Grant McAuley’s 2018 Braves Preview Series will take a look at each position group in advance of Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13 and their first workout is Feb. 14. Position players report on Feb. 18, with the first full-squad workout taking place on Feb. 19.
The Braves open Grapefruit League play on Feb. 23 against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie.
- Part 1: Catchers
- Part 2: Infield
- Part 3: Outfield
- Part 4: Rotation
- Part 5: Bullpen
- Part 6: Top 30 Prospects — TBD
If you’re looking for pleasant surprises on the 2018 Atlanta Braves, then the catching position would be the place to start. The Braves benefited from some unexpectedly potent production last season, and it was generated by a duo of 30-somethings who were each somewhat unheralded free-agent signings. In fact, the two returning Atlanta catchers combined for a 5.2 WAR, the highest at any position on the team according to FanGraphs. Sure, Freddie Freeman was out for a while, but that’s still saying something for this pair of veteran backstops. Let’s take a look.
Tyler Flowers | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 1-year, $4 million
Tyler Flowers was a former Braves farmhand who was dealt to the White Sox in 2008, but returned on a two-year deal prior to 2016. Since, he’s enjoyed two of the most productive years of his career. After posting a 1.1 fWAR in 2016, he followed up with a 2.5 fWAR in 2017. Flowers has slashed .276/.368/.433 in 695 plate appearances with Atlanta after producing a .223/.289/.376 line in 1,395 plate appearances across seven seasons in Chicago. He is playing this season on a team-friendly option and could make a strong case to return if he continues to produce.
A tireless worker, Flowers has spent years improving his defense, particularly his pitch-framing ability. He is widely regarded as one of the best in the business at garnering additional strike calls per game. StatCorner has poured through the F/X data and compiled those called strike numbers for comparison. Flowers’ name annually appears at or near the top of that list. According to that leaderboard, he was better than any catcher in the majors at grabbing extra strikes – 2.56 per game on average – proven across virtually every metric. While not infallible, those numbers are worth perusing (Catching Leaders). Also of note, Flowers’ throwing was much improved in 2017. He caught 23 percent of attempted base-stealers, which is just about league average and up from a paltry 5 percent in 2016.
At the plate, Flowers has enjoyed a renaissance since returning to Atlanta. The work ethic is also on display in the batting cage. His strikeout rate is down, walk rate is up and he is generating hard-hit contact and barreling baseballs with regularity. According to Statcast, Flowers’ 89.4 mph average exit velocity was second on the team to Freddie Freeman (89.6 mph) and good enough for 43rd best in MLB (minimum 200 AB). If recent trends continue, the Braves should be in good hands behind the plate in 2018.
Kurt Suzuki | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3.5 million
Kurt Suzuki had quite the season in 2017. The former All-Star enjoyed a career year in the power department and drew praise for his ability to work with a staff that included an increasing number of young arms as the year wore on. Suzuki’s solid all-around work earned him a one-year, $3.5 million extension that he was able to iron out in-season. All of this after signing just before spring training a year ago.
Suzuki, like many players across the game, saw an uptick in power last season. Despite being part of a platoon, he set a career-high with 19 home runs. Perhaps more impressive is that he did so in just 276 at-bats. That’s the fewest trips to the plate in a season for Suzuki since his rookie year. Those 19 homers were the seventh most among major league catchers, but his .536 slugging percentage was the best among all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.
With Suzuki in tandem with Flowers, the Braves catching duo provided a steady offensive force in the lineup. As mentioned in the open of this article, they combined to provide the single most productive position for the Braves in terms of wins above replacement. In fact, both catchers were also high on the list of individual leaders in that category. Only Freddie Freeman (4.5) and Ender Inciarte (3.0) were ahead of Suzuki (2.7) and Flowers (2.5) in FanGraphs’ version of WAR among the 2017 Braves. Those individual WAR totals also ranked among the top 10 for all major league catchers – Suzuki ranked sixth highest and Flowers checked in at No. 10.
They also held a rather painful distinction of being a magnet for baseballs. Suzuki was plunked 13 times, while Flowers was hit by pitch 20 times. For those scoring at home, those were career-high totals for both men. Combining those totals would have sent the Braves catching duo to the top of yet another leaderboard. Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs led the majors with 24 HBP. So, with 33 HBP, you could say that Atlanta catchers were the real major league leader. Okay, maybe not, but the point is they were hit by more than their fair share of pitches in 2017. That sidebar aside, random chance can’t be counted on annually when it comes to finding one’s way on base.
Down on the farm: Just three short years ago, the Braves were searching for help behind the plate throughout the organization. Atlanta’s rebuild was centered around pitching, but the dearth of catching started at the top and trickled all the way down to the low-level of the minors. That was something that had to change. Fast forward to 2018 and Atlanta has a handful of capable catching prospects in the pipeline.
The Braves traded for former Seattle top pick Alex Jackson and moved him back to his high school position. The returns have been encouraging thus far, with Jackson’s offense turning heads and his work behind the plate garnering generally positive reviews. He should reach Triple-A if that progress continues.
Atlanta signed international free agent William Contreras, a 20-year-old who was an All-Star in the Appalachian League at Danville last season and is the younger brother of Cubs standout Wilson Contreras. Catching must run in the family. The Braves have also drafted some catchers with early picks over the past couple of seasons, taking Lucas Herbert in 2015 and Brett Cumberland in 2016. All of those men have shown promise and give reason to believe that a long term solution could be on the rise in the organization. More on those men in the upcoming Top 30 Braves Prospects for 2018.