We are fast approaching the halfway point of the baseball season. Something like seventy games have been played by each team, so we are gaining a clearer picture of who is good, who is bad, and at least the faintest hint of how the rest of it might play out. Great news for Cleveland Indians fans -- they’re in first place and have a chance to more firmly ensconce themselves there with a load of divisional games coming up. It’s not all sunshine and cold beer, though, Yan Gomes has been nothing short of dreadful. It is becoming a real problem. We're past the point where it was just early season jitters small sample size. What has happened to the Indians catcher?
The litany of his offensive miseries could go on for pages. As he approaches 200 plate appearances he holds a 44 wRC+ and has been at the center of several rally-killing moments. Despite all this, he generally bats somewhere north of sixth in the batting order, despite Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin, and even Juan Uribe out-hitting him. There’s something to be said for a balanced lineup, but at what point does his lack of presence in the lineup negate shortening a LOOGY’s outing?
One problem could be his inability to firmly hit fastballs this year. In the past, Gomes has turned them into hits and runs better than average, but this season he has been worth 8.5 runs worse than average against the four-seamer according to FanGraphs’ Pitch F/X Pitch Values. Even against sliders, which in 2014 he was plus 6.2 runs, this year is only plus .8 runs. Just across the board he’s been worse. Why is this? Has his bat just slowed down? Has the book on him simply shown the right sequence to throw at Gomes? He’s taken to wearing glasses to the plate the last few weeks, is it a raw vision problem? A solution could be Lasik -- if he were reading this and looking for an answer -- but it’s weird to just casually suggest a player get surgery. Still, it’s turned around Wilson Ramos’s career.
Mechanically, there is some difference to what we saw two years ago, before his injury. Here is video of a home run he hit on July 27th, 2014, when he was in the midst of his best stretch as an Indian:
See how he holds the bat before the swing, how he is bent at the waist. Now here’s his walk-off against Texas, a grounder up the middle.
And here’s him hitting into a double play this past Monday night in Kansas City.
Before the swing, he’s holding the bat lower, and on the load cocking it more. This could be lengthening his swing, not allowing him to get to the ball as quickly. Perhaps he made an adjustment and was trying for less of an uppercut swing like we see in the 2014 video to be able to have the bat in the zone longer, but this is this the price worth paying? He isn’t hitting demonstrably more grounders than 2014, 37.8 percent of batted balls compared to 36.7 percent two years back. But his line drive rate has tanked, dropping from 24 percent in 2014 to 15 percent this year. That’s fewer balls hit with authority, fewer singles and doubles, and less offensive impact. He is also loading a bit later, whether it's a simple reaction time thing or a planned thing, and it does look smoother, perhaps that slight hitch was what Gomes needed for timing purposes.
His BABIP is more than 100 points lower than his career average and 140 points lower than in 2014, so luck could have a bit to do with it. At the same time though, if you aren’t hitting the ball as much on a line, or as hard as before, balls in play will turn into outs more often. On that point though, his .180 isolated slugging is only 14 points lower than that great 2014 year, so the hits that fall are at least hit with some authority, statistically. We've seen him hit a few homers to the deeper parts of the park this year so we know he still has the power to truly clobber, but that consistency is nonexistent. If it truly is a swing adjustment, perhaps it will take a bit more time to get used to, or perhaps he will revert, like Carlos Santana and the toe-tap, and get back to hammering baseballs.
The Indians are in first place. The offense has been fine, the pitching excellent, and all this has been without Yan Gomes hitting at all. It’s not unprecedented for a talented hitter to have a cratered first half and then turn it around. Just last year Robinson Cano and Matt Kemp both had exactly those seasons. If you were optimistic you could hope for Gomes to do something similar and, combined with Brantley returning, somehow the Indians have acquired a pair of All-Star caliber bats at the trade deadline for no cost at all. That’s when they can run away with it. Gomes is still playing excellent defense, so it’s not as though the Indians are suffering his existence. You have to hope he’ll get back to himself, but you have to wonder too, what do you do if this is the new normal? It could mean full time Roberto Perez, but Gomes at his best is one of the best in the game. This needs fixing.