LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – When you get hit by pitches as often as Tyler Flowers did last season, there is going to be pain. And sometimes surgery.
Flowers’ lower left arm has a pair of freshly healed surgical scars for two of his most painful hit-by-pitches, but the veteran Braves catcher is nonetheless feeling good as spring training gets underway.
The burly catcher had 12 home runs and posted career-bests in batting average (.281), on-base percentage (.378) and slugging percentage (.445) last year in his age-31 season, and couldn’t do his rigorous offseason weight lifting program for about two months after having surgery on both his wrist and forearm immediately after the season. But Flowers has regained his strength and been cleared for full activity at spring training.
“I think it was two weeks (after surgery when) I started moving it,” the Roswell native said Tuesday as Braves pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. “Then probably seven or eight weeks after it there was full mobility, and maybe another two weeks before I didn’t feel any discomfort. It’s 100 percent now.”
Flowers was hit by pitches 20 times in 370 plate appearances in 2017, the third-most HBPs in the majors and only four behind leader Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs, who had 321 more plate appearances than Flowers. Rizzo was hit 24 times in 691 PAs, and Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison was hit 23 times in 542 PAs.
Besides Flowers, the only other major leaguer hit more than 10 times in fewer than 400 plate appearances was, in a rather remarkable coincidence, fellow Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki, who was hit 13 times in 309 PAs. Of the top 20 major league HBP totals in 2017, the other 18 besides the Braves catchers were by hitters with at least 411 plate appearances.
Flowers didn’t let on to reporters how much discomfort he played in during the second half of the season, after he was hit by a pitch in the forearm June 28 in San Diego. Before he reached first base a large, rather grotesque welt had formed over the spot, making it appear as if a mouse were under his skin. There was immediate speculation that Flowers would go on the disabled list and the best the Braves could hope was that it wasn’t broken.
But two days later, Flowers was back in the lineup. He kept playing and got hit eight more times in the second half of the season, including twice in one game. All the while, the left forearm ached.
“That was a tough one, it really limited what I could do each day preparation-wise and routine,” he said of the incident at San Diego. “It seemed to progressively get worse throughout the day, so, like I could take 100 swings in a day, and then it hurt like hell. You had to kind of save up those swings, so I wasn’t able to do the same routine, things like that, in the second half.
“We tried a few different things and they worked temporarily. Three days of relief from an injection or something. But once we realized that wasn’t solving it or giving a more long-term solution, we had to cut back in other areas.”
The pain was ramped up again on his next-to-last HBP of the season, a fastball Sept. 13 at Washington that broke his hand near the left wrist. He didn’t know it was at the time since an X-Ray taken at the time didn’t reveal the fracture. Eight days later Flowers was back in the lineup, and he played nine more games including six starts before the season ended.
When his arm still ached after the season, Flowers was examined again, this time with various scans and tests. He was diagnosed with intersection syndrome in the arm where the lump had been, and the MRI taken for that exam also revealed the broken bone in his hand.
Braves hand specialist Dr. Gary Lourie repaired the damage in both areas during one surgery.
“The piece of bone broke off, so he took the piece of bone off and then kind of shaved it to smooth it back down,” Flowers said. “Because it kind of grew too much bone from the two previous times I broke it. Just started to calcify and everything. He was almost glad that it was broken because he could go in there and kind of shave it, trim it down. He’s wanted to do it for a few years, but didn’t really have the opportunity, but since we were going in for this, he was like, ‘Hell, this will be the time if you want to do it.’ I was like, yeah, I prefer to not break my hand again.”
Not long after the surgery, the Braves exercised a $4 million option on Flowers’ contract for 2018.