As expected, it has been a miserable season for the rebuilding Atlanta Braves. The team has struggled mightily, especially on offense. The Braves have scored the second fewest runs in baseball. They own a 87 wRC+, third lowest in the MLB. In fact, they only have two hitters with a wRC+ of 100 or higher. The first is unsurprisingly Freddie Freeman, who sits at a sterling 153 wRC+. In second, there is a modest surprise: it’s Tyler Flowers, who sits at a 111 wRC+.
Rebuilding teams generally strut out their top prospects regularly, but they also play high upside guys they signed off of the scrap heap. Flowers fits the latter description. Although he was drafted in the 33rd round, he raked in his first three professional seasons:
His first full season in 2007 produced an awesome 133 wRC+ and led to Flowers first prospect ranking. Baseball America named him the Braves 12th best prospect after that year. He didn’t get another chance to be ranked in the Braves system after 2008 though, because he was traded right after the season ended. He headlined a package of prospects that went to the White Sox for Javier Vazquez and reliever Boone Logan. Vazquez went on to pitch 219.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA that season for the Braves, and Boone Logan would go on to become a pretty solid lefty specialist (although he wasn’t effective for the Braves).
The other prospects in the deal (Jonathan Gilmore, Brent Lillibridge, and Santos Rodriguez) were not as highly regarded as Flowers. Soon after the deal was completed, the post-2008 season prospect rankings were released by Baseball America. Flowers was ranked the fourth-best prospect in the White Sox system and the 99th best prospect in the majors. Lillibridge came in at 8th in the organization, Rodriguez came in at 18th, and Gilmore came in at 21st.
The other prospects would go on to become non-factors. Gilmore and Santos have never reached the majors. Lillibridge has a 60 wRC+ in 784 MLB PAs and a negative defensive value, netting him a career WAR of -1.7.
Meanwhile, Flowers steadily climbed up the organizational ladder. His first season with the White Sox was great in Double and Triple-A:
|2009||White Sox (AA)||77||317||13||3||18.00%||24.00%||0.246||0.383||0.302||0.445||0.548||0.444||177|
|2009||White Sox (AAA)||31||119||2||0||8.40%||26.90%||0.152||0.394||0.286||0.364||0.438||0.363||126|
That year, he even earned a September call-up. After the season, BA ranked him as the White Sox number 2 prospect and 60th overall, and FanGraphs ranked him as the White Sox’s best. Unfortunately, in his next season, Flowers only managed a 108 wRC+ in Triple-A in 412 PAs. His strikeout rate escalated to 29.4%. Still only 25, he improved in his next season, garnering a 148 wRC+ in 270 Triple-A PAs (although his strikeout rate was a staggering 31.1%). This warranted Flowers first extended look in the majors. He was given over 100 PAs in each of the next 5 seasons, but he could never quite reach his potential. He showed power at times, with a .199 ISO in 282 PAs in his first two years, boosted by 12 homers. However, with a walk rate below 6% in the next three seasons, coupled with a k-rate of over 30% in two of those three seasons, Flowers could never get on base at a solid clip. To make matters worse, his power bottomed out. His ISO shrank to .118 last year in 361 PAs. Here are his offensive numbers on the White Sox overall:
So, despite tallying 27.3 defensive runs above average (according to FanGraphs) in his first five seasons, the White Sox non-tendered Flowers after 2015 because of his poor offensive output. The Braves (again!) scooped him up for a mere 5.3 million guaranteed over two years. That gamble seems to have payed off, because Flowers is having his best offensive season in the majors this year. In 322 PAs, his walk rate is back up to 9%, above league average and his second-best in a season. His strikeout rate is down to its lowest ever, at 28%. His ISO, though still below league average, is up 33 points. His BABIP has skyrocketed, at .364, the highest of his career. All of this has led to a .270/.357/.421 triple slash, with a .339 wOBA and a 110 wRC+. What’s going on? Has Flowers made any changes? Is he finally going to reach his potential? Let’s find out.
First, let’s take a look at Flowers plate discipline. His O-Swing%, at 27.2%, is his lowest since 2011. That puts him in a tie for 79th lowest out of the 266 hitters with at least 300 PAs this year. His below average O-Swing% has paired nicely with an above average Z-Swing% (67.9%). He has the 63rd (out of the 266 hitters) best differential in those two categories. Basically, Flowers has been laying off of balls and swinging at strikes.
Possibly because he’s swinging at better pitches, Flowers has been making much more contact. His swinging strike rate (percentage of swings and misses against all pitches he has seen) has dropped to 11.6%, easily the lowest of his career. His contact rate (percentage of contact against all swings) has risen to 74.6%, a career best as well. While these two marks are still below average, they represent a significant improvement for Flowers.
Better selection seems to have led to better contact quality for Flowers. This year, he’s posted easily the lowest Soft (13%) and highest Hard (44.3%) contact percentages of his career. Using the sample of 266 hitters from earlier, Flowers is tied for the 17th lowest Soft%, and he has the fourth highest (!) Hard% (just above teammate Freddie Freeman!). Statcast agrees wholeheartedly that Flowers has improved his contact quality. He has the fifth-highest (!) average exit velocity amongst the 272 hitters with at least 170 batted ball events this season. He’s added 3.2 MPH to his average exit velocity since last year. Statcast also says that Flowers is tied for the 5th-highest (!) estimated swing speed out of the 294 hitters with at least 150 batted ball events this year. In addition, he’s also dropped his popup rate (IFFB%) by more than 50% from last year. Lastly, his Pull% his dropped a ton this year. He’s tied for the 38th lowest Pull% amongst the sample of 266 hitters from earlier. Since he doesn’t pull many grounders, it’s harder to shift on him. Therefore, he’ll get more base hits on grounders. These improvements make it look like Flowers can maintain a high BABIP.
While these are all good developments, part of his improving plate discipline may just be because Flowers has seen his lowest percentage of pitches in the zone since 2011 (45.8%), so it’s been easier for him to take more walks. In addition, many of these improvements are so much better than anything Flowers has ever done in the majors, so I’m guessing some regression is in order, especially in these areas:
Another knock on Flowers: generally, exit velocity leads to more power, but most of the good numbers for Flowers there have come from his exit velocity on grounders, which won’t lead to more power. He has the third highest average exit velo on grounders, but only the 26th highest on fly-balls plus line-drives. However, 26th out of 272 is still good.
Despite the high average exit velocity, Flowers has the 19th highest out of 272 in terms of barrel-hits/batted ball events (which is still good, but not quite as good as the other exit-velo leaders). This is another reason why Flowers may have a lower than expected power output.
Overall, there are definitely some encouraging signs from Flowers this year. He’s been more disciplined and he’s making more and better contact. His power should improve if he keeps hitting the ball hard and swinging at good pitches. In addition, although he has a negative defensive runs added this year for the first time, his framing has improved tremendously in the last couple of years. He’s saved over 13 runs this year (fourth best in the majors) after saving over 22 last year (second best).
Flowers success in the minors supports his success this year somewhat, but then again, this is his first above average offensive season in the majors (in six tries), and he’s not getting any younger (he’s 30). Furthermore, since BABIP is volatile, even for hitters with great contact quality like Flowers, it will be hard for him to be consistently good, unless his power improves (which it probably should) and he maintains his strides in plate discipline. He’ll probably be given enough at bats for us to find out, given the Braves level of terribleness and his defensive prowess.
Data is from FanGraphs, Baseball America, StatCorner, and Baseball Savant.
Picture from: Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images North America) – via outsidepitchmlb.com
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