The catcher position was an enormous speed bump in an otherwise dynamic 2016 Indians lineup. Among all 30 teams, the Indians’ catchers were dead last in plate production, registering a measly 46 wRC+ mirrored by a dismal .242 OBP. Despite elite-level defensive output behind the plate, this lack of hitting created an enormous hole and accounted for by a league-worst -0.7 Wins Above Replacement.
There are reasons to be more optimistic about production from the catcher spot in 2017. Roberto’s struggles seemed to stem from being rushed back from a thumb injury to placate a July injury to Yan. Yan’s struggles, though still concerning, were compounded by extraordinary amounts of bad luck, as noted by his career low BABIP of .189.
Both catchers are obviously capable of more than they showed in 2016, prompting an even more interesting discussion: Which one deserves to be the guy?
What Went Wrong for Yan
Yan’s 2013-2014 showing garnered him a large fan-base that, miraculously, has remained somewhat uninhibited by his eye-shielding plate campaigns of 2015 and 2016. This fanfare wasn’t unmerited, either. In 2014, Yan Gomes was only surpassed by Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey in terms of overall value. His 117 wRC+ were bolstered by 21 home runs and a .472 SLG. This was good enough to win him the American League Silver Slugger for the catcher position.
Then 2015 happened. The defense was still there and pitchers credited him with being a key to their success at every opportunity, but a knee sprain and below average bat screeched the brakes on the Gomes hype train. Looking for a bounce back 2016, Gomes was, by most metrics, the worst hitter in the majors with at least 250 plate appearances before a multitude of injuries thwarted the unsuccessful season. What happened to the 2014 Silver Slugger Yan Gomes?
First, Yan Gomes is never going to walk much. Even in his hayday of 2013-2014, he posted below league average walk rates hovering around 5%. However, that number dipped to 3.3% and 3.4% in 2015 and 2016, respectively. It is fair to hypothesize that he may have become a little impatient throughout the struggles. This impatience is mirrored by an increase in swing percentage, specifically at strikes. Swinging at strikes should be a good thing, right? Possibly in some cases, but for a hitter with little patience like Gomes, you’d like it to be accompanied by an increase in contact, which it was not. Additionally, not all strikes are necessarily good pitches to hit. Gomes is swinging more and producing less, with more strikeouts and fewer walks, which led to his 2016 demise.
Another problem with the swing-happy version of Gomes is the increase in fly ball percentage. This is only a small increase that may have little significance due to the nature of batted ball classification, but the worrisome factor is that it is accompanied by a declining isolated power figure (ISO). Fly balls generally create more extra base hits, which is the scope of ISO. In 2013 and 2014, Gomes posted exceptional ISO marks hovering around 0.190. The decrease to around 0.160 over the past two seasons is alarming, especially given that the league average ISO has increased significantly in that time period.
The charts above represent some of the significant changes in Yan’s approach and results. Less plate discipline and less power are the major issues for the slugger who made his name on extra base hits.
Roberto – The Safe Play
Roberto Perez made a name for himself with a couple monumental home runs in the 2016 playoffs. Any hitting production from Roberto is icing on the cake, though. He is a defense-first catcher with the ability to knock one out on occasion. His power abilities are nowhere near Yan’s, but he is an extremely patient hitter who finds ways to get on base.
The Perez option is desirable because of his distinct catching advantage over Gomes. Yes, Gomes is a good defensive catcher but over the past two years, Perez has far exceeded Gomes in framing pitches, saving runs by blocking pitches, and even cutting down would-be base stealers. Any case that is to be made for Perez over Gomes must be predicated upon his defensive abilities.
In order to make the hitting case for Perez, we must also be able to look past extreme struggles in the 2016 regular season. In 2015, he was an above average hitter, registering 108 wRC+ in 226 plate appearances. He built this production with an above average eye (14.6 BB%) and a little pop (0.174 ISO). The struggles in 2016 can likely be attributed to a significant BABIP decline, which is likely to return to pre-2016 levels.
The Final Call – Who Should Be Your Starting Catcher?
There is no wrong answer.
Personally, I feel that Yan Gomes will get the nod, and it is easy to understand the reasoning behind that decision. The Indians have already added Edwin Encarnacion to a lineup that was fully capable in 2016. Additionally, that lineup will be bolstered by plus-level pitching. Though Tribe catchers didn’t produce in 2016, the roadblock was not substantive enough to create long-term production issues. They have the option of giving Gomes the reigns to the catcher position to see if he can re-capture that 2014 form. If that plan stalls, the reigns can be transferred to the safe, stable Perez.
Whichever player gets the Opening Day nod, the Indians have two viable options at the catcher position. With the recent injury history of Gomes and Perez, it would be helpful to keep both fresh and ready to play, so a timeshare of sorts is not inconceivable. Look for both Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez to contribute much more than they did in 2016, making Terry Francona’s daily roster decisions that much harder.