I ran a brief Twitter poll Tuesday morning:
quick #indians twitter poll: best player on the team this year…— Chad Young (@chadyoung) July 29, 2014
The three names I expected to hear all came up: Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana. Had I asked the question before the season, I imagine the latter two would have been named, along with Jason Kipnis and perhaps Justin Masterson or Danny Salazar.
Those are all fine answers, and the fact is, there are a lot of ways to define "best" - providing the best production right now, providing the most value, and looking to provide the most value moving forward being just some of them.
But no matter what definition I choose, I keep coming back to a guy who wasn't mentioned: Yan Gomes.
Gomes is third on the team in FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) so far this year. Through Tuesday night's game, he's at 3.3, behind Corey Kluber (4.3) and Brantley (3.9). Santana is at 2.8, and no one else on the team is above 2 yet.
But WAR, like all stats, is imperfect, and one of it's imperfections hurts Gomes quite a bit. According to StatCorner.com, Gomes is one of the best at framing pitches and getting "extra strikes" for his hurlers. Among catchers with 4,000+ pitches received (27 catchers make that cut), Gomes is rated as the ninth best in baseball. Last year, he was 6th among 27 catchers with 6,000+.
How valuable is a top-tier pitch-framer? In a fascinating article about Mike Zunino's framing abilities (he is fourth on the 2014 list at StatCorner), Chris Cwik at Sports on Earth notes that when Baseball Prospectus accounted for Jonathan Lucroy's framing abilities in 2013, his value increased from on par with Ian Desmond to on par with Giancarlo Stanton (a difference of more than 3.5 wins). That's no joke.
Lucroy is a better framer than Gomes, but I don't think it's a stretch to think that Yanimal has picked up more than a win (the difference between him and the other two team leaders) due to his framing this year. And if you want to cap him at 1 additional WAR, tying him with Kluber, you also have to remember that Kluber's 4.3 includes the benefit he gets from Gomes.
So once you account for his framing abilities, Gomes has a strong argument as the team leader in WAR this year - basically, he has added more wins to this team than anyone else.
And this is not something new. Last year he was second on the team in fWAR (3.6) behind Kipnis (4.4), with Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez (3.5 and 3.4) nipping at his heels. Give him that same extra win for framing, and he was the most productive Indian in 2013, too.
When you look at the last two years combined, Gomes doesn't even need the framing bonus to surpass his fellow position players. He has 6.9 WAR, Santana has 6.3, Brantley 5.5, and Kipnis 5.2. Kluber is the only pitcher over 5, at 7.1, just edging out Gomes. Once again though, Kluber was only able to reach that 7.1 with the benefit of Gomes' framing, and once you give Gomes credit for that, the race isn't even all that close.
Don't forget that WAR is a counting stat. Brantley and Santana have been relatively healthy and have played 252 and 249 games over the last two season. Gomes, both due to starting 2013 in the minors and playing catcher (and taking the related days off), has played 179. So even if you leave out framing, he has produced more value in far fewer games than either of those two..
What if we move away from pure production and look at value? For his team-leading performance, the Indians have paid Gomes less than $1 million. Over the next five years, he'll get paid $21 million (could go up to $41 million over seven years if his options are picked up). At this point, he could do almost nothing for the next five years, and still be a great value overall, thanks to 2013 and 2014.
Brantley is making more this year ($1.5 million) than Gomes did the last two combined. Santana is making $3.5 million this year. Kluber is still on his rookie deal, but that means he made only ~$100,000 less than Gomes. And if you wonder who is most likely to maintain this level of production, Gomes is also the youngest of the candidates.
This is not to say anything negative about Brantley, Santana, Kluber, or Kipnis, or their contract situations. They are four great players on great deals for the team, and there's a reasonable debate about who is the best player on the team.
Just know that the winner of that debate is Yan Gomes.