2017, his second season with Atlanta, his K% dropped dramatically to 22%, by far the lowest of his career.

And of course, a cut in K-rate corresponded to a climb in contact rate.  As you’d expect, his contact percentages pre-2015 were regularly in the mid 60s.  Since 2015, however, he’s managed to grow into a slightly-above-average contact hitter (as the rest of the league takes the opposite trend).  

Contact % - Tyler Flowers vs. League Average
Flowers League
2011 66.1 80.7
2012 67.1 79.6
2013 66.7 79.4
2014 66.9 79.3
2015 72.6 78.8
2016 74.7 78.2
2017 78.3 77.5
Stats courtesy of Fangraphs

But that’s not all.  He didn’t sacrifice what power he did have to become a slap hitter.  His quality of contact also saw a notable improvement.

As you can see, since the beginning of 2016 Flowers has consistently hit balls hard at a higher rate than he had at just about any point in the previous five seasons of his career.  That sounds like a recipe for success, but is it sustainable?  What is he doing differently?

Flowers, in an interview with The Ringer, credits his sudden success with developing a new approach and implementing a higher leg kick.  He points to a June matchup against the Mets as the turning point.  Before that point, he lifted his leg somewhat, as he does here:

And here he is, not long after adding the higher leg kick, taking Chris Sale deep:

Looking at his rolling wOBA for the past two seasons you’ll notice a trend following the addition of his higher leg kick, which is indicated by an arrow.

Now it’s easy to point to a substantial change in a player’s swing or approach or stance and peg that as the cause of sudden successes or struggles.  As the old adage goes: correlation doesn’t imply causation.  Notice also, though, that his 30-day rolling wOBA value has stayed above or around that threshold since. Indeed, his expected wOBA since then is 0.350, not far from his actual wOBA of 0.364, so there appears to be some legitimacy behind his breakout.  Sudden and substantial improvement like this should always be viewed with a degree of skepticism, but signs here point in the right direction.  It could be the juiced ball.  It could be luck.  Or it could be that the Braves really have something in Tyler Flowers.

Photo credit: AP Photo/John Amis

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