Braves’ Tyler Flowers continues to silence skeptics

Tyler Flowers entered Saturday with the best batting average and on-base percentage among major league catchers, and an OPS that ranked second among catchers. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

MIAMI – When the Braves signed catcher Tyler Flowers to a two-year, $5.3 million contract in December 2015, the general reaction was something along the lines of, well, OK, but is he really the answer?

A 30-year-old who hit .223 with a .665 OPS and 46 home runs in parts of seven seasons with the White Sox, there wasn’t anything in Flowers’ resume to suggest what was about to happen when the Roswell native returned to his hometown team. Back to the Braves organization that drafted him in the 27th round in 2004 and traded him to Chicago in 2008 when he was still in the minors.

Eighteen months later, Flowers entered Saturday batting .369 with a .481 on-base percentage that ranked second among major leaguers with 75 or more plate appearances, and his .931 OPS as a catcher ranked second among qualified major league catchers behind Giants star Buster Posey (.992) and ahead of former Braves standout Brian McCann (.863).

He hit his first homer of the season Friday in a four-RBI performance to help the Braves snap a six-game skid with an 8-4 win against the Marlins, and entering Saturday, Flowers’ .377 batting average as a catcher (minus pinch-hit appearances) led players at his position by a whopping 39 points over Posey (.338). Flowers’ .472 OBP as a catcher also led, by 52 points over Posey (.420) with McCann (.374) and Matt Wieters (.370) next.

In 37 plate appearances with runners on base, Flowers hit .393 (11-for-28) with double, home run, seven walks, a .541 OBP and .536 slugging percentage (1.076 OPS) before Saturday.

“The more I’m around this guy — I knew him as a kid when we signed him, being with him through the course of my time here — I didn’t realize just what all this guy brings to the table,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “His professionalism, the preparation. … I mean, he’s just solid, one of those boring pros that just does everything daily. He’s invested in the pitchers.

“He was a big, strong guy from the get-go obviously; I remember in spring training guys would talk about him just launching balls when he was a kid. And, you know, a lot of times guys mature and their better years are later in their careers. It’s been really fun to watch because it’s great when guys who are so dedicated to their craft and have success. It’s good to see.”

After the Braves signed Flowers at the 2015 Winter Meetings in a deal completely overshadowed by a trade the same day that brought Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte to the Braves from Arizona, Flowers went out last season and set career-highs last season in batting average (.270), on-base percentage (.357) and slugging percentage (.420) in 325 plate appearances and 83 games.

By midseason he’d taken over as the Braves’ primary catcher when aging A.J. Pierzynski struggled and got hurt. Even then, many of us wondered if it was a one-year surprise and whether Flowers was good enough for the Braves to pencil him in as their main catcher for 2017.

The Braves scoured the free-agent and trade markets for someone to either be a primary catcher or to platoon with Flowers, eventually settling on veteran Kurt Suzuki on a one-year deal after options such as left-handed hitters Jason Castro and Brian McCann were deemed too costly.

They’d go with a pair of right-handed veterans in Flowers and Suzuki and at least be confident they had two solid pitch-framers and game-management catchers.

Well, surprise: They’ve gotten more than expected from the duo and particularly from Flowers. Again.

Suzuki hit just .200 before Saturday, but had a .345 OBP and eight RBIs in 45 at-bats, including a decisive three-run homer and go-ahead eighth-inning RBI single in consecutive games April 27-28.

Flowers, meanwhile, has continued to show the Braves made a wise decision signing him to a deal that included salaries of $2 million in 2016, $3 million this season and a third-year $4 million option for 2018 with a $300,000 buyout.

And while Freddie Freeman is obviously the proverbial straw that stirs the Braves’ drink, how about this startling statistic: In the eight Braves wins he played or pinch-hit in before Saturday, Flowers hit .556 (15-for-27) with two doubles, a homer, 12 RBIs, a .613 OBP and .741 slugging percentage (1.354 OPS).

In the 17 losses he’d played or pinch-hit in, he hit .237 (9-for-38) with no extra-base hits, one RBI, .396 OBP and .237 slugging percentage (.633 OPS)