LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Having realized Christian Bethancourt wasn't capable of being their catcher of the future, the Braves turned toward their past and provided Tyler Flowers a chance to prove it was not too late to realize the offensive promise he had shown nearly a decade earlier, when he was a prospect in Atlanta's system.
What came natural during his childhood days in suburban Atlanta, and the early portion of his Minor League career, proved to be elusive during his oft-frustrating time with the White Sox. His long search to find timing in his swing led him to be routinely agitated whenever a hitting coach or teammate would attempt to provide advice by simply saying, "Start earlier."
"It's kind of a stupid statement, and I feel like you hear it all of the time," Flowers said. "You hear people explain how to do it. It sounds simple when they say, 'Start earlier', but when you really think about it, it's like 'Start what earlier?' To actually break it down, it's a sequence of moves that have to start earlier."
After spending many years fighting to find the right timing mechanism for him, Flowers found it when his frustration led him to suddenly add a leg kick to his swing mechanics as he stood at the plate in the seventh inning of a June 18, 2016, game against the Mets. He experienced a career-altering result when he drilled Jim Henderson's first-pitch fastball over the left-field wall.
Dating back to June 19, 2016, Flowers has hit .283 with 16 homers and a .821 OPS. The only qualified National League catchers with a better OPS during this span are Willson Contreras (.851), Buster Posey (.834) and Yasmani Grandal (.822).
With the leg kick, Flowers has finally allowed himself to be competitive against above-average fastballs. According to Statcast™, dating back to July 1, 2016, he has hit .287 with a .476 slugging percentage against pitches that register 94 mph or higher. His career numbers before this date against these pitches included a .212 batting average and a .320 slugging percentage.
"I wish it happened six years ago," Flowers said. "That would have been more financially beneficial."
Now 32 years old and on the backside of his career, Flowers certainly has reason to wonder why it took him so long to live up to the expectations he set in 2008, when he produced a .921 OPS and belted 17 homers for Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach. He added 12 more homers in 75 at-bats during the Arizona Fall League, and then was traded to the White Sox in the deal that added Javier Vazquez to the Braves' rotation before the 2009 season.
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Flowers didn't play more than 52 games in a season for the White Sox until 2013 (84), and he produced a .656 OPS during a three-season span before Chicago opted to non-tender him after the 2015 season. He signed with the Braves a week later, and has experienced a career resurgence ever since.
"I don't like being bad at whatever I'm doing," Flowers said. "So, to have two, in my opinion, good years offensively, it's more satisfying to myself."
Flowers has stood among baseball's top pitch framers over the past few years, and has repeatedly said that defense is his favorite aspect of the game. He will once again share the catching duties this year with fellow veteran Kurt Suzuki. Their production last year resulted in Braves catchers leading the Majors with a 5.1 WAR.
"Hopefully, I won't have any sort of regrets when I get older," Flowers said. "If I wouldn't have gotten those opportunities the last couple years, I think it would have been tough when I get older to really be happy about the whole experience, because I always knew I was better than what I was doing in Chicago."