Last Thursday, Indians manager Terry Francona made it public that Yan Gomes would retain his starting catcher role over Roberto Perez to start the 2017 season. In a position where the Indians system runs thin behind the two and ahead of AA prospect Francisco Mejia, the Indians have an elaborate situation on their hands. (You can read The IBI’s John Alfes’ report and listen to Francona speak regarding the decision here.)
Aside from the platooning situation in the outfield, the starting catcher’s role has been a prominent storyline for the Indians heading into camp. Following Gomes’ shoulder and leg injuries that sidelined him for over half of 2016, Perez stepped in almost seamlessly from a defensive standpoint as he handled the Indians pitching staff through the Fall Classic. Even when Gomes returned from his injuries late in the postseason, Perez remained as the starting catcher.
So with all of that said, is Gomes reassuming the starting role the correct move?
The 2017 Indians will differ greatly from the 2016 club because they are the proverbial “hunted” team in the American League. Typically, catchers of Gomes’ caliber as a defensive stalwart and 2014 Silver Slugger Award Winner would certainly see the bulk of playing time; however, would his inconsistent play since then nudge Terry Francona to change that philosophy?
Gomes played in 83% of the Indians' games in his breakout 2014 campaign. After that, he played in 59% of the games in 2015 and just 46% of games in 2016. Injuries have played a large part in those percentage drops, but his production when he has been healthy hasn't helped either. Will we go back to seeing a reative 80/20 or 75/25 split between Gomes and Perez, or will this playing time be shared closer to 60/40 or even 55/45?
Since 2015, Gomes has posted a .205 batting average with 173 strikeouts and 22 walks drawn (7.86 K/BB). He has also hit a combined 21 home runs over the past two seasons, which is the exact total he had in his Silver Slugging 2014 campaign. Defensively, Gomes has improved behind the plate over time in terms of throwing out base stealers (37% CS in 2016), but Perez does sit in the top 10 among MLB catchers in terms of pitch framing (8.9% RAA). Perez has been given praise from the Indians pitching staff regarding his framing skills, as well.
In terms of offense, both catchers had very forgettable years at the plate in 2016. Gomes slashed .167/.201/.327 with nine home runs, 34 RBI, and he recorded 69 strike outs while walking only nine times. In 61 games played, Perez slashed .183/.285/.294 with three home runs, 17 RBI and he recorded 44 walks and walked 23 times. Both are obviously looking for improvements in that department, but it doesn't fully explain the reasoning for Francona going back to Gomes as the starter.
The Indians are lucky to have this problem on their hands in certain regards. Both are fantastic defensively when healthy and each have a good rapport with the staff. Gomes may have been named the starter, but who starts could largely be dependent on who's swinging the hot bat as well as who takes the hill that day. And just because Gomes is expected to open the season as the starter doesn't mean he will end the season as the starter either.
Corey Crisan is a columnist for the Cleveland Indians and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers on Indians Baseball Insider on Scout.com. You can listen to him on IBI’s Farm Report Podcast and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cdcrisan.