The Cleveland Indians’ early season struggles in 2015 have been well chronicled and kvetched about, so it makes little sense to waste much e-ink on it here. Suffice it to say hideous defense and some slow starts helped to derail a spring of hope, while the Kansas City Royals got off to a hot start and didn’t look back, seemingly having the division in their back pocket from roughly June on.
For all the issues with Jose Ramirez at shortstop and Lonnie Chisenhall at third, it was the loss of Yan Gomes on April 11th for nearly two months that did real damage to the Tribe’s hopes. Though fill-in Roberto Perez showed himself to be a starting-caliber catcher on almost any other team in the game, losing the All-Star caliber, all around ability of Gomes is too painful to deny. With the 2016 season fast approaching, there is a need and a desperate hope that Gomes will bounce back to what we saw in 2013 and ‘14. Fortunately for Tribe fans everywhere, that is very much in the cards.
One of the things, perhaps the most noticeable thing, that makes Gomes so valuable and is absence so notable is his ability to hit for power from the catcher’s position, and from the right side of the plate. The Indians are famously (or infamously) lefty-heavy along with a dusting of switch-hitters, but with a bat like Gomes’ in the lineup it keeps opposing pitchers honest and doesn’t let guys like Phil Coke come in and pitch clutches of innings like he’s Mariano Rivera.
The knee injury wiped out any power Gomes could muster for more than half a season as his home run to fly ball rate dropped from 14.4 percent in 2014 to merely 7.7 percent in the first half of 2015. That number leaped back to a more heartwarming 13.4 percent after the All-Star break while his use of the opposite field jumped ten points from 19.8 percent of batted balls in the first half to 29.6 percent in the second. He was still a pull-heavy hitter, but for a righty, that’s not quite as much of an issue since the first baseman still has to stay home, and can’t swing around to play behind second like a third baseman might against a lefty. But a more honest defense is easier to beat, and if they do shift, he can take advantage of that early in the year.
Having Gomes back might help a bit with the pitching staff as well. While there’s no real hard data demonstrating the impact of comfort levels between a pitcher and catcher, it was plain to see Perez and staff ace Corey Kluber were having issues early on with communication. Kluber mentioned issues with sequencing, and the numbers bear it out to some degree. In 56.1 innings with Perez as his catcher, Kluber logged a 3.65 ERA and batters notched a .685 OPS against him. With Gomes back there the ERA Was at 3.43 with a .637 OPS against.
April has historically been rough on Kluber, in 2014 he had a 4.09 ERA in the month then never got above 2.89 in any single month thereafter, and for his career, only September shows a higher ERA for the month, 3.90 in April and 4.09 for September. It could just be that Kluber is a slow starter and this would have happened regardless, but we have yet to really see him at full strength with Gomes back there with them comfortable with each other. Entering his Cy Young year in 2014 he was still known as a purely average pitcher and proved to be possibly a cyborg. With his favorite backstop healthy, perhaps we’ll see a return to that from the outset, rather than merely one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball.
The hope for 2016, whether fans want to admit it or not, is real, true contention for the Tribe. Having a quality backstop is a great step toward that. Though he’s an inch taller and 25 pounds heavier, Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez and Gomes are very similar. Both have a load of power, both baby a pitching staff with great pitch framing blocking, though Perez does have that wall of a chest while Gomes at his best is a bit more mobile. And they both gun down runners and hold them at a great clip -- Gomes nailed 33 percent last year despite a knee problem and 34 percent for his career, Perez right with him at 31 percent last year and 32% for his career.
Considering Gomes’ offensive ability, it’s no stretch to say he, not Perez despite all the championship hype, can be the best catcher in the league. I don’t quite understand why projections have Gomes being below average offensively with Steamer giving him a 92 wRC+ and ZiPS at 97, but it does take into account his 2015 and seems to ignore the injury. That and his sudden, unexpected rise to excellence. While Perez is a couple years younger he’s also been used hard by the Royals for years now. Maybe the silver lining to the knee injury is that the rest of Gomes had a chance to heal up and he’ll be better than ever. At his best he was a 4.5 fWAR player while Perez has peaked at 3.7, both in 2013. Since then, Perez has played a lot and gotten worse while Gomes was good again, his 3.3 WAR in 2014 again besting Perez’s 3.1, then lost a season to injury. I look forward to this season settling some arguments.
Hope springs eternal in, well, spring, and Gomes is key to the Indians contending. He’s entering the typical physical peak for a player and has every reason to replicate his amazing 2013 and excellent 2014. It’d be nice if his walk rate went up a few ticks and the K% faded a few points, but all that really matters with Gomes is hits. homers and defense. It’s the type of player he is, it’s the player the Indians need and if it all goes right, it’s the player they’ll get again.