The Braves aren’t playing Tyler Flowers all that much, which is smart. The entire plan in Atlanta this season is to lose games, after all, and Flowers poses a threat to that mission. In 115 plate appearances thus far, Flowers has a .260 TAv, and he’s been his usual (very good) framing self behind the plate. He’s been worth 0.8 WARP already, despite his part-time role, but A.J. Pierzynski has saved the team from disaster with his .185 TAv and -0.8 WARP. The best news for the Braves, though, is that their two backstops make just $5 million combined this season. To take up two roster spots, keep the team replacement-level or worse, and leave so much money in the pockets of corporate owners is about as much as the team could ask from a catching tandem. Every nickel not spent on payroll is another nickel the team can spend on the effort to get their next new stadium built with other people’s money.
Let’s say that you weren’t the Braves, though. Let’s say you’re a team that wants to win games this season. If you were such a team, you probably wouldn’t want Pierzynski and Flowers for your catching duo. At the very least, you might seek to play Flowers more often, and Pierzynski less, so that you would get at least the half a win or so above replacement that $5 million usually buys in free agency. Really, though, it’s a pretty unappealing catching situation. It’s hard to imagine a contender who would envy it. There is one, though, and here’s the funny part: It's the only other team that has employed this exact pair in the past.
For $6.5 million, the White Sox are getting something much worse than zero production from Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila. The two have an aggregate .230 TAv, and although Avila bears at least some resemblance to a big-league catcher, both players are dreadful framers. We value their collective performance this season at -1.2 WARP. Even if you figure that Flowers wouldn’t be hitting quite as well in a full-time role, it’s pretty clear he’d be an upgrade over either current White Sox catcher at the plate—and he’s as good as they are bad behind it.
Wednesday night’s loss pulled the White Sox under .500 for the first time all season, and dropped them to 6-20 since mid-May. There are plenty of scapegoats, plenty of reasons for this derailment of what looked like a potentially exciting season. The back end of the rotation has been a part of the problem. The bullpen has been a part of the problem. Jimmy Rollins (.467 OPS in his last 15 games), Avisail Garcia (.504 OPS over the same span, in 19 games), and other key cogs in the offense have each been parts of the problem. Robin Ventura’s poor tactical management within games is part of the problem. At its root, though, the problem with the White Sox lives within the catching situation. The problem with the White Sox is a fundamental misunderstanding of what they do and don’t (did and didn’t, too) have going for them, and of how baseball games are and aren’t won.
That’s how they got here. It’s how they got off to the fast start that set them up for this disappointment, because it led them not only to hang onto a core that was insufficient to the task of standing tough against the top tier of AL contenders, but to add half-heartedly to it, as though their roster only needed a few tweaks. They swapped out Flowers for Avila and Navarro explicitly in the name of adding some offense at the plate. They bought low on Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie, and then they filled the rest of their obvious holes with what they found lying around at the end of the winter: Rollins, Austin Jackson, and Mat Latos.
That wasn’t enough. That was never going to be enough. Even if Jose Abreu were hitting the way everyone expected, and even if Carlos Rodon were having a better sophomore season, that wouldn’t be enough. If the White Sox wanted to build around their Chris Sale-Abreu-Adam Eaton-Jose Quintana core, they should have been far more aggressive about it. They needed to be more aggressive. If they had understood that, of course, they also would have known better than to switch out one good catcher for two bad, more expensive ones. If they had understood that, they would have been methodically deepening the ever-shallow roots of their farm system years ago, because it’s the same people in charge, really, who have been in charge there for 15 years or so.
I’ve railed against the excessive emphases on institutional memory, loyalty, and continuity that have so mired the Twins in mediocrity. I’ve even argued (and it’s a fairly extreme end to which to carry the argument, but I stand by the principle) that the Cubs might do better not to extend Theo Epstein beyond this season. In today’s MLB, there’s still value in having an experienced and established front office, but only insofar as that front office understands how quickly they need to evolve and adapt. There has to be a system, but there also have to be flexibility, opportunism, and aggressiveness in huge measures. Teams have to be dynamic, have to move quickly and decisively at all times. The White Sox have gotten too conservative, too slow to give up any asset of value in the name of collecting more or improving upon that asset. They don’t evaluate catchers well, but really, that’s just the most brightly colored thread in a tapestry of trouble.